Updated: Jun 26, 2020
| This is the 380th story of Our Life Logs |
Eighty-eight years of living is something to take note of. To be honest, the longevity and good health have been quite a surprise to me, but a surprise that I treasure. Through all these years, I’ve gathered wisdom from a deep well of experiences and had opportunities to chase my dreams again and again. There were some mistakes and some failures, some victories and some rewards. Somehow it all balanced out and settled in my soul. My name is Bill and this is my story.
It all started in Aynor, South Carolina, in the 1930s where I was a country boy dreaming of finding success in life. I wish I could tell you that I had a five-year plan or that I knew from as young as possible what I wanted to be when I grew up. The truth is I didn’t. The truth is that for some reason, I dropped out of high school and didn’t know what to do next. I lived in a farming community and my choices were very limited, but I didn’t let that stop me, and eventually, I went back to school at 16 to a barber college.
I became a teenage master barber in Baltimore, Maryland, and from there, life took off along with many jobs and many explorations of paths. After my barber career, I joined the air force and worked in the fire department while I obtained my GED. Then, I became a city bus driver and in my downtime, I worked on a bachelor’s degree in business. After graduating, I worked a state job with the Maryland Training School for Boys. During that time, I discovered my love of social work and wanted to pursue it further. While everybody thought it was a crazy idea, I quit my stable, good-paying job and went back to school for a master’s degree in social work. After obtaining my degree, I found my dream job at United Way, a national charitable nonprofit organization. Each place I worked with United Way allowed me to contribute to the communities I was in and leave my mark. I fell into my dream job with ease and built a 25-year career, settling in Cincinnati.
You see how everything came together. I’m sure you’re wondering, what about my love life? Well, in chasing my dreams, I also met my dream girl. We got married in 1954 and built a happy life together. 16 years later and after I’d settled in at United Way, we were blessed with a daughter. As she grew up, and as my wife and I planned for my retirement, life was blissful. It felt like we had a plan that was set in stone. I had no idea that life was about to alter my plan.
In August 1991, a couple years from my retirement, my wife unexpectedly passed away. Suddenly, the plan I’d plotted out for my life that once brought me joy had become scrambled, and what replaced joy was overwhelming grief. She was my partner for life, but now her life had ended, leaving me to go on somehow without her: barely existing, just surviving, and dreaming of a future of merely living.
Our daughter was away at college which meant I was completely alone. I did not know how quiet a house could be or how such silence could pierce my already broken heart until I lost my wife. Everything around me silently echoed her presence. I could not escape my memories of our family of three.
Without the daily, coordinated rhythm that my wife set up and ran so effortlessly and selflessly, I felt lost. Nothing marked the hours now except for her absence: like a dull thud from a grandfather clock in need of repair and steadily reminding me that time was passing and life was moving on for me without her.
I tried to survive grief in the only way I knew how—by throwing myself into work and keeping busy. It was the only way to keep sane. “Avoid the house” became my mantra. I had nothing and no one to go home to anyway. People at work were concerned I was overdoing it and suggested I find an outlet. I decided to oblige, knowing it would keep me away from home.
I chose ballroom dancing in hopes that I could learn how to dance my way back to the act of living. Dancing was a heady, healing balm for my soul and my body. I was preparing for something, but I could not articulate what that was at the time: was it for some dream life or a dream person or both?
I was still so very lonely, but I was beginning to find my own rhythm. I was surviving now via solo steps. I was letting go more and more of my sadness over the loss of my late wife I had decades of history with. When I danced, I prayed that the song would never end, because then, once again, I would have to acknowledge my feelings of depression. So, to stave off grief, I entered dance competitions, went on dance trips with my fellow students, and continued my regular dance classes.
At age 62, I retired and continued to dance. I always showed up for the Friday night “free dance” with the small group of lonesome others who were also living with loss by taking dance lessons. At that time, I could not even imagine the possibility of another woman dancing her way into my life to a never-ending song.
While my soul was healing, my mind was still suffering. My colleague at United Way, Dr. Danny Ranserhoff, had been encouraging me to get a PhD in public administration for years, but somehow the timing was never right. Many times in my life when I was unsure of what to do next, I turned to education. Now that I was retired and in need of a distraction, it seemed like the best time to finally do it. I applied to the Union Institute and set up my own program for classes, seminars, and my dissertation defense panel. The honor of doing this independent study kept my brain engaged through studying, reading, and writing. Pursuing my PhD gave me a purpose to positively occupy my mind and minimize the mourning.
While my new life did not match the plans that my wife and I had together for my retirement, it served its purpose by giving me something to focus on other than loss. I was becoming okay with this re-charted course where I was the lone captain steering a boat through increasingly calmer and calmer waters.
Then, just as I was getting used to navigating alone, I unexpectedly fell in love once more. My second wife came floating into the picture and danced her way into my heart. A mutual friend introduced us and then, after many Cincinnati-Atlanta phone conversations, I flew down to Atlanta for a first in-person meeting. I remember how put-together she was, her feisty green eyes and electric white smile, how she instantly put me at ease with her soft, sweet Southern accent, undeniable charm, and gracious hospitality. I remember how that first weekend together every moment seemed to be filled with concerts, parties, brunches, and dinners: such significant joy after so much grieving. I was smitten by this “Georgia peach.”
After that first meeting, we had a long-distance relationship. We made many phone calls and spent several weekend visits together. The ultimate visit was a retreat together on Jekyll Island in Georgia resulting in our decision to wed.
With my second wife, life was a lot less lonely and more meaningful and extraordinarily rewarding than I thought could be possible in the winter years of my life. Of course, no one could replace my wife who’d passed, but with my second wife, I had a chance of starting a fresh chapter, while keeping the old chapters of my life still close to my heart. Through her, I realized that while plans can be helpful, life is more exciting when you decide to pursue things on a whim.
This mindset helped determine my next path in life. I considered doing many things with my PhD after I relocated to Atlanta. My second wife, a former school librarian who loved helping others suggested we go into the childcare business together. Despite both of us being in our mid-to-late sixties, we both wanted to be active, make a mark, and help people meet a basic, marketable need. Like so many other times in my life, education was key.
We took seminars on childcare in Georgia and learned different aspects of the business, went to zoning meetings, and even obtained our Childcare Development Associate certification. It took a couple of years of legal, municipal, educational, and financial preparation before we could eventually open for business and accept students, but we remained determined.
It was blood, sweat, and tears in the first small childcare facility with 85 kids we started in College Park, Georgia. Then, just when we thought we did not have any more left to give, borrow, build, or run—we were two senior citizens, after all—we built and opened a brand-new, state-of-the-art childcare center serving over 200 kids in Union City, Georgia.
My second wife and I were fully committed to childcare, and after our substantial investment of time and finances, we got to a point where it operated successfully. We were all in and there was no turning back. We ran the childcare business as a true “mom and pop” business for 15 years and when we retired from it, I was 85 years young. This is in a large part thanks to all the children I interacted with every day as an ersatz grandfather and a compassionate guide for their parents and caregivers.
When loss takes over our heart, when our happiness is robbed, we must commit ourselves to living. We must continue to dream and build upwards. I’m proud to see all the differences I’ve made, in ways great and small. I can rest assured that all my dreams were realized beyond my beliefs of what could be possible for one ordinary man from Aynor, South Carolina to achieve. When you allow life to lead you where you’re meant to follow, you’ll find there’re so many paths to pursue out in the world. I can truly say, my dreams made a difference, and I’m content with how far I’ve come and what it took to get here.
This is the story of Dr. William “Bill” McQueen
Bill makes his home in Fayetteville, a southwestern suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Ellen. A country boy from a small town in South Carolina, Bill began life without a plan but pursued many dreams in his life with what interested him at the time. He did, however, have a retirement plan with his wife, so when she passed a few years before his retirement, Bill felt lost. It wasn’t until he met his second wife that he remembered the peacefulness of living a life with a purpose, and he began his childcare business in his mid-60s. He retired at 85 after selling his business and now keeps himself active reigning as the patriarch of a close-knit, blended family, a longtime church member, and an active participant in many community and social groups. Bill is always willing to help others and offer advice based on his 88 years of experience, in hopes that some part of what he says or does can make a difference for someone else.
This story first touched our hearts on July 9, 2019.
| Writer: April McQueen | Editor: Kristen Petronio |