- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

It was turning out to be a nice change of pace for William Novelli.

The chief executive of AARP normally works 12-hour days that have him going from one meeting to the next, giving speeches and listening to them.

This day had begun at a pep talk by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez to a group of employees in a downtown D.C. hotel.

He is spending the rest of the morning and early afternoon at Christmas events with elderly residents of Washington Home and Hospice in upper Northwest and finding it to be a pleasant break in his routine.

The van carrying AARP employees is a few minutes late when it pulls in at the hospice just after 10 a.m. The dozen or so volunteers, including Mr. Novelli, are rushed into the meeting room, where a hospice worker instructs them about dealing with the residents.

As part of her speech, the woman stresses the significance of volunteerism much the point that Mr. Novelli is fond of making, and the reason why this group is at the facility to begin with.

"AARP has 200,000 volunteers, but there are 35 million members," says Mr. Novelli, who is 60. "So there's a lot of room for growth."

Increasing its volunteer base is one of the main goals he set for AARP when he became the head of the organization in June.

"Then came September 11, and that gave it sense of urgency," he says.

The result was the first Day of Service at AARP, where all employees spent the day doing volunteer work.

At the hospice, Mr. Novelli follows his co-workers through the instructions for handling a wheelchair. Then he goes up to a third-floor unit with a group that has been assigned to bring residents to the meeting room for Christmas music and tree decorating.

An activities director introduces Mr. Novelli to an elderly woman who is looking through the department store sale ads in the newspaper, commenting on how expensive women's clothes are these days.

Nods and smiles are exchanged, and Mr. Novelli is soon wheeling the elderly woman through the halls, onto an elevator and into the meeting room.

Later he finds himself talking to another resident, Theresa Ramey, who is talkative and anxious to see the 30 or so uniformed boys from Bethesda's all-boys Mater Dei School, who are arriving for a performance of Christmas songs.

The young voices fill the sunny room, somewhat off key but endearingly, and the spectators fall into a hush.

"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" elicits smiles from many; both Mr. Novelli and Mrs. Ramey sing along.

When the show ends, Mrs. Ramey wants to go up near her room, to watch TV with a group of residents. So Mr. Novelli wheels her back.

Technically, Mr. Novelli retired from a career in business in 1990. He was tired after years of heading a large public relations firm that he co-founded.

But if rest is what he wanted, how does he explain his 12-hour workdays now?

"I am retired," he says, and goes on to explain how retirement has changed in recent years, with people leaving their careers not to stay at home, but further their education, take a part-time job, or start a business.

This second career isn't even the end of the line for Mr. Novelli.

"Ideally my third career would be at a university settling, with a good gym, where I get to hang out, teach and enjoy the good life," he says.

Mr. Novelli recalls the first time he volunteered. He was 7 when his mother took him to a boys club event where she taught handicrafts in her spare time.

Public service stayed with him for good.

Along with his wife, Fran, who also does volunteer work, he instilled the value of public service in his three children. As a parent he coached and refereed at his children's soccer teams.

Professionally, he wrestled with bigger dilemmas.He worked on recruitment for the Peace Corps and other social-involvement programs; he has held executive positions at other socially minded groups as well.

Much of his daily routine is about lobbying, talking to people about the needs and wants of America's elderly, and promoting volunteerism.

In the afternoon, after his visit to the hospice, Mr. Novelli catches a plane to California.

There he will attend an AARP chapter's Christmas party and work on one of his goals: recruiting volunteers.

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