By Charles S. Gordon
During my early USAID assignments in Asia and Africa, I was frequently exposed to European diplomatic colleagues, who, it struck me, spent an unseemly amount of time thinking about, discussing, and planning for their future retirement. As a result, I found myself for the first time giving the matter thought.
I had spent my childhood in a military family, moving often. There was no single place that I considered home. Now I had my own family; yet, because of my profession, my French wife, our two children, and I were as rootless as my parents and I had been a generation earlier. This bothered me. I began to experience not so much a slowly ripening desire to find a congenial place where Colette and I might live out our future retirement years, but rather a more immediate need to find something more secure and permanent for our children than I had had as a youth. I wanted a place that we could return to regularly between overseas tours of duty and during our stateside vacations, a place that our children could call home. That this might also be the place where Colette and I would live in retirement after our children had left the nest was part of my thinking, but not the main part.
The search for such a place thus became the leitmotif of a series of home leaves from overseas posts in the 1970s and 1980s. Our adventures in real estate began with the purchase of fifty acres on which to build in the foothills of the California sierras. That project died when reports of record snowfalls reached us in Africa, along with an unexpected tax bill that happened to arrive practically in the same mail as an offer to buy our land.
Subsequent home leave plunges included the purchase of a house in Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville’ charms were not enduring; we sold that house and during our next home leave bought one in Gainesville, Florida. That, too, proved warm for my European wife; it was certainly more uncomfortable than Abidjan, Gaborone, or Bujumbura.
The even that forcefully focused my mind on the importance of our efforts to find a permanent home in the United States occurred during a visit to Kenya while were living in Burundi. We learned from a friend there that the young deputy mission chief of the USAID/Nairobi had died suddenly after playing tennis that morning.
I was shaken by the news. Finding a real home for my wife and children suddenly became imperative. I f something were to happen to me, they had no place to land and to pick up their lives without a husband and a father. I resolved that during our next stateside vacation we would find the place.
I turned out to be Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We stopped there after Burundi while on home leave, saw a house we liked, and bought it. It was a quick, almost accidental decision, but one we have never regretted since our retirement here in 1990. This relatively small and friendly university town has seemed to us ideally suited to the needs and interests of a retired Foreign Service family. It has been possible to find satisfying employment to keep me out of the house and out from under Colette’s feet (“I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch”). There are also extensive opportunities for volunteer work and for continuing education. Excellent medical facilities are close to hand. The town boasts a diverse population from all parts of the globe. There is, for example, a small French community that meets monthly for dinner. Ample community sports facilities are available, as well as lectures, libraries, theatrical productions, and concerts — not, perhaps, of New York quality, but certainly more affordable.
We have, moreover, an association of retired member of American foreign affairs agencies who live in the area and who meet informally from time to time, often with a guest speaker. There is also an active UN Association, and the three largest universities nearby sponsor the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, which offers periodic seminars on international security questions. These organizations provide stimulating opportunities for those who wish to keep abreast of foreign affairs issues.
But when we bought the house all of this was in the future and was secondary to the satisfaction I felt in knowing that, wherever in the world I might be assigned or whatever might happen to me, my family now had a home in the United States that it could always return to. My children, Ian and Louise, had been born in Manila. By the time we settled in Chapel Hill the longest they had lived in the same place was in the boarding facility of St. Stephen’s American High School in Rome. I knew we had made the right decision when I watched Ian explore our Chapel Hill house for the first time and heard him say, “my house, my room.”
Of course, every family faces circumstances of its own that will dictate where and when it will decide to acquire a retirement residence. Yet, for those in the U. S. Foreign Service or other Americans who live the life of expatriates during their professional careers, I believe my experience may have some instructive value.
I would encourage you who labor in overseas vineyards to start looking for a retirement home while you are still in mid-career status. While on leave in the United States find a house in a location that offers activities that you and your family enjoy. Buy it; live in it as long as you can. When you must return to your overseas post, even consider leaving your spouse and children behind for an extended home leave. Give the children an opportunity to make friends and form an emotional attachment to a tangible bit of security.
During periods that you and your family must live abroad, you should be able to rent your home. Most important, you will have begun the process of becoming part of a community. You will have made acquaintances and will be able to identify short-term rental and house-sitting opportunities in the same locale, so that when future stateside vacations come along, you will have a destination. Then, when you do finally retire, you will be delighted to be home. If the house at that point turns out not quite to fit current needs, you can shop for something else and be amazed at the equity you have accumulated.
Where should you look for this home? You will know what suits you best, but I strongly suggest that you consider a small college community — something even smaller than Chapel Hill, perhaps. If you have lived in and enjoyed other cultures, you are likely to find a mutuality of interest with many working in academia and with whom you will find it easy to become acquainted. In such an environment, your experiences and opinions may be different, of interest, and welcome. You and your family are apt to find opportunities for post-retirement employment, as well as access to sports facilities, concerts, theater, and educational programs. The chances of finding strong medical support are also often good in a college town. Moreover, if you choose well, and early enough, you may be able to give your children a first-class public college education without having to pay out-of-state tuition.
Above all, don’t wait until retirement to find your retirement home. Like us, the first place you pick may not be the right one. If you make a poor choice, it will be easier to rectify it while you are still drawing a regular salary. So start the search early. And good luck!