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THE SPECIAL YEARS : 50 AND BEYOND: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE : New Beginings : The age of retirement can be an age of creativity and growth

May 04, 1989|JONATHAN PETERSON | Peterson is a Times staff writer.

There's a myth about retirement, and it goes something like this: You work all your life, you build up a nest egg, you reach age 65--and you while away the rest of your days watching the sun set.

Only, it usually doesn't happen that way. And that's a good thing. The age of retirement can be an age of creativity and growth, much to the benefit of retirees.

Increasingly, Americans are taking advantage of their later years to pursue new careers, perform community service and launch business ventures.

Following are the tales of five Southern Californians who have plotted their own, unique courses in work and retirement.

Whether toiling for the financial reward or volunteering for the psychic reward, their examples suggest that staying involved can be the key to staying alive. Here are their stories:

Earl Gains is sitting inside his small apartment, wearing a blue T-shirt that sports the popular refrain "Don't Worry. Be Happy."

It fits him well: For the tanned and youthful 75-year-old, the path to post-retirement happiness led to an elementary school in Atwater. Twice a week, he sits down in the library to help children with reading disabilities.

And occasionally, he charms larger groups of students with tales of his travels throughout the world. Ask Gains why he volunteers, and his answer is decisive: "I get more than I give."

In 1976, when he was about to retire from his job as an accountant with Columbia Pictures, Gains had two goals. He wanted to see the world and to help others closer to home.

He's done both. His apartment near Griffith Park is brimming with trophies from around the globe: a camel's-hair fly swatter from Egypt (which looks like a stringy wig on a stick), a square bamboo cane from Japan, an Australian boomerang, and his own photograph of elephants in Kenya.

An entire wall is decorated with exotic masks from other countries.

The souvenirs are also teaching aids. He sometimes brings them to the Atwater school, where he participates in a community program for older volunteers known as DOVES.

"I treat the kids like friends, and they need that," says Gains, who has just returned from a month in Florida and the Caribbean. "They don't feel like there's another teacher on their back."

Even before retiring, Gains used to volunteer, leading groups of the blind on expeditions to swimming pools, shops, even the theater.

His efforts for the children, he says, keep him young: "If I hung around 75-year-old guys, what would I hear? I'd hear a lot of negativity. I'd hear about arthritis. I'd hear about guys who lost their wives. With kids it's different."

If his travel schedule--which includes a lengthy overseas trip every year--makes Gains sound wealthy, that's hardly the case. Gains, a bachelor from Upstate New York, gets by on a pension and Social Security. Local travel takes place in his 12-year-old Dodge Colt.

But in retirement, he explains: "You don't dress up every day. You don't go out to lunch every day. You want your health and your peace of mind--and you want to put something back in society."

The career of Ernest Levens might seem, at first, to have taken a series of odd twists.

But Levens, a bearded, bespectacled resident of Marina del Rey finds logic in his switch from organic chemistry to worker safety and, finally--in his 60s--to marriage and family counseling.

"I became more and more interested in working with the human equation rather than the purely technological one," says Levens, 71, whose short stature and quick grin give him the image of a friendly leprechaun.

A native of Boston, Levens moved to Whittier in the early 1950s to work in the laboratory of a large chemical company. But during the following years, Levens--who played the viola in local symphonies--found his interest in the human equation growing stronger.

He left laboratory work and eventually became director of occupational safety and medical services at McDonnell Douglas. Ultimately, his interest in the human equation led him enroll in counseling courses and ultimately to a master's degree in counseling at age 60.

That's when Levens was seized by an insight: "I realized I had in my hands a retirement program."

A year or two later, Levens retired from the aerospace firm and launched a private counseling practice. To this day he pursues it part time, focusing on problems faced by individuals and couples.

As people get older, he says, "a sense of commitment or involvement is as important as oxygen, food, laughter and physical activity."

The counseling helps provide Levens with his own sense of commitment: "I just enjoy people thoroughly, and I enjoy having people who are troubled by one thing or another pick their heads up and begin to walk forward as whole people whose lives are fulfilled."

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