This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Staff retirees are making the most of their new lives

For several days a week, Ernestine Elster works at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology gathering photographs and other research documenting the excavation of the Grotta Scloria, a cave discovered in the 1930s located near the Adriatic Sea in southeast Italy. With a pilot grant from the Cotsen, Elster and colleagues from Italy, England, Hungary and other parts of the U.S. could publish as soon as December a fully documented excavation monograph on the cave, where Neolithic burials were found.
Then there’s Dorothy Jennings, a co-founder of the Creative Retirement Institute at a community college in Edmonds, Washington. Her institute provides retirees with high-quality, affordable learning opportunities at Edmonds Community College.
Or take Tom Tugend, a contributing editor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and the West Coast correspondent for the Jerusalem Post in Israel, the Jewish Chronicle in Britain and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York. His journalistic work also occasionally appears in the Los Angeles Times, Hadassah Magazine and other publications.
A retired research associate who is back at work at UCLA on a grant, Ernestine Elster holds a fragment of painted clay pottery found in a burial cave in Italy. Carbon dating shows the shard to be around 7,600 years old.
While these three individuals work in vastly different areas, they have one thing in common: They are all retired staff members from UCLA with second careers.
Although the three stand out for their professional achievements, they are hardly atypical UCLA retirees, according to the results of the first large-scale survey ever done of staff retirees. There’s definitely a busy "afterlife" for retirees who can now see Westwood in their rearview mirror.
For example, former UCLA grounds worker Glen Sams approached his homeowners’ association about recycling. Now he’s the coordinator of his community’s recycling efforts, which have fattened the association’s treasury. Jim Klain, who worked in Royce Hall for years as director of the Campus Activities Service Office, now serves as the technical director of fashion shows for Goodwill — where he also models when needed.
Winthrop Chandler devotes 80 hours a month helping produce a CD and website to promote the music of a Southern California pioneer of early keyboard music. Lillian Cole left campus and started a rare-books business specializing in literature on jewelry and gemology. Post-UCLA, Gloria Jones-Taylor earned her certification as a drug/alcohol counselor.
The survey by the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center revealed that these busy folks represent the norm in terms of engagement with their communities, including the campus community. To no one’s surprise, 450 retirees — or roughly 30 percent of the 1,506 people who responded — say they remain connected to UCLA. They volunteer, participate in fundraising, serve on advisory boards and committees, or continue to work on campus in some capacity.
Retiring in 1993 as a research associate at the Cotsen Institute, Elster, in her 80s, sought and received an NEH grant for collaborative research on the Grotta Scaloria to finish what archaeologists started years ago. Elster became enchanted with the cave and its artifacts when the late Professor of European Archaeology Marija Gimbutas asked her to become lab director of the project. But research on the cave was never fully published. "As sometimes happens, archaeologists become captivated by a new project and older projects languish," Elster explained.
The double-chambered cave, however, captivated Elster and others, who are now committed "to the idea that if we excavate, we must publish, or how else will our audience have access to the research?"
Retirement for Elster is an enjoyable mix of work, movies and dinners out with friends. "I’m having a good time," she said in her lab office. "By taking this aging data and applying all the new technologies that have been developed, we’re able to make much more out of it. I think that’s something worth doing."
Staff retiree Toshka Abrams (right) displays some of the jewelry she's made at the annual Retirees Art Show held at the Faculty Center. The one-day show draws many retirees who have developed their skills as photographers, visual and textile artists, and sculptors, among others.
Elster is part of a vast corps of staff retirees who still work and are involved on behalf of a wide range of organizations and community-based projects, assisting at food banks, tutoring students and helping stray animals get adopted. A few even serve in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
Only 25 percent of those responding to the survey said they were less busy now than they were before they retired. While 34 percent reported they now lead even busier lives, another 34 percent reported no change.
So who is the typical UCLA staff retiree?
"It’s someone who retired with purpose, and then went on to explore that purpose in the next chapter of their lives," said Eddie Murphy, director of the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center who, with her staff and volunteers, led by Tonya Hays and Dorothy Webster, launched the survey in 2009 and completed the project last January.
The survey was designed to discern how involved staff retirees are in their communities, whether they are pursuing learning opportunities, whether they have returned to the labor force, how involved they are in political causes and, overall, how busy they now are, compared to their pre-retirement years.
"The emeriti have been doing this kind of surveying for years, probably for decades," Murphy said. "I thought, ‘Why don’t we find out what’s going on with our staff retirees?’ We found out that staff retirees are just as engaged as faculty emeriti, but in different ways."
The information gleaned from the survey will help better inform UC and UCLA decision makers about staff retirees and their willingness to stay involved with the university, along with other aspects of retirement. Sharing this information on their collective achievements will also empower retirees, Murphy said.
visit to Nixon Library
One of the many educational field trips taken by members of the UCLA Retirees' Association was to the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.
The survey yielded a surprise for Murphy. The highest number of survey respondents came from the medical enterprise, representing 44 percent of the total. Since retired medical staff don’t typically participate in the programs sponsored by the Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center or the two independent associations for staff and faculty retirees, Murphy said she’ll now do more outreach to this group.
Another not-so-surprising fact: the number of people who have gone back to work, either because they miss it or out of financial need. About 250, or 17 percent, indicated they have full-time or part-time jobs, some at UCLA. And 109, or 7 percent, reported they are now self-employed.
While they have left the university as a workplace, many retired staff have not disengaged from the educational process. They are taking classes for credit, joining book clubs and study groups, and learning to use IT.
"There’s a real sense here of people wanting to do something to enrich themselves," Murphy said.
Learn more about the activities of staff retirees by going to the website of the UCLA Retirees’ Association. For information on the Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center, go here
And read about what UCLA’s latest "graduating class" of retirees leaving this month are looking forward to doing.
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