An Encore Career Helps John Kerr ’60 Follow His Passion for a Purpose

The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a breathtaking landscape—it’s big country where bears, elk, wolves and other wildlife roam across land that spans majestic hills, dense forests and crystal-clear creeks.

The stunning scenery in Wyoming and Montana is more than 2,000 miles from Boston, the bustling city where John Kerr ’60 spent four decades as a television executive at public broadcasting station WGBH before retiring in 2004. Now this remote corner of Yellowstone is where Kerr is enjoying a second career as a national park ranger. At 74, he’s living his lifelong dream to preserve and protect America’s wild lands and educate others on an environmental treasure.

Photo credit: Photographer Ray Rathmell is a former Pennsylvania science teacher who made his own late-career migration to Yellowstone with his wife, Darlene. Rathmell is a national park campground host, wildlife and event photographer, fisherman and lecturer.

“I feel so fortunate,” Kerr says in his small cabin dwarfed by Yellowstone’s natural wilds. “I’m one of the stewards and hosts of this place, but my human scale is put into perspective by this vast landscape.”

Kerr is one of millions of Americans who in recent years have embarked on new careers even as they approach what is often considered typical retirement age. Many of these later-in-life career shifters have rejected, by preference or necessity, the traditional practice of not being gainfully employed as older adults. Having concluded one profession, they now seek another—one geared toward giving back, to serving a cause while fulfilling a passion.

Such late-career migrations are called “encore careers” by San Francisco-based nonprofit Encore.org, which was founded as Civic Ventures in 1997 to show retirees and future retirees that there still are trails to blaze in retirement years. And as baby boomers retire—according to the federal Administration on Aging, 41.1 million Americans were 65 or older in 2011—there are many new and exciting career opportunities to explore.

“The whole notion of retirement in the ‘Golden Years’ is outdated,” Cal Halvorsen, manager of research for Encore.org, says. “Many people have up to 30 years of time after they retire, and a lot of them will switch to careers they're passionate about, but never tried.”

Into the Sunrise

An estimated 9 million Americans ages 44 to 70 currently are in encore careers, according to a 2011 survey by Encore.org. The results of the same survey suggested that an additional 31 million are interested in finding encore careers.

The founder of Encore.org, Marc Freedman, is a social scientist and author of the 2007 book “Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.” He followed up four years later with a second book, “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife,” arguing for the transformation of traditional retirement—and including Kerr as a career transition success story. Longer lifespans and retirement populations with immense knowledge, skills and experience are making the 20th century model of retirement on the golf course irrelevant in the 21st century, he says.

“Never before have so many people had so much experience and the time and the capacity to do something significant with it,” Freedman writes. “Does it make much sense for society to throw away the most experienced segment of the population when it is a long way from obsolescence?”

Kerr and others have answered that question on their own, setting out after retirement on a second career, either to fulfill a passion or to secure needed income, or both.

“John Kerr started over in a line of work not just for a change of scenery, but for a new sense of purpose,” Freedman writes in “The Big Shift.” “He’s part of the great midlife migration, winding his way into uncharted territory toward a new stage of life. And he’s at the vanguard of navigating a much larger transition, as millions of people in their 50s and beyond grapple with essential questions about their futures. People of all ages have a stake in the outcome.”

Pioneers of the Post-Retirement Age

Dawn is breaking on a June morning as Kerr embarks on another commute through the Lamar Valley to his duty station. “Today I stopped to watch wolves, and a pair of courting bears were out and about,” he says.

As a park ranger, Kerr wouldn't need to make such a long commute. He could live in the ranger area he travels to every morning at the other end of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, but instead he chose to rent a tiny cabin—barely room for him—outside the park’s northeast corner.

“The reason I do that is it forces me to drive 33 miles each way through the Lamar Valley,” he says of the seemingly endless land that's been referred to as America’s Serengeti, Africa’s massive nature and wildlife preserve. “It defies description.”

After he retired from WGBH, Kerr was sure of one thing: he wasn’t going to sit still. Spending what’s been commonly dubbed the “Sunset Years” golfing or rocking on the porch may be good for some retirees, but it would never be right for him. “I felt, as a 65-year-old, that wasn’t going to be enough,” Kerr says. “Not that that’s wrong—it just wasn’t going to be enough.”

Kerr considered traveling—among other retirement options—when he struggled with having to tell people that he was no longer working at the station. “I wasn’t Mr. WGBH anymore, and my whole identity took a huge hit,” he says.

Encouraged by his environmentalist daughter, Rosi, and boyhood influences instilled by his conservationist grandfather, the former marketing and development executive packed up his truck and traveled to explore the west, where his family had a small condominium in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Kerr didn’t see himself as a pioneer of encore careers, as Freedman has described him and others who claimed their own ground before the term “encore” was coined. He was looking for a meaningful step.

“I thought it might be an interesting adventure, but I didn’t know what it was,” Kerr says. “We’re all pioneers of sorts, but then we get into a rut and we don't push as we should. And then you think, ‘Now I can do something meaningful.’”

“Meaningful” is one of the words Tammy Halstead, director of alumni advising and development in F&M’s Office of Student & Post-Graduate Development, hears as she counsels alumni in their 40s and 50s. She also hears “value” and “values” as they describe to her what they are looking for as they consider second careers.

“They’re thinking, ‘Now that I’m at this point in my life, and I look back and at my future, how do I want to contribute?’” says Halstead, who has provided career guidance to 25 F&M alumni in their 40s and beyond over the past year. “I do think that comes out of the liberal arts tradition of reflecting and thinking, ‘What else do I want to do for the world?’”

For Kerr, his mission became stewarding and protecting a national treasure. He showed up unannounced at the Yellowstone Park Foundation and learned from its president about a seasonal internship that the foundation, the Student Conservation and Yellowstone National Park were offering. He applied.

“I was nervous about accepting an internship. How can I do this? I have talent. I have experience,” Kerr says. “Then, there I was with an SCA hat on when I hardly knew what the SCA was. It was a sudden door that opened unexpectedly, but it was a door that hit my interests as a boy.”

He spent that summer interning as a “wolf ambassador,” educating visitors about wildlife stewardship. Encouraged by his initial experience, he applied that fall to become a park ranger. He’s been working among Yellowstone’s natural wonders ever since, introducing visitors to the land he cherishes while ensuring their safety among the wildlife.

Each day, Kerr tries to elevate the Yellowstone experience for every visitor he sees. He believes that former Yellowstone superintendent Horace Albright hit it right when he said that Yellowstone’s rangers “must not be interpreters of the mountains, their moods or mysteries…[that] they must serve as guides, philosophers and friends.”

Trying on the Hat

The internship in Yellowstone wasn’t Kerr’s first, as his tenure in Boston began much the same way more than 50 years ago. During his senior year at F&M, he spotted a notice on the career board in Old Main offering internships at WGBH, which was then a small station with big ambitions.

“WGBH happened because I was active in the College radio station,” he says. “I liked that stuff. I had a music program on WFNM.”

He and the other WGBH Scholars were paid little and asked to do everything, from cleaning restrooms to directing programs. A full-time job was not guaranteed, but the experience was tremendous, he says.

“The opportunity at WGBH was an opportunity to try on the hat,” Kerr says. Kerr believes in the opportunities internships provide, whether after college or after retirement. “An internship offers you a chance to try on a hat to see if you like it,” he says. “And it may lead to a job, you don’t know.

More than 50 years after interning at a radio and television station that would later pioneer public broadcasting with documentary programing, Kerr made another similar leap. This time he made his way west, following a path he hopes millions of other would-be retirees also will consider. With courage and persistence, not knowing exactly what opportunities were waiting for him, he took a chance on doing something he loved. That’s what Kerr tells retirees visiting Yellowstone who take one look at him and ask, “How can I do this?”

“I say, ‘Knock on the door, present yourself, and don’t give up until they let you in,’” Kerr says, noting employers would do well to recognize the value of hiring retirees. “They’re trying to set the world on fire, and they’re older. Wow!”

Have you made a late-career migration to a new job, following your passion for a purpose? Let us know by commenting on this story at www.fandm.edu/magazine.

Making a Late-Career Migration

While John Kerr finds his life renewed as a Yellowstone National Park Ranger, he says there are things retirees should consider when deciding to begin an “encore” career:

  • For those who’ve had successful careers developing skills, confidence, enterprise thinking and good pay, keep in mind you that a second career could mean starting at the bottom of an organizational chart again.
  • Maintain your perspective. In an encore career, you’ll likely be an experienced person working with people much younger and less experienced than you. You might have ideas on how to improve things in your job. Be patient.
  •  It is essential that you adopt a certain amount of humility that reflects your pay scale. Going from an executive salary to hourly pay and punching a clock can take some adjusting.

Kerr has been through this. “You have to swallow hard. That’s challenging. You have to be quiet and be patient to find your niche,” he says. “It’s hard to do if you’re used to running your own show.”

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