May 4, 2014 by Jean
If someone proposes having a retirement lunch or party for you, accept the proposal. People contemplating retirement sometimes decide that they will refuse a retirement party for various reasons – they have mixed feelings about the workplace, or they hope to retain an affiliation and do not want coworkers to shrug them off as retired, or they love their work so much that retirement is painful. Or they may believe that retirement parties and retirement lunches are boring events…. Despite these reasons for declining formal recognition of your retirement, accept it. Later, looking back, it will help you feel good about having been a member of the work group. Our interviews suggest that even a bittersweet retirement event is better than no event. (p. 184)
Elsewhere in the book, Weiss refers to these parties as “ceremonies of retirement;” anthropologists might call them “rites of passage” – rituals that mark a person’s transition from one socially important status or life stage to another.
In accord with Weiss’s advice, I have said yes, and yes, and yes many times over; and I have spent much of the past month celebrating my transition to retirement. The first celebration, which occurred early in April, was a pot-luck supper at the home of my friend and colleague Charlie, and included my Sociology Department colleagues and their families. The event was informal and light-hearted, including good food and conversation around the table, a joking presentation of gifts with links to department culture, and being regaled with funny stories by the high-school-aged daughter of one colleague. Our newest hire, Brent, who has been appointed to fill the position I am vacating, was able to come, which made it a particularly nice transition ceremony.
My next retirement celebration came two weeks later and was a much larger and more formal event sponsored by the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program of which I was founding director. This party was held in a fairly large public space on campus and more than a hundred people were invited, including top college administrators and many people from different parts of the organization that I had worked with through the years. There were hors d’oeuvres, a big cake, and opportunities for conversation. My colleagues in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies gave me a very generously funded gift card to one of my favorite Maine plant nurseries, which will provide a jump start to my new front garden project. The highlight of this event was a tribute by my friends Elizabeth and Temma. I had team-taught with both of them, and they used the syllabus from one of the team-taught courses as a framing device to talk about my contributions over the years to the program and to the College. It was both clever and lovely.
Two more celebrations followed this past week, one on Wednesday afternoon and one on Thursday. Wednesday’s event was part of the Sociology Department’s traditional end-of-school-year party for our students and included Mexican food and yet another cake. This was a very light-hearted event. Over the past few months, my Sociology colleagues have made a lot of jokes about putting me on retainer so that they could get my institutional memory and advice about how to handle various tricky situations. Cassie, the most junior member of the department, suggested that they would just have to ask themselves what I would do; and as a reminder, she had wristbands made up with the legend “WWJPD?” (What would Jean Potuchek do?) along with my retirement date. These were both unexpected and hilarious. As the wristbands were handed out, my friend and colleague Charlie said a few words, and I was presented with gift certificates for a favorite bookstore. In addition, I was given a handsome booklet of memories and retirement wishes that the department administrative assistant, Andrea, had solicited from students past and present – the best gift ever!
Thursday’s event was the most formal and the one that best fit the description of “ceremony” or “ritual.” Gettysburg College has a tradition of devoting the last faculty meeting of each school year to honoring those who are retiring. Each retiree is the subject of a “valedictory,” a farewell speech given by a colleague. I have always loved this tradition; the valedictories are tributes with a mild element of roasting, both warm and funny. Once again, my friend Elizabeth did the honors, and I was amazed that she had written a second, totally different, tribute, this one organized around the theme of integrity. It was beautiful and touching. The faculty meeting was followed by a dinner reception at the President’s house, where I was able to sit with friends that I don’t get to talk with often enough. At one point, I discovered that my colleague Cassie was still handing out “WWJPD?” wristbands and that the College President was now wearing one.
And the celebrations don’t seem to be over yet. On Friday, when I taught my last class, the math professor who teaches in the classroom across the hall came in before class to write a congratulatory message on the board at the front of my classroom. There was also a gift waiting in the room, a card and box of homemade fudge from Jill, a friend who does the janitorial work for that classroom building. Yesterday, I received a letter from the Dean of the College’s library telling me that the library staff had selected a book in my honor (appropriately, one on gardens) and that the book would bear a special bookplate commemorating my contributions to the College and my retirement. And I have several celebratory lunches with friends scheduled in the days to come.
Weiss notes that retirement ceremonies can serve many purposes, but argues that the most important thing a retirement celebration can do is make the person retiring feel as though their contributions are recognized and valued. All my various celebrations have certainly had that effect. I can’t imagine that anyone will ever leave a workplace feeling more honored, respected, appreciated and loved than I am feeling.