Skip to main content

Life's second act

Retired pastor finds purpose and fulfillment

"Let's take the stairs."

It's a statement you don't expect to hear from a 90-year-old man who lives on the fourth floor. But this is no ordinary man, and this isn't just any building.

Leading the way to the stairwell is Bill Tomlinson. He's offering a spur-of-the-moment tour of The Village; a senior living community nestled in the center of Indianola, Iowa.

For an outsider who is visiting for the first time, it is unexpectedly full of activity, welcoming smiles, and people who make time for you.

Tomlinson is leading a trend among older individuals who think of retirement differently. Today, people who retire have 20, 30, and in some cases, 40 years of life ahead of them. That's a long time to sit back and take it easy. Rather, many retirees are taking some time to reevaluate, and based on what they know about themselves, find new purpose.

"I'd rather wear out than rust out."

Bill Tomlinson

Tomlinson, a Wellmark Medicare supplement member, moved into The Village ten years ago, with his wife, Eileen.

"I have my family, which includes my grown children and my grandchildren. Then, I have my family here at The Village. And of course, there is my family on the fourth floor. We are known as the party floor. And guess where we meet?" he jokes, as he points to his apartment door.

It's true; there are plenty of get-togethers in Tomlinson's tidy but spacious apartment. He explains that it's mostly because his dining room table can expand to accommodate a large group. His apartment holds other clues about his varied interests: a piano with a collection of classical music; a variety of trekking poles and walking sticks stacked in the corner; a functional office area with a large desk and computer; and many shelves full of books.

Tomlinson seems to know everyone at The Village. And if there's one thing they all seem to agree on, it's that Bill is not retired, at least not in a traditional sense.

"If retirement is about taking it easy, Bill doesn't really fit that description," laughs one resident.

Therein lies his secret. In fact, Tomlinson has a mantra about his second act: "I'd rather wear out than rust out."

The first phase

Before retiring, Tomlinson led a busy, fulfilling life as a United Methodist pastor who, with his family, lived all over Iowa. Surprisingly, he isn't the only retired pastor at The Village. In fact, there are a total of 13 retired United Methodist pastors at The Village. "Being a pastor, I had the chance to get to know a lot of people over the years. Often, I saw people retire at 65, only to pass away a few months later. I didn't want that to happen to me," says Tomlinson.

The second phase

Around age 50, Tomlinson began to have more time to think about life after retirement. He rekindled his passion for the outdoors. By the time he retired at age 65, he was regularly hiking and going on adventurous backpacking trips. At 90, he's no longer planning five-night backpacking excursions. But, he continues to find joy in other adventures, such as a 21-day tour of Australia and New Zealand, and most recently, a trip to Israel.

But it's what he does on a daily basis that keeps Tomlinson in touch with who he is, at his core, and how he nurtures his mind, body and spirit:

Mind: Every morning, Tomlinson spends time reading and studying a daily devotion, and makes time for quiet reflection and prayer.

Body: Every weekday morning, Bill attends an exercise class. Two days a week, he teaches the class.

Spirit: Every weekday afternoon, Tomlinson volunteers at Wesley Woods, a nearby church camp. There, he has his "second career" as a carpenter.

With his volunteer work at Wesley Woods, Tomlinson finds purpose. Over the years, he's helped build ten different buildings at the camp, among many other jobs.

"It's the chance to be creative. It's just satisfying. I love it when they come to me and say "Bill can you do it?' It gives me a chance to really put my brain to work."

For example, there was this old machine shed on the camp property that was falling apart. Tomlinson was challenged to do something interesting with the structure.

"I thought, wouldn't it be fun to make it look like Noah's Ark? And there you go. That took a lot of planning and creative thinking. And now campers are eager to stay there.

His most recent challenge was to figure out how to assemble and arrange several porch swings.

"Just the basic project was a challenge in itself, but it's more fun to go the extra mile. We tried this way and that, hexagons, polygons, all kinds of "-gons'," laughs Bill. "The way it ended up, well, I'm pretty proud of it."

"I know firsthand how helpful it is to connect with others and have a support network during tough times,"

Bill Tomlinson

Aging is not for the faint of heart

Tomlinson is quick to point out that the second phase of life isn't always easy. He had two health episodes earlier this year that placed him in the hospital.

According to Tomlinson, as you get older, you learn that your successes are only a small part of your story. More so, it's how you deal with life's setbacks.

For example, a few years ago, Eileen's health began to decline. Tomlinson found himself at a crossroads. He was stressed and overwhelmed.

"I just wasn't myself. I knew that I needed help. I looked for a support group, but there wasn't one."

So Tomlinson did his research and started a caregiver's support group. Five years after his wife's death, he continues to lead the group.

"I know firsthand how helpful it is to connect with others and have a support network during tough times," notes Tomlinson. "I joke that they won't let me quit leading the group, but the truth is, I don't want to quit."

Find a need, fill a need

When it comes to retirement, Tomlinson says it's important to think beyond the financials.

"I talk to a lot of people who say they are bored in retirement. They say they don't know how to fill the time. I encourage them to just look around. You see a need, and now you have time to fill that need," urges Tomlinson. "They need help at the church, library or food pantry? Show up. There's a person who could use cheering up? Sit down, strike up a conversation. There's something that needs to be fixed or built? Grab a hammer and nail."

Beyond his volunteer work, Tomlinson stays busy with other passions. He attends the opera with his daughter. He plays Rummikub with a group every Monday night. He is part of several book clubs and study groups at his church.

"You could stay busy all day here, if you want to," says Tomlinson. "There is just so much to do. I think people should give up their fear of moving to quality assisted living. It has so much to offer. If you wait too long you can't be a part of it."