MAXWELL:  Retired, but not from work

12/6/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


St. Petersburg is still sometimes known as the city where old people come to die _ in droves.

If you recite this adage to 79-year-old William Dixon Southworth, he will give you a lecture that goes something like this: “I don’t mind my age at all. The thought of being a teenager again _ being young again _ is something that not only is impossible but it’s unattractive. I like my age. I have a good marriage. In fact, I still have what Ronald Reagan calls the “privileges of marriage.’ I still enjoy those. I’m healthy. All of my vital organs are good. I’m enjoying life and loving God. I get along with people, and I get along with myself.”

Southworth, a career educator who earned a doctorate from New York University in school administration and supervision and who retired to St. Petersburg in 1984, believes that old age is the time to do life’s most important work.

Everything he did before retirement _ serving seven years in the U.S. Navy, teaching fourth through eighth grades in public school and serving 14 years as a principal, a professor and a department chairman at St. Johns University in New York _ contributed to his zest for life in his golden years.

Upon retiring from St. Johns University and after having spent decades writing academic gobbledygook, Southworth bought a computer and decided to make his lifelong dream of publishing fiction come true. When he and his wife, Violet, settled into their St. Petersburg condominium near the Gulf of Mexico, he honed his skills by writing full-page columns for the Condominium Times of Altamonte Springs. The columns focused on parliamentary procedure and conflict resolution.

After several years, Southworth realized that he had accumulated enough columns for a book. Professor Martha Haun of the University of Houston read the columns, liked them and helped Southworth edit them, whereupon McGraw Hill published 75 of them as a book.

But as the urge to write fiction pulled stronger than ever, Southworth wrote a semi-autobiographic tale, the Sensual Sailor, about his naval experiences. He rewrote it four times on a typewriter. Because his dissertation had been highly regarded, he thought that his first novel had bestseller potential.

“Literary agent Scott Meredith thought otherwise,” Southworth said, smiling at his naivete of long ago. “Meredith said that my book had “all the flaws of a first novel. I do not recommend revising it. You preachify, are too wordy, and seem to think there is uniqueness in what has happened to you. What you think is interesting is not interesting.’ ”

Southworth was frustrated but not crushed, fully believing that the agent was the misguided one. He sent the manuscript to another agent, this time a woman. “Her review was shorter, and tarter,” he said. “Although short on criticism, she was equally as short on advice. “Read, read, read,’ she said. I thought I had been reading, starting at age 6.”

Southworth does not recall where the idea came from, but he decided that the best way to get published was to drop the autobiographical angle and invent stories about the Navy. “I took a sea story (a big lie) from the first book and made it into a mystery, Murder on the Flagship,” he said. “It was a better book than the first, but 20 publishers, according to the literary agent I retained, said, kindly, not at this time. I wanted to write, and I knew I must write about what I knew, my naval experiences. Then my third book, Q, the Story of Captain Quimby Scott, U.S. Navy, was published in 1997. The pain of years of disappointment was alleviated by the actuality of my words in print.”

Since then, Southworth has not looked back and has two more manuscripts in search of a publisher.

“I have made peace with the elements of writing, knowing that I must write” he said. “So far, there has been scant monetary return for my efforts. It came as a surprise to me that my greatest satisfaction has been the acceptance, the little bit of praise for my efforts. The author wants and needs to be read, despite the nonsense that the author writes only for himself. If that were true, why would he write down his thoughts at all, or, having written them down, why show them to anyone else?”

The Southworths get out of bed each morning at 7:30. While Violet prepares a light breakfast and tends her magnificent collection of African violets, her husband heads straight to the computer and writes for four to five hours. After writing, he takes a 30-minute afternoon nap. Then he swims in the condominium’s pool, does chores and rounds out the day with reading.

His life, he said, is an example of useful retirement, of defying the notion that St. Petersburg is the elderly’s funeral parlor. “Retirement has been a swapping of working for someone else, to working for myself,” he said. “Retirement frees people to do things they never could before. In retirement, you select the work as opposed to before when you had to do somebody else’s bidding to make a salary, to survive.

“The pension check has replaced the paycheck. Boredom in retirement, short of physical disability, is a product of too great a concentration on personal convenience _ the elimination of challenge. Cliche though it may be, to wear out is better than to rust out.”

And the future?

“I propose to live to 100 and keep on writing,” he said. “I see no reason why not. I have energy and a joy for living. I am endowed with certain characteristics, certain talents. It is my obligation to continue to develop them, and, by developing them, I develop myself as a person. I also have an obligation to nurture this society that first nurtured me so that I can contribute.”

His contribution to society?

“Writing,” he said. “Showing other retirees the joys of old age. I’m looking for a new idea for a book right now.”