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Changing Channels

TODD F. MICHALEK / THE WASHINGTON POST


The Washington Post asked eight women who achieved personal or professional milestones after the age of 50 to share their experiences, in their own words. Below are excerpts from three of those interviews. The full feature can be found on washingtonpost.com.

Ginny Donohue, 71,
Syracuse, N.Y.

Left corporate finance to start a shoestring nonprofit

Ginny Donohue’s daughter had a friend who was couch surfing and never thought he could go to college. The daughter asked if she could help him, and she did: filling out applications and financial-aid forms, taking him on two college tours. Other kids began asking her to do the same, and then the kids started getting into college.

I’d buy them $150 worth of clothes, get them a backpack full of supplies, buy their bedding for the dorm and drive them to school. I’d visit them in the beginning of the semester and get them bus tickets to come back. I helped seven students in eight years while working as an accountant, a controller and a CFO.

Then a kid named Nicholas said to me: “Because of you, I’m gonna have my dream. What’s your dream, and if that’s not the life you’re living, what steps are you taking to change it?” It was like I’d been kicked by a horse . . .

On April 13, 1999, I walked out of the corporate world and started On Point for College. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being a CFO. I did a good job, but I was never happier than when I was on a college campus . . .

I started working out of my car and now have 24 employees. When I started On Point, I wanted to find 1,000 kids that never thought they could go to college. Now we’ve worked with 11,000 students, and we’ve placed 8,700 in college.
—As told to Harriet Brown

MICHAEL A. SCHWARTZ / THE WASHINGTON POST

Patricia Forehand, 57,
Perry, Ga.

Retired educator turned comedian

Patricia Forehand grew up during an era when women were encouraged to be teachers or nurses. After teaching for 32 years in the public-school system, she decided to try stand-up comedy at the urging of her co-workers.

At first, I thought I could never do it. I look like an older, proper lady, and I’m not worldly—I haven’t traveled very far. Even the idea of going alone to Atlanta scared me, just driving and finding a parking place. And all the comics were so young. But I decided I didn’t want to waste another minute.
The first time I went backstage, I thought: “What am I doing up here? I should be at home doing grandmother things, like knitting a damn bootie.” But the other comics were just so welcoming, my friends and family were so supportive, and the audience loved it . . .

Now, I’m doing shows here and there, mostly women-only lineups, building newer material and trying to get booked more . . .

When you retire, a person can just sit on their butt all day long and not do anything. I want to give somebody something to laugh at today. So I tried it.
—As told to Sonam Vashi

MARVIN JOSEPH / THE WASHINGTON POST

Ernestine Shepherd, 82, Baltimore
Became a champion bodybuilder after long avoiding exercise

Ernestine Shepherd began exercising through the encouragement of her sister Velvet. When Velvet died of a brain aneurysm in 1992, Ms. Shepherd suffered from anxiety and depression. Then she did something about it.

One night about two years after she died, Velvet came to me in a dream and said, “You’re not doing what I asked you to do” . . .

I began slowly with walks and aerobics. Then I started working with a trainer at age 71, even though I thought I wasn’t up to it. He said, “You’re an athlete, and you will do it, and remember what your sister wanted.” In seven months, he had my body ready for my first bodybuilding show, for novice competitors of any age. I won first place.

Now I live by and teach a mantra: determined, dedicated, disciplined to be fit. I always tell those I work with that age is nothing but a number. Many of those I have trained say they never thought they could do what they did at their age.
—As told to Gary Gately


SGI President Ikeda with renowned scientist Linus Pauling, Calabasas, Calif., 1990. Photo by Seikyo Press.

World Dialogues
“Curiosity Is Mental Youth”

The following is an excerpt from a dialogue between SGI President Ikeda and American chemist Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate, who discuss the keys to a youthful mind and spirit. The original text appears in A Lifelong Quest for Peace, pp. 14–15.

SGI President Ikeda: You have consistently displayed astonishing energy, even at a time in life when other less vigorous people might be thinking of retiring from active work.

Linus Pauling: Changes in interest have stimulated me greatly. Approximately every 10 years, a significant change has occurred in the direction of my scientific work . . . Over the decades, I have built up a tremendous body of knowledge about the nature of the universe—or at least of what may be called the physical universe—in all its aspects. In the many books and journals I read, whenever I come across a statement that surprises me or attracts my interest, I ask whether it fits into the picture of the universe I have formulated. If it fits, I am satisfied. If not, I ask, first, whether the statement might be wrong or, second, if it is right, whether it might provide a basis for obtaining additional information about the structure of the universe. As a consequence of thinking along these lines, I have been able to formulate a number of new ideas and to add gradually to my understanding.

President Ikeda: Curiosity is mental youth. Newton’s famous words suggest an image of the scientist as a child constantly pursuing the novel:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

This kind of mental youthfulness is discernible, not only in scientists, but also in all people who do outstanding work and, even when physically old, remain profoundly curious and sensitive. WT