Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
4:12 pm EST
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

FINAL THOUGHT: Learning is life

0314-GaryMcKechnieYears ago as I drove down Highway 33 near Groveland, sailplanes were flying above the Seminole-Lake Gliderport. If you’ve never seen sailplanes in action, it’s a marvelous and mystifying sight. Really. Aside from hot air balloons and the Flying Nun, not much should be able to stay aloft without an engine.

It’s not often I feel compelled to do something, but learning to fly a sailplane suddenly become the most important item on my agenda (even more important than watching my soaps).

Recognizing this desire to do something monumentally different reminded me of something long ago. It took me back to Valencia Community College where, in 1980, a visiting speaker shared a story about a friend who wanted to become a dentist.

He suggested that she do it.

“But I’m almost 50,” she protested. “By the time I graduate, I’ll be 55!”

His answer stuck with me.

“Well, you’re going to be 55 anyway,” he explained. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be 55 and be a dentist?”

Lately, though, that message resonates. Is it because it’s been 33 years since I’ve seen a dentist? No. It’s because in Lake County I’ve been fortunate to learn from people who’ve acquired wisdom with age. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. And I admire the fact that they are continually setting new goals and meeting new challenges.

One unforgettable woman (whose name I can’t remember — I’ll call her “Sullivan”) shared that in the 1960s she traded in her old life as an attractive, young coed for a new life as an attractive, young newlywed. For the next 25-plus years, she cared for her children and supported her husband’s career until her husband’s career was on autopilot and her college grad kids were starting families of their own.

Then, with her husband at work and the house empty, she was alone with her thoughts. While she treasured her family and the lives she helped shape, when she reflected on college, interrupted, she knew it was time to reshape her own life. She returned to school and taking one course each semester, spent years in pursuit of her long-delayed bachelor’s degree. And after she earned that, she went on.

Adding one course a semester to her academic resume, she was simultaneously adding to her list of life accomplishments until, years later, she made an encore appearance at commencement to receive her master’s degree in English literature. Then as she saw her 60s sailing over the horizon, she visualized herself speaking to fellow scholars at a symposium honoring her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve been fortunate to learn from people who’ve acquired wisdom with age. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. And I admire the fact that they are continually setting new goals and meeting new challenges.”

[divider_1px] So back to school she went, attending one class at a time until the day came when she would defend her dissertation — something about the meter of Dickinson’s poetry being inspired by the tempo of the Protestant hymns of the day.

“I was so nervous,” she told me. “They kept asking me question after question until one of the members on the review panel said, ‘Mrs. Sullivan, will you please wait outside while we confer?’

“A few minutes later, the head of the department opened the door and said, ‘Dr. Sullivan, would you care to rejoin us?’”

With her 45-year journey complete, the newly minted Ph.D was invited to Amherst, Mass., months later to speak on a panel with the world’s leading Dickinson experts.

When we’ve eased into a safe and comfortable routine, we tend to tamp down thoughts of setting and achieving new goals. Maybe it’s human nature to follow the path of least resistance. But if you examine your life’s greatest achievements, what likely preceded it was an unquenchable passion — and what followed was unending pride.

As you consider your dreams, keep this message from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nearby: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

1 comment


    Gary, your story of Mrs. Sullivan reminds me that if you don’t have something worth dying for, you also don’t have anything worth living for. Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in seclusion, usually unrecognized as an outstanding poet. Today she ranks as one of America’s greatest poets.

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