In Retirement, Music Sustains Purpose and Passion
Con Sheffer was fresh out of the University of Oregon in 1954 when he started urging folks to think about some future day when things might go terribly wrong. A tragic accident, say. Or perhaps a heart attack. Days when death rips a hole in the safety net of a hard-working family. Days that no one wants to consider for long, especially at an early age.
But Sheffer didn’t stop talking. A tight-budget upbringing and three years of military duty in Korea between his junior and senior years of college had delivered evidence of the fragile threads that hold youthful dreams. What would happen to those dreams if you had an accident someday? What about your family or your business? How would your kids get along?
For 61 years, Sheffer’s been selling a cushion for those “somedays” as a life insurance agent. Now, at age 86, he’s living those “somedays,” he says. Most weekdays now he spends the morning in his office on Country Club Road filing death benefit claims for clients whose “somedays” have come.
“I have seen the whole picture now,” he says. “Someday comes and we pay. It’s a time of mixed emotions for me. I am able to provide money that helps those left behind but I am also losing friends.”
For six decades, the satisfaction of this work has given Sheffer a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. It has fueled a strong work ethic. He intends to keep working as long as he can—doing something useful until he starts making mistakes.
Meanwhile, there seem to be few signs of slowing for either Con or his wife, Mary. They met as seniors at the U of O and married in 1955, just as he was launching a career that produced no paycheck without a sale.
‘With insurance, if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” he says. In the beginning, there were 80-hour workweeks and marketing trips that carried him down logging roads and into rural kitchens across the state. That didn’t leave much time for a growing family at home. Even less time for the fiddle he’d played at $5 gigs in college. He figured there’s be time for that again someday, once the pressures of building a business had eased.
He was right. That “someday,” too, has come. I was sitting in the audience at the Shedd Institute one evening when Con stepped out on the stage. He took a seat in front of the featured jazz group and tucked the fiddle under his chin.Then, with the ease of a seasoned performer, he let flow a bubbling stream of joy that carried listeners “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
The music captivated me. So did the musician. What was the source of all this vitality? What fueled the openhearted zest for life that surged from an octogenarian fiddler and splashed smiles through an audience? I wanted to know more. Curiosity carried me to the kitchen table in the south Eugene home where Con and Mary raised two sons and a daughter, and have lived 52 years.
Mary, 82, had just returned from water aerobics at the YMCA when I showed up to interview her not-retiring spouse. She was heading out to plant a box of purple petunias before a nine-hole round of golf that afternoon. No retirement apparent for her either.
A former Strawberry Fair Princess who grew up in my hometown of Lebanon, OR, Mary taught high school PE in Drain until children came along. As they were growing, she worked as a substitute health and PE teacher in Eugene. Years later she still embraces an active life. In addition to water aerobics six mornings a week, and afternoon walks most days, there’s bridge group on Thursdays and church on Sundays. Plus meetings of PEO or the Home Science women’s club, gardening, and assorted service projects.
“I just seem to have lots of energy,” she says, when I express amazement at her activity level. “I have been blessed with good health. And I think my faith in God helps. It gives me a sense of purpose.”
Just a week or two ago, a column in this newspaper by the Drs. Oz and Roizen touted the impact of purpose and passion in a long and healthy life. Their column cited research by Mount Sinai Health System in New York City suggesting that people with a sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worth living, faced lower odds of heart attack, stroke, or clogged arteries.
And it seems to be not just the heart that benefits from a sense of purpose. A positive sense of connection with life and other people appears to promote a healthy immune system and keep brains sharper longer, according to the study.
The research brought to mind my mother who, by age 96, had outlived the sense of purpose that propelled her through nine active, vigorous decades. How she lamented the loss of that momentum in the final stage of her life. It wasn’t enough—all those years of community involvement, of teaching middle school students, Sunday School classes, garden club, crocheted baby caps for the hospital—not enough to ease the pressing weight of uselessness that settled over her final years.
Perhaps it’s her sorrow that pushes me toward the reassuring evidence of enduring passions, like the spark of life that lifts triumphantly from Con Sheffer’s violin. That passion caught fire very early in Con’s life with music lessons at age five. His laborer father worked two jobs back then, a mechanic on weekdays and plasterer on weekends. From his earnings, 25 cents a week provided a borrowed violin and a music lesson from a door-to-door teacher who ignited Con’s love of music.
By the time his family moved from California to a remote logging road outside Drain, Con was just one year away from college—the first member of his family to pursue higher education. His musical talent, and a sense of purpose, funded the next few years. There were swing bands and vaudeville shows in college to supplement earnings from waiting tables and cleaning kitchens at fraternities and sororities. But the music stopped after college.
For 30 years a new purpose claimed Con’s focus as he built a business. Except for the occasional family gathering, he rarely picked up his violin
“I always wanted to be a musician, but it’s hard to support a family as a musician,” he says. “I love music, but other things took precedence.”
Then, in a fortuitous convergence of timing and location, the First Baptist Church the Sheffers had attended for years in downtown Eugene was transformed in the 1990s into a setting for spirited gatherings of a different sort. The transition was easy for Con. He was nearing traditional retirement age by then, ready to give music a place in his life once again. He polished licks with a few old friends and fraternity bothers and soon the group was on stage with a band they called Swang.
When Swang disbanded, Con remained committed to the Shedd Institute and to its mission of music education. He served on the board of directors and returns to the stage from time to time as a featured soloist at the Festival of American Music.
“It’s still a highpoint of my life,” he says. Then, another “someday” flickers through his thoughts. “There will come a time when I am over the hill,” he says. “I don’t know when, but for now, I love it. It would be awful to live without music.”
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.