That's how it was with Walt Fenoglio. The need to re-imagine his life was thrust upon him. Only a few years ago he was an economist with TXU, the utility company that delivers electric power to much of Texas. Walt and his wife, Gail, lived in Southlake, a fast growing community outside of Dallas. They had the usual goodies that are part of the Texas lifestyle--- a large house, a pool, a supply of cars, and enough land to keep horses.
As they say, "It don't get much better."
Recently, I spent an afternoon with Mr. Fenoglio to learn about his new life as business manager at the LifeWay Conference Center in Glorietta. My goal was not simple. After more than twenty years of despairing letters from older workers who have been riffed, downsized, reorganized, or otherwise cast aside by Corporate America, I wanted to hear a story with a happy ending. I wanted to learn how someone re-imagines his life. I wanted to know who comes up smiling, and why.
Little known outside the Baptist community, the conference center has been offering camps, retreats, and other meetings on its beautiful 2,000 acre campus for decades. Today, while its primary mission is still spiritual, it's no longer exclusively Baptist and Mr. Fenoglio is part of the team charged with renewing and reinvigorating the complex.
Mr. Fenoglio, in his late 50s, is a wiry man with graying hair, enthusiasm, and a smile that verges on giddy. That's not what you'd expect from a serious TCU business administration graduate who later got a master's degree in economics. There is a reason economics is called "the dismal science."
He began his career working for Mobil Oil in Houston, and then got an offer to join Dallas Power and Light to be its first economist.
"The energy industry was going through a radical shift back then," he remembers of the late '70s. "Forecasting was very difficult. I thought I would do some applied economics for five years and move on. But I got involved with rate increases, learned about regulatory affairs, and DPL merged with Texas Power and Light and Texas Electric Service to become Texas Utilities. It was interesting work in interesting times."
Then the first early-out retirement offer came in the early '90s.
"You see that and go, 'hmmm… is this a one-time deal or is it a portent of things to come?'"
Not long after that he became part of a small strategic planning group. "It was interesting work but it got me out of the regulatory environment and made me vulnerable," he said. "But it was also when we were looking at some of the international opportunities, like a (power) distribution operation in the United Kingdom and another in Melbourne, Australia."
Mr. Fenoglio found himself in Australia. While there, he noticed that all his working peers back home were leaving or retiring. "When I came back after two years I was really out of the loop. Going to Australia was probably the best, and worst, career choice I ever made. The transition back was difficult because it was an unfamiliar company.
"Then I made a bad decision and went to retail when the company was under siege. There wasn't a lot of flexibility. And the company as a whole was struggling with its identity and about becoming competitive."
That's when the second early retirement offer came. It was based on salary and years of service. "The pension wasn't sweetened," Mr. Fenoglio notes, "but the severance package included months of salary and a medical benefits package."
I asked how this was communicated to his wife.
"I've always left work at the office but if something is troubling me, we talk. So it was no surprise to Gail."
What did you do then? I asked.
"The first thing we did was pray. Then we played,'what-if.'"
"Well, we could sell everything and go RV-ing for a while. Had I been 58 or 59 and not 54 we probably would have done that. But we had a small mortgage with a low interest rate and I had time to find other employment."
So they played more "what-if."
"We loved living in Southlake but we weren't really tied to Southlake. So I could do a job search and move, if necessary. We could rethink our lifestyle. We had a 3,000-square-foot house, 3 acres, a barn, and as many as 3 horses---the whole J.R. setup. It was very comfortable."
Mr. Fenoglio spent more than a year trying to find the next thing to do. He turned down job offers in Washington, D.C. and San Diego. He did ad hoc regulatory consulting in Austin. And he talked with Wal-Mart in Arkansas. Suddenly, he had not one but two job offers.
"Then this opportunity came up. I knew God had something in store for us. It wasn't to be a minister in a church, but it would still be something. This was a confluence of work, of people I knew, and of people working for LifeWay. Gail and I had always come out to Santa Fe and wished to live here. So when the opportunity came along I knew it was what we were supposed to do."
Mr. Fenoglio didn't share his old and new salaries with me, but he made it clear that they were living on less. He also drove me by the small house he and his wife now rent, providing a picture of the change.
"Did I look at the numbers? Sure. I certainly wouldn't make what I would have made at Wal-Mart or elsewhere, but it was a matter of lifestyle. And our overhead would be a lot smaller," he said.
Then he gave me one of those big giddy smiles.
Some readers, no doubt, will be reluctant to accept the idea that prayer is the answer to major life upheavals. So I'd like to offer an interpretation of prayer that may make it more palatable. Prayer, for adults, is surrender to a higher power. The higher power can be the God to whom Baptists pray. Or it can be the broad "higher power" to whom the "friends of Bill" surrender at AA meetings.
Either way, pride suffocates resilience. Some form of prayer is the way many can surrender their pride.
Resilience is the most important quality we can have in an uncertain world and an uncertain life.
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