Reverse migration: Spokane residents like their winters just fine

MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013

Brooks Sackett, top left, and Victor Frazier participate in a water aerobics class at the Spokane Club on Feb. 22. Sackett sends out a newsletter, “Pond Scum,” to stay in touch with snowbirds in the class who leave Spokane during the winter. (Dan Pelle)
Brooks Sackett, top left, and Victor Frazier participate in a water aerobics class at the Spokane Club on Feb. 22. Sackett sends out a newsletter, “Pond Scum,” to stay in touch with snowbirds in the class who leave Spokane during the winter. (Dan Pelle)

When fog hangs low in the pines and winter’s old snow melts sullenly on the potholed streets, Brooks Sackett feels no urge to fly south. The snowbird’s siren song – RV parks in the desert, the freedom of an open road, an apartment near a golf course or a beach – leaves him unmoved.

Sunless in Spokane? Nope. Here, he has found the light of enough friends and activities to make the winter warm.

A former Californian, Sackett flew north, to leave what he felt was “a more anonymous society.” And even though, at 68, he’s a little past traditional retirement age, he still works.

But as a self-employed financial planner, he sets his own hours. In the mornings, he heads to a water aerobics class. In the afternoons, he might knock off early to take in a movie. In the evenings, you might find him at a cooking class, a concert, a wine tasting.

Carolyn Gooley likewise migrated in reverse. After a lifetime in New Mexico, she and her husband retired to Spokane – where she serves as president of a thriving volunteer organization, the Spokane Symphony Associates.

“We tried the RV thing,” Gooley said. “But we have not caught the bug. We get homesick for up here, and our friends. We like the four seasons. And I don’t like having two homes.”

Snowbirding, and the alternatives, are about transition – from years that focus on career to the years that focus, at least stereotypically, on leisure. Lawn chairs in the desert. Grandchildren in the lap. Fishing. Travel. But what happens, during the transition and its aftermath, to all the talents that brought us pleasure in our careers?

Sackett and Gooley, neither of them snowbirds, offer differing ways to continue contributing later into life.

Sackett kept working in a career he loves, but at a pace of his choosing – and he embraced the opportunities for grown-up forms of play, right here in his chosen home, Spokane.

Gooley embraces the opportunity to work in different and possibly more rewarding ways, as a community volunteer. Also in Spokane, her chosen home.

In her leadership role at the Symphony Associates, Gooley notices the seasonal exit of valued volunteers.

Not that she complains about it. When the snowbirds return they re-enlist, refreshed from their months in the sun.

Meanwhile, to keep the wheels turning, Gooley said, “I am working hard to break up jobs to make them smaller so people don’t feel overwhelmed. We try to have people share jobs. If too few people are doing too much, it just isn’t fun. Volunteers have to feel they are doing something good – have fun, form friendships.”

The snowbird lifestyle, like the lake cabin lifestyle that empties neighborhoods in the summer, might just be one of those Spokane customs to which everyone adapts.

But for those in life’s later stages who can’t afford a second home, or a third home, or an RV, or a trip that lasts longer than a week or two, what does Spokane have to offer? And who is really missing out?

Ask Sackett. Ask him about his circles of friends, and all the activities he manages to enjoy, right here, in icicle land.

When winter’s gloom settles over the city, he hops out of bed and heads, every weekday, to a water aerobics class. He writes a newsletter, humorously titled “Pond Scum,” to keep classmates up to date on each other’s lives. After a few hours of work back at his home, he might head to a Rotary luncheon, where he treasures the programs: a political candidate’s debate, for instance, a lecture about advances in cancer treatment, or an award recognizing children who have overcome difficult backgrounds.

Several years ago, when Sackett first arrived to sample Spokane’s wares, it was a Gordon Lightfoot concert that hooked him. He bought tickets – at the last minute. He parked right across the street, next to a steakhouse. After the concert, again on a whim, he popped in for a steak dinner.

In California, he said: “You can’t put all that together at the last minute.”

And then there was the wine. Good wine, with good friends. Sackett had been to wine tastings in the famed growing regions north of San Francisco. But here, he belongs to three wine tasting groups, where, he has found, “it’s more likely you’re going to strike up a pleasant conversation.”

As the Spokane area unfolded its attractions, Sackett discovered cooking classes, taught by chefs, at Spokane Community College and the Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center in Post Falls; the Spokane Symphony Orchestra; art and cultural exhibits at the MAC and Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum; the Spokane International Film Festival; book readings at Auntie’s.

And, to replace the hybrid tea roses he used to grow in California, he tapped Washington State University Extension’s Master Gardener Program, for expertise in growing native plants that don’t die off in the February cold.

If all these activities, plus an extended career in finance, sound like the opposite of life in a lawn chair in the desert, it is.

“I can’t imagine retiring,” Sackett said. “You have to have a job you dislike to need to retire.”

As one who practiced what he preaches about saving for the future, he said, he works for the love of it.

Soberly, though, he acknowledges that more and more adults, hurt by the economy, are finding it necessary to work past age 65. For many, a new roof is a more pertinent dream than a second home.

Whatever the reason for remaining in the work force, Sackett finds inspiration in the stories of friends, who return to the core of their careers, shedding accumulated management duties, and focusing again on the skills they loved at the beginning.

Reduced hours? Perhaps. A new setting? Maybe.

“But I hope people who are gifted at what they do will continue to work as long as they can,” he said.

Cooley, who’s been retired for 20 years, sees from a different perspective the transition from career to whatever comes next.

“If you don’t have other hobbies, retirement can be devastating.”

Her solution? “Some of the most effective volunteers are those that have transferred their career skills to assist a volunteer organization.”

Coaches know how to get people working in teams. Business management experts can make a charitable group run more smoothly, can drum up donations and make the dollars go farther. Teachers bring priceless people skills. Artists bring creativity.

When snowbirds head south for several months to a golf course in the desert or a condo by some beach, it is more than snow that they leave behind. It’s a community that needs social capital and accumulated wisdom.

It’s career skills, known to the folks at home, that still would be welcome in some new setting, right here. It’s a circle of old friends, and the opportunity to expand it.

Sackett, the California transplant who came to love his new home in the wintry north and who does not take for granted even one of its charms, looks at it this way: “I went to my high school reunion, down in Newport Beach. Property values are so high there, people will just bulldoze homes, to build something new.

“You don’t see that too much in Spokane. Here, on the street when we ask for directions, people stop and look us in the eye and even walk us to the corner. I’m a homebody. My whole life is better here. I never thought geography was that important, but for me, it is.”

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