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Prompted By Retirement

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I become a Fellow of Brandeis; May, 2015

We had a “retirement” prompt in early February, 2018, so the dates in this story are old, as you can ascertain by looking at the date stamps in the comments section. Also, since writing this story, there has been a “nanny” prompt, which I will link to within the body of the story at the appropriate spot.

I had already told the “powers-that-be” that I was pregnant, would work several more months, but not return after I had my baby, when the rumors of lay-offs began swirling in October, 1988. I sauntered into Barry’s office. I had worked for him some years earlier at a great sales job (he had fought to hire me), then he recruited me into this crazy company in 1987. Though it was more than 10 years old, it had just gotten an infusion of cash and acted like a start-up. I found it very disorganized. At first I didn’t report directly to him, but with the latest reorganization, I, again, was in his chain of command.

“You can lay me off, Barry. I won’t sue you”, said this pregnant employee. “Oh, thanks, Betsy! Now we can save someone we really need!” And we hugged it out.

I was more than content to stay home with my three year old and collect unemployment benefits. As my cleaning lady reminded me, my withholding had paid for that. It was a little awkward to go to the State Office with my child in hand every other week and claim to be looking for a job, particularly as I grew larger and larger, but I did it. I never worked “outside the home” again. I was officially retired.

After the birth of my first child, I went back to work when David was 18 months old, and I had to hire a live-in nanny, since I, also traveled. (Nanny tales would make a good essay; we think the first, a beautiful woman from Barbados, was a high-end call girl, who left abruptly, only to show up up five weeks later working in Cambridge. The second was a college kid I hired in a pinch. She needed a lot of supervision, started dating a guy from my office, was angry at her divorced parents and stole quite a bit from me when she left for her Junior year in Paris. The third was from Medellin, Columbia, but I was laid off two weeks after her hire…rich story fodder. ) I found it very difficult when my husband and I had to travel at the same time, I still ran the household and David would get upset if I was gone overnight. Doing this with two little ones would have been too much. My husband traveled several days a week. I was done.

Taking care of young children is a full-time job, but I began volunteering in David’s nursery school the first year I was home full-time. I became “the challah coordinator”. Both my kids went to our temple nursery school where they celebrated Shabbat every Friday. The mothers took turns bringing in challah, that sweet, braided ceremonial bread. I was in charge of calling the next mother on the list to remind her how many to bring on Friday morning. I also came in once during the school year to help the teachers make matzah, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover. The kids would roll out the dough, take forks and stick it in the dough. I took it up to the temple kitchen and baked it, then we all ate it for snack that day (we also learned to add a tiny bit of salt. Otherwise, it tasted like cardboard).

Thus began my life as a volunteer. I joined the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee, the women’s group, founded shortly after the founding of the university. These energetic women across the country sold used books to raise money for my school library. There were local chapters everywhere. The president of the Detroit chapter interviewed me for Brandeis. So when solicited, I decided I could give a little money to help my school library. I didn’t know they also had study groups. One was a choir of ladies who met Monday mornings near my house. I auditioned and joined. On the day I showed up, the others sucked in the their breath. I was young enough to be their daughter. They couldn’t have been nicer to me…and I love being nurtured. We sang classics from their era and Jewish folk songs in three part harmony. It felt wonderful to be singing again. We rarely performed and that was fine with me. I panicked on snow days…what to do with my kids? I learned that the choir director was happy to have them at her home. I brought along a video to entertain them, or they sat with us with books and puzzles. What could be better than a room full of Jewish grandmothers to dote on my kids? The group broke up after the conductor’s death, but I remained friendly with two of the women for the rest of their lives. They even came to David’s bar mitzvah.

As Jeffrey grew older, it became clear his behavior was problematic. His kindergarten teacher asked for a lot of volunteer time, which I was happy to provide. It gave me a chance to keep an eye on him, while providing support. I was in his class three days a week, every other week. I helped with reading, journal writing, and in the library. It gave me up-close insights into what was going on with him. He had that teacher for two school years, so the pattern continued. Even after those years, I picked him up from school every day and frequently consulted with his teacher about how his day had gone. I took him to his various therapy sessions, testing, to play with friends. David is four years older, so they were only at the same school for two years. I had two schedules to coordinate.

When the kids were still quite young, I took on more real volunteer activities. I was invited onto the National Alumni Board of the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, MI. I attended summer camp there for six summers in the 60s, but the place also has an excellent boarding school, and NPR station, and all sorts of other arts-related programs, run when the campus isn’t used for formal training. We had three meetings a year. During my last four years on the Board, I served as Corresponding Secretary. We made many lasting contributions, including instituting Senior Dinner at the Academy, the giving of an Alumni Achievement Award, which was voted on by our Board. I was not on the sub-committee that made that decision, but one year, they decided the award should go to famous 60 Minutes broadcaster Mike Wallace, who had known our founder, Joe Maddy, at University of Michigan and come to work at our radio station right out of college. The head of the committee turned to me (as Corresponding Secretary) and said, “OK, Betsy, you let him know and set it up.” That had never happened before. Once the decision was made, it was always up to the administration to make the arrangements for the award to be presented.

Wow, how was I going to pull that one off?! I went home from the meeting, thought about it and did some research. I wrote him a letter in care of CBS, explaining our many connections (I live in Chestnut Hill, which could be part of Brookline, which he was proudly from, my in-laws went to Brookline High, as did he, we were actively looking to buy a house on Martha’s Vineyard at that moment; he had summered there for years…I commented on some other things as well, then got to the Interlochen part). I sent the letter with my phone number and waited. On a Monday night in September, I had just returned from dropping David at soccer practice when my phone rang. I heard a familiar voice, “Is this Betsy Sarason Pfau?” (Holy shit…I broke into a flop sweat, but tried to steady my voice.) He was very nice on the phone, said he’d be happy to accept the award, but not at camp, or even in Detroit…only in New York or Boston (this is why Interlochen’s administration needed to do this, I was now in the middle). I thanked him, told him I’d get back to him. It took Interlochen an embarrassingly long time to figure this out, but we did have a lovely ceremony the following May at a fancy townhouse in New York City. He, kindly, said he wouldn’t come if I wasn’t there, so of course, I was!

I did all sorts of fundraising and hosting of alumni for Interlochen though the years. My involvement decreased, but I will visit again this coming summer, as we pay tribute to our beloved Dude Stephenson, Operetta director extraordinaire, who passed away December 30.

Brandeis and the Rose Art Museum (at Brandeis) are the other places that I have given countless amounts of time and treasure through the years. I have worked on every one of my reunions since my 15th (though I had just delivered Jeffrey, so didn’t actually make it to that one). I’ve co-chaired my 25th, 30th and 40th (as recently described in Chair For Life).  

I always loved going to art museums and bought my first real work of art with inherited money in 1976. Dan and I loved going to the Boston galleries, even with our young children. When Jeffrey was born, my mother-in-law came to help us. Her best friend (since they were 15) was one of the top art collectors in Boston, the head of the Friends group at the Rose and its leading patron at the time. She came to visit Gladie, looked at what we were collecting and said, “I’ve got to get you involved at the Rose”. One doesn’t say no to Lois Foster. And thus began my 28 year love-affair with that institution. I attended my first lecture-lunch with a nursing 7-month old (I promised I’d take him out if he fussed, but he was an angel that day). Lois also advised us about artists to look at and consider bringing into our collection. We bought two of the four she suggested that first week of Jeffrey’s life.

Within a few years, I was a regular at the Rose and had caught the attention of the late, great Carl Belz, the director at the time. He and I formed a close friendship and I owe my art knowledge to him. I came to love and work closely with his staff, and the Chairman of the Board of Overseers. A Young Patrons of the Rose group was formed. I was a founding member. We went on to many successful years and events, including a fantastic fundraiser. The following year, I was invited onto the Board of Overseers, where I have remained for 19 years, through all its ups and downs. I am now serving under my 5th director. Carl taught me to be loyal to the institution, not the director, and so I have tried to be.

During the market crash, the then-president of Brandeis thought a way out of their financial crisis was to close the Rose and sell some of its best artwork (we have the finest collection of post-WWII modern and contemporary art north of Manhattan). A tremendous cry went up from the art world. Some members of the Board sued the university. The provost put together a “Future of the Rose” committee comprised of various stake-holders across campus to make recommendations about how to proceed. I was asked to be the Rose Board representative to the committee. It was a no-win situation. The Chairman of the Rose Board thought I wouldn’t represent the Board well, as I am an alum of the college and would be too soft on my alma mater. I received pressure from the art world that the committee wasn’t valid because there was no museum professional on it. And there was a member of the committee who routinely yelled at me as I brought my findings to the group (as I should and did). “DID I WANT OUR SCHOOL TO GO BANKRUPT??!, he’d scream at me in our meetings. I couldn’t win. I continued to talk to my stakeholders…those who would speak to me. One, a former Rose curator, made such a difference in my thinking, that I quit the committee, as I agreed with her comments. The provost was frantic. Without me, the committee lost its validity. They got a museum professional (who is a Brandeis alum) to participate, though she withdrew before the final report was presented and her name does not appear, but her thinking helped our committee enormously. I came back, but held meetings with the head at Starbucks, so I didn’t have to be abused in our group setting. The final report was a group effort, pleasing no one, but parts of it actually were implemented, pleasing many on campus. The Rose stayed open and not a single piece of our collection was sold.

I have served on many, many committees at the Rose, from Education, to Collections to Exhibition. Since our near-death experience, the Board hasn’t been as active. I am currently only involved on a collections committee that seeks out emerging artists. We teleconference once a month, make recommendations and purchase one piece for the collection at the end of the calendar year. It keeps my hand in the game. (In addition, I am now the chair of the Development Committee and back on the Collections Committee.)

I was a founding member of the Arts Council at Brandeis (as well as the two prior councils that led to the formation of the Office of the Arts). This is a wonderful group. We each put in a sum of money which goes to grants to fulfill needs throughout the School of Creative Arts. Like everywhere, the arts have been cut back at Brandeis, and this council helps to fund defined needs. We funded a photography class one semester, brought in an artist-in-residence from a foreign country and other interesting projects. But my Rose Board dues became so extravagant, that I couldn’t afford to do both.

Through the years, Dan and I have done many other things around campus. The largest was setting up a Charitable Remainder Unit Trust. When Dan retired, almost 16 years ago now, he was able to do so because he was with Andersen Consulting when they became Accenture and had an Initial Public Offering. As an officer, he held a large quantity of stock and all officers over the age of 50 were incented to retire. One thing he did, to minimize the sting of the capital gains tax, was give Brandeis a large quantity of stock. We set up the trust with Brandeis as the beneficiary, though we control the investment decisions, and we get income for the remainder of our lives. So we are members of the Sacher Legacy Society (we’ve left Brandeis assests in our estate). With all that in mind, Dan approached the head of Institutional Advancement a few years ago. He said he thought she should make me a Fellow of Brandeis. A Fellow is an honor given to someone who has given lots of time and money to the institution. Nancy thought that was a good idea, but needed a list of my accomplishments, as this honor is voted on by the Board of Trustees. My list was long. Dan and I both became Fellows in 2015, but only I showed up for the hooding ceremony, as seen in the Featured photo, where I am with the then-president of the university, the VP of Institutional Advancement, and the head of the Fellows program.

When Dan retired and was finally home evenings, I was able to join my local chorus and really sing again. We do two concerts a year. We just did Mendelssohn’s ELIJAH last week…a stirring performance. And 5 1/2 years ago, I decided it was time to take care of my body, so, when not traveling, I am in the gym six days a week. I also write a weekly story for Retrospect. So I have kept busy in my retirement.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: raised children, alumni boards, art museum, chorus, Brandeis
Characterizations: well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Wow, Betsy, I’m exhausted reading about all the things you do in your retirement! Quite an amazing volunteer resume, you should be very proud of all your accomplishments! I’m so glad I had the opportunity to tour the Rose Art Museum with you when I was East in October. I saw how much everyone there respected and admired you.

    And I totally agree that Nanny Tales would be an excellent prompt. I didn’t hire any call girls, as far as I know, but I do have some interesting stories on that topic.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I’m glad we were able to get to the Rose when you visited last fall too, Suzy. Glad I could be your tour guide! I like being productive and giving back to institutions that have been important in my life. “I’m just a girl who can’t say no”, as lots of places found out. I used to help out at my mother’s nursing home too. I’d sing Broadway show tunes, and help with Chanukkah celebrations. Always something to do.

      Not everyone has had a nanny, but perhaps has had some babysitting experience, so let’s lobby for Nanny Tales!

  2. John Zussman says:

    This story left me breathless! You’ve worked harder as a volunteer than many full-time employees. Your story about the Rose reminds us that the stakes can be high, the path difficult, and the result thankless. We’re delighted that MyRetrospect.com is part of your retirement routine.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      As I just replied to Suzy, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no”. I like to help out, when asked. And I take commitments seriously. I also like to stay busy. The “Future of the Rose” committee was one of the more important, but less happy tasks I undertook. All’s well that ends well. Oddly, there aren’t many people left at Brandeis who even remember that one. I, also, am delighted that MyRetrospect.com has become such a large part of my life.

  3. I loved the cameo sketches in your ‘nanny parade.’ Quite a colorful collection fraught with your transitional misfires. You’ve certainly taken advantage of your ‘free’ time Betsy, proving, once again, there’s no keeping a good woman down! I could also relate to your final ‘graph. It’s time to give back to our bodies for all that we’ve put them through! Thanks for sharing your epic journey!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Charlie. Finding someone to care for my precious child was very trying…actually, the maybe call-girl was a great nanny, just things weren’t quite right when I ran into her with an old white dude at the Ritz when she was supposed to be looking after my 2 year old!

      Thank you for calling me “a good woman”. I like to think so! And yes, taking care of this aging body (now increasingly injured) takes more time all the time. I see a pain specialist about bulging disks in my spine tomorrow!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    I like to think that I do a lot of volunteer activities, Betsy, but I realize that I am just an amateur compared to you. So impressive! Now that I am retired, I am going to have to really up my game to do all that you have done.

    And the amazing thing is that you juggled all of this for so many years while in the midst of child raising. Fortunately for me, the only child I am now raising is myself, and there isn’t much hope for that anyway. So I have no excuse as I try to emulate you.

  5. Betsy, as always I’m amazed at your recall!
    So glad for our Brandeis connection, and altho I’m only related to Brandeis by marriage, you know I’ve come to love the school too.

    Of course I read your post aloud to Danny who reminds me that you two met when you served together on the Arts Council and The Rose board.
    Boy , I well remember the SAVE THE ROSE campaign, and we have the T-shirt to prove it. What a victory thanx to folks like you, ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, Betsy, you have worked harder and accomplished more as a volunteer than most people do in paying jobs. I have a lot of respect for those who volunteer their time and talent. Thank you!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. I liked the opportunity to be in the classroom with my younger child as his special needs became apparent, so that was useful. And I believe in giving back to the institutions that created me, so that was always an easy decision. Also, what I described took place over a 30 year time span, which could be a second career. I was 35 when I stopped drawing a paycheck; had to do something, right?

  7. Betsy, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but I think it’s more about you following your heart than being “just a girl who can’t say no.” You’re an inspiration!

  8. Wonderful to reread your breathtaking tour through your retirement Betsy, and I say ditto to my comments above!

  9. Jim Willis says:

    Wow, Betsy, you’ve been busier all these years in retirement than most people have in their full-time careers! But then, you have made (and still are making) a great career out of volunteerism. Thank you for your service! I loved reading about it all.

  10. pattyv says:

    I too am exhausted after reading this. I think that book of yours needs you next, so many stories, all those great photographs. Did you start it yet? Your life, your lust for life is quite remarkable Betsy, from a young girl, excellent singer & actress, shrewd businesswoman, gifted wife & mother to an extraordinary volunteer. Such an inspiring woman,

  11. Betsy: an instructive and inspiring story of commitment, achievement, and intelligence. I feel charged up to do more in my retirement. Thanks for the window into your life.
    Like others, I am so glad that I am part of this group.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Richard. Both my parents led the way and served as inspirations for what I have become. After 20 years with the Newton Community Chorus (more on them next week), I have gone on their board. I will host a fundraiser at my home for them in October. Some things don’t change.

      Retrospect is a great community!

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