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September 26, 2007:

Princeton in retirement’s service
How tastes and values formed at college help prepare for a second act

By Bruce A. Cogan ’73

We all know that a Princeton education provides a sound foundation for a satisfying career, say as a professor of Romance languages, a family physician, a hedge fund manager, or even the majority leader of the Senate. The question that I, a member of the Class of ’73, and others of my vintage have is how well that education – by now a speck in our experiential rear view mirror – will serve us in retirement.

After completing the Woodrow Wilson program at Princeton, I joined many of my Woody Woo classmates in a lemming-like rush to law school. And after law school my career followed a familiar trajectory, first indentured to a few private law firms and then serving as in-house tax counsel for a brand-name company. The work, untangling the intricacies of the Internal Revenue Code, determined the rhythms of my life for 23 years.

After 23 years it had become increasingly clear that it was time for me to go, as colleagues had begun to thank me a bit too effusively for my institutional memory and my 9-year-old had stopped formally noting my absences from the family dinner table while I was away at the office. After a particularly satisfying trip to Europe with my family, I decided that it was time to announce my retirement, to commence during the summer of 2007.

The responses of my colleagues to the announcement ran the gambit from disbelief to begrudging congratulations. But the most prevalent response was: “What are you going to do to fill your time?” At first I was slightly taken aback by that question. Then it hit me: What was I going to do to replace the early-morning calls to Asia and late-night drafting sessions that had become part of my work-a-day routine?

My old job and my law school education provided little in the way of inspiration. What I was essentially looking for was a source for how to conduct a new life, and for that I found myself increasingly reflecting on my time at Princeton.

Initially, I reflected on my experience with music at Princeton. During my sophomore year in 1970, I joined the Princeton Glee Club. My motivation was not primarily music; it was girls. Indeed, one year after coeducation was introduced at Princeton, young women were scarce, and I hoped that the Glee Club’s trips to the Seven Sisters colleges would fill that lacuna.

I came for the girls but stayed for the music. (To be honest, the off-campus girls didn't exactly flock to Princeton boys in cumberbunds, singing oratorios in high falsettos.) More than 35 years later, I still remember our hyperactive conductor, Walter (Wally) Nollner, exhorting us: “When you sing ‘Do you remember the inn, Miranda?’ the audience has to feel your sweat.”

Armed with that moist memory and little else, I auditioned for and inexplicably was chosen to join a venerable choir in Manhattan. As a result, one of the ways I’m going to fill some of my time after retirement is by singing celestial chorale music – music first introduced to me at Princeton – in the great music venues of New York City.

Something else stuck to me from my days at Princeton: the call to action inherent in “Princeton in the nation’s service.” My wife, Robin Block ’75, and I have been enthusiastic supporters of a charity in New York City, Coalition for the Homeless, that fulfills the Biblical dictates to feed the hungry and house the homeless. In retirement, we plan to redouble our efforts to improve the funding and the reach of this essential organization as Princetonians in New York City’s service.

Finally, at Princeton, through our incandescent professors, I developed my writing muscles and received encouragement from several to make a living using my words. One in particular, the soft-spoken but inspiring English professor, Robert Wickenheiser, encouraged me to pursue a career in journalism. Though in going into law I took the road more traveled, after a 35-year hiatus I think I’m ready to test the journalistic waters.

So how are we, the Beatles generation, going to fill our time as we leave our careers behind? I have found – as may many of you – that tastes and values incubated more than three decades ago at Princeton can be reinvigorated in retirement. Indeed, we didn’t realize it, but in and in between classes on our verdant campus, we were laying the foundation for a rich second act. END