Third-Act Encores: True Tales of People’s Best Later-in-Life Accomplishments

Inspiring stories from real people whose most unreal accomplishments came later in life

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Chasing your dreams isn’t just for young people. Amazing accomplishments can come at any age, and sometimes our greatest successes happen later in life! These touching true stories prove that it’s never too late to make a change, chase a dream and do something amazing—at any age.

John KerrCris Crisman via Princeton Architectural Press

John Kerr

As a boy, John Kerr wanted to be a fireman or a park ranger. Looking back on that childhood fantasy, he says, “I think it was the hat.”

Instead, he spent four decades at WGBH in Boston, one of public broadcasting’s flagship stations. He retired in 2005 at the age of 65 without any particular post­-career goal in mind. After several idle weeks, he decided to drive his camper to visit family in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

En route, he casually stopped at the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which raises funds for Yellowstone, America’s first national park. As it happens, the foundation was hiring people to educate park guests on wolves. Kerr signed on. Later, at the urging of his daughter, a forestry school graduate, Kerr applied to the Student Conservation Association for an internship.

In a sense, he had been primed for this since his youth.

To say that Kerr stood out in the intern crowd is a massive under­statement. Most interns were college and even high school students. But, in a sense, he had been primed for this since his youth. His outdoor adventures with his grandfather had given him a love of nature, and as an adult, he had helped out at the local fire ­department on medical calls.

He also had something else. There are 31 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70—some retired and looking for a third act, some looking for a more fulfilling career—searching for something where they feel as if they’re making a contribution, doing something to make their neighborhood, their country, their world just a little bit better. Kerr also had that deep urge to do something more.

From his internship, he moved up to ranger, educating park visitors, ensuring safe encounters between guests and animals, and responding to medical emergencies. He treasures his stewardship of what he describes as one of the most beautiful places on earth and revels in moments when he treats a visitor to an up-close look at one of the park’s wolves or bears through his telescope, an occasion that can move visitors to tears.

“These are rich and all-too-rare moments,” recalls Kerr. “I never forget them.”

Steve JavieSarah Webb/ via Princeton Architectural Press

Steve Javie

“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think, Holy cow, look where I’m at,” says Steve Javie.

Once considered one of the best—and strictest, most hot-headed—referees in the NBA, Javie is now a deacon at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

Despite coming from a diligent, Mass-going Catholic family (one of his uncles was a well-known monsignor in the Philadelphia area), Javie also had sports in his blood; it had been sports that really fired him up as a youngster. His father had a career as a football back judge for the NFL, and his godfather was an American League baseball umpire.

In Javie’s younger days, the Baltimore Orioles’s farm system had picked him as a possible pitcher, but that was derailed by an arm injury. He started as a baseball umpire and then shifted to basketball referee, becoming an NBA ref in 1986, where he quickly developed a reputation for his searing temper. In one game, Javie even ejected the play-by-play announcer, and in another he threw out a team mascot.

In one game, Javie even ejected the play-by-play announcer.

Yet as his years in the NBA went by, Javie developed a reputation as not only one of the most feared referees but also one of the most respected. In 2000, he began suffering from an arthritic knee. Surgeries only postponed the inevitable, and by the 2009-10 season, he was barely working. He managed to eke out a 25th NBA season.

“Every time I start to think maybe I still could do it, my knee has let me know … that I can’t,” he says.

His religious calling did not come to him in a sudden epiphany. Javie had started going to Mass to impress his very Catholic wife-to-be, and when she called him out on how little he was invested, Javie began to come around until finally hitting on the idea of becoming a deacon.

“When our time here on earth is done, we’re not going to be judged by whether we got the block/charge right,” he says. And so at age 64, after seven years of study, Javie was ordained a deacon, assisting priests and even performing baptisms and marriages.

But in the same way he grappled with the intricacies of calling a basketball game in his early years as a referee, Javie admits he is still getting a handle on delivering an effective homily from the church pulpit. He also observes that he still gets the same flak from the “fans,” though now they’re seated in pews rather than bleachers.

“People ask me if there are similarities between being a deacon and a referee,” he says. “People used to think they could tell me how to do my old job … now people are telling me how to preach.”

Andrea PetersonCoral von Zumwalt via Princeton Architectural Press

Andrea Peterson

It was a dream born in fire. Andrea Peterson was 5 when she and her mother were trapped on the ledge of a burning building.

“Throw the kid down!” said one of the firemen below, and little Andrea leaped into lifesaving arms and a lifelong ambition: She wanted to fight fires like her rescuers did.

She told that to the men who had saved her, and they laughed good-naturedly, the way grown-ups do when a kid says they want to be an astronaut or a sports star. But this was back in a time when little girls weren’t even allowed to fantasize about such grand goals.

“You’ll be a good mommy,” the firemen told her. “You’ll be a good teacher, maybe you’ll be a nurse, but you can never be a fireman.”

“Throw the kid down!” said one of the firemen below.

And then, as it tends to do, life sidelined her dreams. She was studying for a degree in aviation technology—the only female in her class—and that’s where she met her husband, Dennis.

Dennis was a Vietnam vet who was diagnosed with cancer, possibly from his exposure to Agent Orange. Peterson spent 31 years caring for the man she loved, and in 2007, when they both realized Dennis was coming to the end of his struggle, he was at peace but worried for her: “But what are you going to do?”

“I’ll be fine,” she told him.

At 61, she went on an ambulance ride-along. It turned out to be a life-and-death situation, and Peterson felt that long-ago childhood calling. She earned her emergency medical technician license and responded to fire calls with the ambulance. She found that her years of tending to Dennis had prepared her for dealing with the variety of hurts and ills carried in her rig.

After a year, she told her boss she wanted to be a firefighter.

The fact that everyone else in her training unit was between 18 and 21 didn’t deter her. She passed the written test, she cleared the physical and, finally, that little girl’s dream became a reality.

Peterson is realistic. She knows that the window on her physical abilities won’t stay open forever. Still, “I worry a little [about] when I get too old … [but] I did get my dream.”

Rita MorenoFrederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno is one of the very few performers to EGOT: win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. But come a little closer, and Moreno’s is another kind of immigrant story.

She was a teen when MGM signed her in the 1950s. Major studios were still dominated by the men who’d run them for decades. They had her change her name (she was born Rosa Dolores Alverio), and while recognizing her talent, they “didn’t know what to do with a Latina girl.”

Moreno played bit parts, including a girl from India on Father Knows Best and a Burmese woman in the film adaptation of The King and I.

“I became the house ethnic,” she recalls. “I was a Polynesian girl, or I was an Egyptian girl.” What should’ve been her big break came when she was cast as Anita in the film version of West Side Story (1961). She’d remember Anita as “the very first Hispanic character I had ever played who had dignity, a sense of self-respect, and was loving. She became my role model.” The night Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, barrios across the United States broke out into cheers.

Her mother’s philosophy­: “never give in, never quit, keep on moving.”

But that career turn didn’t happen. Instead, she received more offers to play what she described as “dusky maidens.” The racism and ethnic stereotyping of the 1950s were still at play.

“It broke my heart,” she says of those years. “I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t understand.” The award didn’t make a difference. Oscar winner Rita Moreno didn’t make another movie for seven years.

You could say that was the beginning of her third act. It crystallized for Moreno that there was nobody she could look at and say “That’s somebody like me.”

Holding to her mother’s philosophy—“Never give in, never quit, keep on moving”—she survived professionally during those years with work on the London stage and in nightclubs, slowly reemerging on film and television, and eventually going on to icon status.

The woman who had been in big-screen exile for much of the 1960s would earn herself a star on the Holly­wood Walk of Fame, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honors award and the Peabody Career Achievement Award.

But even as she continues to perform, recently starring in the sitcom One Day at a Time and acting in and working as an executive producer in a remake of West Side Story, her third act work continues off the screen, in how she speaks out for and represents the Latinx community.

“I’m now known as la pionera, or the pioneer,” Moreno says. “I really don’t think of myself as a role model. But it turns out that I am to a lot of the Hispanic community. Not just in show business, but in life. But that’s what happens when you’re first, right?”

Ida KeelingKirby Lee–USA TODAY Sports via Princeton Architectural Press

Ida Keeling

Ida Keeling’s daughter, Cheryl, a lifelong athlete, thought that maybe what would pull her mother out from under her dark cloud was something that would get her pumping again. She suggested a run. Not just a jog around the block, but an honest to God, official run. At the time, Ida Keeling was 67.

Keeling had grown up poor in Harlem and done hard, grinding work in factories during the Great Depression. She had lost her husband early to a heart attack, and two of her four children—both of her sons—would die in unsolved drug-related incidents, in 1978 and 1981.

Keeling had sunk into a deep depression, her health had begun to slide and her daughters began to fret that they soon might be losing their mother as well.

It had been decades since Keeling had done any running, and she would later recall that first “mini-run” feeling as if it would never end. But when it did, “I just threw off all my bad memories.”

She hasn’t stopped running since, and it’s no longer the slog it was during that first meet. Since then, the diminutive Keeling (Cheryl describes her mother as “a gallon in a half-pint package”) has set records for 60 meters in the 95-to-99 age group, and in 100 meters for the over-100 group.

Part of her healthy diet is an occasional dose of cognac.

“I was just exercising,” she says regarding that first run, “and now I’m all over the world.”

When she’s not running, she’s working out. She’s in the gym three to four days a week, running on treadmills, working out with weights and pedaling on the exercise bike—and even ­squeezing in some squats while she’s cooking. Part of her healthy diet is an occasional dose of cognac mixed with her coffee or water to aid circulation.

She’s written a book about her experiences, aptly titled Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down: Chasing Myself in the Race Against Time. Her philosophy is also apt for a runner: “Every day is ­another day forward.”

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