‘If you keep going, you keep living’

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

When Max Gee retired at 67 from selling automotive equipment in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, he and his wife, Myra, made the move to her old home in Florence to care for her sick and elderly father.

For four years, the couple’s days were dedicated to the care of Gee’s father-in-law. After his passing in 2006, suddenly an empty calendar was more daunting than it was welcomed.

Gee said he was left with a deep void — not just from the loss of his father-in-law. Without his career and without someone to care for, he felt he was lacking purpose and fulfilment.

“This summer I will be 88 years old. I have to admit that in retrospect, the biggest mistake that I made in preparing for retirement is that I did not develop any hobbies,” Gee said. “I’m a family person, so I did a lot of things with my family, and I worked.”

He said most of his adulthood was dedicated to his career in sales with Snap-on, a manufacturer of tools.

“I was in the automotive sales business, but I worked in what is referred to as the automotive aftermarket,” Gee said. “I was an account manager, and I had three accounts commonly known as Ford, General Motors, and at the time, Chrysler Corporation.

“My job was to market and take care of those three accounts at headquarters to be sure that the relationship between Snap-on and those three companies was good. I loved it.”

While the job was very fulfilling, Gee reserved all his free time for his wife and children. He got so caught up in his work and home routines, he never developed any side interests, or felt the need to pursue a higher education.

“I still have a strong work ethic,” he said. “I’m one of these guys that if I have a job, I want to do the best I can. I had a very good career, and I had no complaints, except that I did not develop a hobby.”

Sometime after his father-in-law passed, Gee and his wife discovered the Institute of Learning in Retirement (ILR) through the University of North Alabama.

The program opens twice a year with spring semester courses beginning in January and fall semester classes starting in September.

Unlike traditional college courses, when attendants register, they pay one flat fee that allows them to attend any class listed on the schedule for that eight-week semester, according to program Coordinator Meghan Fike.

Classes are typically held Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Registrants can pick and choose which lectures and events to attend throughout the semester.

“We don’t take attendance,” Fike said. “Some might come only on Mondays, or some might come for one class a day. The fee allows them to come to any of the courses within the program for that semester.”

When Gee joined the group, he said the classes were attended by about 40 or 50 other retirees.

“At that time, it was a relatively small group. We spent about three semesters there, and found we were repeating many of the things we’d learned in our first year,” he said.

Still, the time spent attending courses helped him make connections in his new home.

Gee said he and his wife found joy in attending classes that were mentally stimulating and interesting to them, adding that he finds the health science subjects most engaging.

“Anything of a medical nature, particularly for senior citizens, we attend those,” he said. “They always have some medical information that they disseminate, or lectures on medical things that apply to senior citizens, and it’s always extremely informative.”

The Gees also take part in a culinary lunch each semester, featuring a menu prepared by UNA culinary arts students. The couple also enjoys outings hosted by ILR each semester that have included trips to the Port of Florence, and a day trip to Shiloh Battleground.

“We thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Shiloh,” Gee said.

When the Gees took a break from ILR, it gave Max a chance to strengthen his connections with his church family at Highland Baptist.

“We have a group here at church of senior citizens. We are all over the age of 60. We meet once a month, and we call ourselves the Keenagers,” he said.

“We got involved with the Keenagers, so that filled our social gap. I wound up sort of leading the Keenage group last year, and ILR came back to mind.”

Gee and his wife decided to take the program back up in hopes of generating new ideas for things that would engage their Keenager group.

“It has proved that it’s been a wise thing for us to do,” he said. “ILR in and of itself is worth the investment.

“I did pick up a few ideas from ILR, but the group we have here at church is older than the average age of those who attend ILR. These people here (Keenagers) are in their 70s and 80s, some in their 90s, and they are just not physically up to all that is going on at ILR.”

This year, Gee guessed the ILR group has grown to about 175 registrants. There are more courses of broader interests than when he first enrolled.

Some of the courses include “Native American Culture and Religion,” “Space Telescopes,” “In the Forests and About Water,” “Great Mathematicians,” “Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong,” “Byways of Language and Literature,” and “Interfaith Book Discussion,” each led by former instructors or experts on the topics.

“What’s nice about the lectures they have at ILR is that the speakers are relatively recently retired. They are mostly professional people, so they know what they’re talking about. They’ve experienced it. It’s not just something they are just parroting out of a textbook,” Gee said.

He continues to keep busy between attending classes in the spring and fall and planning once-monthly meetings and occasional outings with his Keenagers.

Gee attributes his longevity to his involvement in both groups. He believes an active lifestyle has made all the difference in his and his wife’s good health at their ages.

“I’ve come to the conclusion — and this is just one man’s opinion — as you get older, like in your 70s and 80s, if you keep going, you keep living,” he said.

“It’s awfully easy to think, oh, I’ve put in 50 years. I’ve earned it. I’m just going to sit here and watch TV. You are on your way to the grave if you do that. I haven’t learned that out of a textbook or been taught that. I’ve experienced that.

“I think it’s extremely important for people in my age bracket to be involved, whether it’s at their church or at ILR. Wherever it is, be actively involved in something.”