- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

CHICAGO (AP) — Dreams of a more satisfying life helped spur Dale Vnuk to choose a new career after more than a quarter-century in the same line of work.

So did the constant grousing of co-workers who had soured on the job.

Now Mr. Vnuk is in the process of retiring early and switching from airline mechanic to water garden builder.

“At 47, it’s either time to do something or sit there and be miserable,” said Mr. Vnuk, who opened a water garden store this year with his wife, Marcia, in suburban Fox Lake, Ill. “It’s just a great burst of inspiration to see that you can still do something and change your life around.”

Americans’ dreams of early retirement, interrupted by the 2000 stock market collapse and the 2001 recession, live on. They have been revived in part by the economy’s rebound, soaring home values and the ambitions of baby boomers, although often accompanied nowadays by the realization that they still will need additional income.

A Merrill Lynch survey last year found that 77 percent of more than 3,400 baby boomers polled planned to work in some capacity in their retirement, with second careers in the mix for some.

Barbara Harris started a new career as a fashion designer in her mid-50s with the aid of an early retirement package from her years as a corporate manager with General Electric and elsewhere.

Pursuing a long-held ambition, she filled a notebook with sketches, spent four months traveling to contract houses that could make the pieces and started her business in Connecticut.

Today, she runs the growing operation out of New York’s Garment District, drawing on ideas from her corporate background in designing the elegant, upscale clothing line called Multi by Bree.

“To be able to take these ideas from your head to a paper to a garment, and to see that garment sell in the marketplace, is absolutely exhilarating,” she said.

Money worries aside, starting a new career is within reach for most people, said Steve Vernon, author of the retirement book “Live Long and Prosper.”

“The barriers are more psychological than financial,” said Mr. Vernon, a consultant of Watson Wyatt Worldwide. “People get used to a certain level of [guaranteed] income. Also, a lot of people can’t seem to find the motivation to make a change.”

Mr. Vnuk needs to work another 2 years for American Airlines to qualify for the benefits he will need in retirement. But he is phasing out already, down to one double shift a week at O’Hare International Airport, and spending most other days at his pond business, Wyld Creek Inc.

The decision to leave followed a round of cutbacks at American in 2002, when he took a double-digit percentage pay cut and his wife was laid off as an aircraft washer. Still, the move wasn’t easy, requiring a yearlong certification process for Mr. Vnuk, a landscape design degree for his wife and the sale of their six rental houses in order to fund the new business.

The near-constant grin Mr. Vnuk wore as he scrambled around building a demonstration pond at a clinic with customers on a recent Saturday testified that the effort has been well worth it.

“We’re doing what we love, and doing it together,” he said. “It’s just a riot. And it’s rewarding, too.”

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