Bob Vollmer is my new hero.
He is retiring from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources because, he says, his body is telling him it’s time to go. His job requires a lot of physical effort: “I mean, climb the hills, fight the elements in the woods,” he told NPR. “It’s pretty rough, being tangled in vines, poison ivy, all kinds of things that you really have to be careful with, you know. I’ve worn my legs out.”
He’s 102. That makes him not just the oldest state employee, but the oldest in Indiana’s history.
Bet he’s had to put up with a lot of fool questions over the years from people wondering why he stayed around so long. I can relate.
I hung it up a couple of years ago, nowhere near the record set by Vollmer but still after the “official retirement date” had come and gone.
My brother, who had retired early from his computer career to write science fiction novels, thought I was being foolish. My sister, who had come to loathe the political machinations of her workplace and was counting down the days, thought I was out of my mind.
Why did I cling to work?
It was certainly a fair question. I was in newspapers, after all, the most gravely ill component of the dying print industry. Just going to the office was becoming almost unbearably sad, always another empty desk, another desperate management plan to do more with fewer people.
The best answer I could come up with was that I was good at what I did and still enjoyed doing it. That was true but not quite the whole story, I realize now that I’ve had some time to think about it.
The first job I had with a regular paycheck was as an usher at the old Jefferson Theater, where the convention center in downtown Fort Wayne now stands, when I was a sophomore in high school. I still remember looking in awe at those pitiful few first-pay dollars clutched in my hand.
There are certain moments in life when you realize you have crossed an important threshold, taken a first step everyone has to take that it was now your turn for. Having money in my pocket that I had earned was such a moment for me.
It was winter, so the first thing I did was buy small Christmas presents for everyone in my family. They were the first presents that were truly from me — not pretend presents for which my parents had actually provided the money to purchase.
Work, I understood from that first paycheck, was my entry to the world beyond my childhood. It was my connection to other people, the way I would fit into the larger puzzle, the path I could choose to assert my autonomy and define its trajectory.
Work would give me purpose. I just had to determine what that purpose would be. Ironically, it was that same year when a friend talked me into writing for our high school newspaper.
I had always written, something I turned to as a child confined too often indoors by bouts of asthma. I knew that writing would be a big part of my future, but had never considered what shape that future might take. But the minute I saw my byline on a silly, five-paragraph story (about a meeting of the Spanish Club) in the Central High School Spotlight, I was hooked.
I found my purpose. And then dedicated myself for more than 40 years to the mission of local newspapers to inform and entertain their readers and bind them together with a sense of community. That sense of community is fraying these days, and the death of newspapers is one of the reasons why. I think we will miss them when they are gone.
One of my favorite books is the very short “A Mathematician’s Apology” by G.H. Hardy. In it, he says there are two criteria to use when deciding on a choice for a life’s work.
The first is that it should make use of whatever skill or talent you are best at. Not what you can do better than a certain number of people — whatever it is, there will always be people better than you and worse than you. Do what you do better than you do anything else — then, the more you do it, the better you will become and the more you will love it.
The second is that it should have some worth in the overall scheme of things. It should matter to humanity that the job is done and done well. Then the work you do will fulfill you and have value for others.
That’s the rest of the story, then. I kept at my job because I liked it, I was good at it, and it mattered. I had a purpose.
I doubt if Bob Vollmer ever read that book or one like it. On the other hand, he could probably write it himself. I can see him on his last days at work, walking the hills, dodging vines and swatting mosquitoes and cursing the weak legs that finally gave out on him.
At his retirement dinner – they should give him the biggest one the state has ever seen — they should forgo all the accolades and just tell him what he deserves to hear: Good job.