Bernice “Bunny” Levine ’51 is free for lunch. She thinks. But first she has to call her agent to make sure she doesn’t have an audition.
The last time I checked in with her, the 80-something actress was on her way to shoot a Hooters commercial. Her life has gotten so much more interesting since she retired, she says. Especially now that she has moved to California and thrown herself into her lifelong dream of being an actress.
Levine grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. She had a sister whom she describes as the pretty one, but, she admits, she got the attention. “I’ve been performing from my earliest memory,” she says, explaining that she loved to sing for people the popular Oscar Hammerstein song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.”
When Levine walks across to the plaza to meet me at the Sherman Oaks Galleria for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, I get the impression of a Jewish grandmother with great skin, who does yoga and dresses stylishly. Her purse is over her arm, her once foxy red hair now a beautiful white—with her agent’s approval. Her eyes are bright blue, her features are soft, malleable, full of expression. She turns on a smile.
You’ve probably seen her somewhere. Most recently, she’s made appearances on the sitcoms Raising Hope and 2 Broke Girls. “I think of myself as a very unfunny human being,” she says, explaining that her husband’s jokes were often over her head. “But I’m almost always cast in comic roles.”
In the Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, she plays Older Lady in Salon #3, a customer to Sandler’s Israeli commando turned hairdresser. She is content to be typecast. Often her parts are described as “Old Lady,” “Kindly Older Woman,” “Mabel,” “Enid,” “Hilda,” “Grandma,” and “Mrs. Rosenbaum.” “I’m the old lady, often Jewish, with an edge and comic undertones,” she says. Besides Sandler, she has worked with Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, and Warren the Ape.
“Bunny,” as the directors call her, has a sweet open face that easily amplifies her expressions: joyful, dour, befuddled, chagrined, and amused. All float across it as we talk. We start with her childhood in East Orange, singing and performing for her parents’ friends and later falling for Bernie Levine ’52 and “running after him until he caught me.” Bernie was advised to go study at Washington State College, so they married and landed in Pullman for a time. “It was culture shock at first,” says Levine, a far cry from city life in East Orange. They lived in married student housing, and then took a little apartment on Maiden Lane. While Bernie studied math, Bernice made friends and pursued English, dramatic arts, and psychology. “I actually did a lot of theater there, too.”
But, “In college, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t a good leading lady,” she says. “There were other women who were just as good as me, but tall. And beautiful.” So she turned her efforts to education, which led to a library career at schools back in New Jersey. It was often fulfilling, she says. But not always.
After retirement, she turned back to acting. “I was doing community theater and went right in to whatever I could. The first television show that I spoke on was Law and Order,” she says, explaining that every talented actor who works in New York has at least one Law and Order credit. “I was a witness in a lineup who couldn’t be sure. My line was ‘I think it’s number two.’” She also landed a spot on Sex and the City. “But the lines were cut. I was so disappointed.”
Overall, she delighted in the experiences, seizing chances to work with other actors and new directors, whether on stage or in front of a camera.
In the 1990s, Bunny looked west and saw more opportunities in Southern California. So for a brief time both Levines were spending time on both coasts. But then Bernie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “It was hard after my husband died,” says Levine. Acting kept her going. “It was my salvation to get out of the house.”
Bunny Levine’s life is a movie—and she’s in charge of the script—one where her dream of becoming a screen actress comes true, where one day she is acting for free in a local theater production, the next she’s wearing a nun’s habit on set, and the third she’s in a crowd of older women doing water aerobics for a commercial. Hers may be a lively, unpredictable life, but Bunny Levine is onto something.
Retirees who return to work often have a greater sense of control and fulfillment than their non-working counterparts, says WSU economist Bidisha Mandal. As a result, they have better mental health. Mandal specializes in health economics at the WSU School of Economic Sciences. Several years ago she co-authored a study on job loss, retirement, and the mental health of older Americans. The initial study used data collected for the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration to compare people who lost their jobs involuntarily and those who retired voluntarily. But as she reviewed the Health and Retirement study data, Mandal was also able to look at the impact of re-employment on depressive symptoms. The group was around 60 years old, and most had at least 12 years of education.
There was a gender difference in the results. Men reported more negative well-being after retirement, while women reported less. It seems that women adapted to retirement faster, says Mandal. But with both groups, a return to work improved their health.
Generally, the results were mixed because the retirees found themselves needing to adjust to a different lifestyle, often feeling less in control. On the other hand, some showed lower stress levels due to greater autonomy after leaving a workplace. Nonetheless, re-entering the labor force is overall beneficial, says Mandal. Retirees find work gives them a social network, a focus, and as it improves their mental health, it reduces their health expenditures. “It is important for us to look at this as a society, at the benefits of having this be a working population,” she says.
The Merriam-Webster version of retirement includes “the withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.” But today it has come to mean something very different. A few decades ago companies had mandatory retirement ages and people were forced to leave their jobs, whether they were personally or financially ready to do so. Today, people are seeing retirement as a fresh opportunity to follow a passion, to leave a legacy, to make a positive difference. “I tell people I failed retirement,” says Nancy Talbot Doty ’50. After “retiring” from her job at the Department of Health and Social Services, she has been called back to work nine times. When she wasn’t back interviewing clients for eligibility, she devoted new energy to her involvement in local Republican Party politics. And then, just in the past few years, something new. Inspired by the Washington State Heritage Center’s legacy project to collect oral histories from Washington state leaders, she seized the opportunity to visit with local figures and collect their histories. It put her DSHS interviewing skills to use. “I love history and I love to write,” says Doty.
She turned her attention to Duane Berentson, a longtime state legislator and former head of the State Department of Transportation. She had managed his campaigns in the 1960s and already knew a lot of his story when they sat down together for a series of interviews. The published result, Duane Berentson: Life as a Team Player, provides an accounting of his life, with special attention to his years as a politician and public servant. Doty di
dn’t take the task lightly. “He was a very good subject,” she says. “I did a bunch of additional research and recorded our interviews on a plain little old cassette recorder.” And then, she rolls her eyes, “countless hours of transcribing.”
Berentson died in July. But thanks to his and Doty’s work, his story and memories are preserved for his family, for his hometown of Anacortes, and for those interested in the history of our state.
Looking around her community, Doty found other opportunities to capture local memories. In 2007 she sought out the stories of the Mount Vernon High School classmates of her late husband, Jack Doty ’50. Many of them served in the armed forces during World War II, some drafted just days after graduation. They served in Europe, Guam, and Iwo Jima. Ray Harnden returned home and studied engineering at WSU before going to work for Boeing. The collection of memories was a project Doty completed in time for their 65th reunion.
“And you haven’t even asked me about what I spend most of my time on,” says Doty. The daughter of two WSC alumni who met in Pullman, she grew up singing the Cougar fight song at the dinner table. Now, when she’s not writing in the small office at the front of her house, she’s taking part in WSU events as a charter member of the President’s Associates, as mother and grandmother to several WSU alumni and students, and as a participant in the WSU Impact program, an alumni effort to support civic advocates. “I’d say, even with everything else I do, WSU is my main activity,” says Doty. “It’s difficult to imagine Cougars sitting around looking at the walls. Cougs don’t retire. They just keep on working.”
In the past, older people were seen as a burden to society. There was hardly any emphasis on the positives of aging, says Cory Bolkan of WSU Vancouver’s Human Development department. Part of her work is exploring personality, health, and aging. There used to be no recognition that there are benefits to working after retirement not only for older people, but for society as a whole. “As we age, we tend to get more generative, we have a greater drive to give back,” she says. “People do that in different ways. Some focus on their children and grandchildren. Some are mentoring and volunteering. Some are involved in civic efforts.”
Former Oregon State Senator Mike Thorne ’62 and his wife Jill x’62 left public service in the Portland area to return to their hometown across the state in Pendleton. Back living on the family cattle ranch, they have helped revive the Pendleton Roundup and bought and restored a historic property downtown. They’re eager for new challenges in serving their hometown. Mike Thorne most recently signed on to serve on the city’s airport commission, and Jill Thorne has joined Travel Pendleton, an initiative to draw more visitors.
It’s important for retirees not to lose sight that during their work-lives they have done things and learned things that would be of value to their communities, says Mike Thorne. “We can bring some stability to a community in flux.”
Tim Thomsen ’77 decided not to wait until retirement to follow his dream. Three decades ago he paddled his way into a kayak guide business in the San Juan Islands. One morning this summer, just a few days shy of his 65th birthday, he stood on the beach giving directions to a group about to explore some hidden coves. It’s all pretty awesome, he says of his sea-worthy life. “I have paddled every inch of every island in the San Juans.”
Someday he’ll sell the business, says Thomsen. But not yet. It’s bringing him money, providing him a role in his community, and keeping him healthy.
Thomsen majored in horticulture at WSU and in the mid-1970s found a job as a nursery manager at Friday Harbor. Several years in, a friend took him out in a sea kayak and he was smitten. “It’s one of the most amazing vantage points you can have,” he says. “It’s silent. You’re just off the water. You can hear the snort of a seal, the little blow of a porpoise, or the honk of a heron.”
When he started the business, hardly anyone knew what sea kayaking was. Now there are at least three kayak guide businesses in the San Juans, and thousands kayak around the islands every year. Thomsen enjoys seeing paddlers return year after year. “I have clients that were young couples the first time and they’ve come back with their 21-year-old children,” he says. “My summers are very hectic and crazy… But I love it, the beauty of it, the exercise.”
How we age is an issue of both genetics and the environment, says Bolkan. Genetics are only 25 percent of it. The other 75 percent is environmental, the where and how of living. “We have some control over it,” she says. Through our behaviors, we can potentially minimize some of our problems including things like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. And attitude seems to be key.
“Those with more positive views about aging tend to age better, even on a physiological level,” says human development expert Bolkan. She is looking at how setting and pursuing goals can affect late-life experience. She has looked at how goals may affect well-being, interviewing 85 adults aged 60 to 92. Addressing the questions “Who am I?” and “What do I find to be meaningful?” in the Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Adulthood and Aging, she writes, “people become who they are via the ongoing activities, projects, or goals in which they engage over the course of their lives.”
Crista Claar Whitelatch ’72 and her husband had successful Navy careers before retiring and eventually opening Claar Cellars at the farm her parents homesteaded near Zillah.
Enlisting right out of WSU, Claar Whitelatch started as a legal officer with a helicopter squadron in San Diego. She later served on the staffs of several admirals managing personnel and in Washington, D.C., worked for the Secretary of the Navy as a member of the White House liaison staff.
“I picked the Navy because the tours changed every 18 months, and sometimes the leadership changed,” she says. She liked the challenge of the new assignments, as well as the travel and adventure.
Her husband Bob was eligible to retire from the Navy in 1983, which prompted them to look back to Washington. She continued working through the Navy reserves until her retirement 12 years later. But they were already working on the foundation of the winery. Her dad had planted the farm’s first grapes in the 1970s, and Crista and Bob improved the vineyard, eventually replacing the apple orchards with 120 acres of wine grapes.
For years they were told the alchemy of soil, weather, and location on the high banks above the Columbia River gave their fruit some unique qualities. Their whites, for example, “had a really great balance of flavor to acidity,” she says. “They can be sweet, but not cloying.”
They had tasted it for themselves. After some careful planning, the Whitelatchs decided to go a step further and make their own wines. Their labels today include Claar Cellars, Le Chateau, Ridge Crest, and Kelso. Now they are moving the operation into a more sustainable way of farming by reducing chemical inputs and fostering wildlife habitat. The business is certified “Salmon Safe” as well as certified as “Limited Input Viticulture and Enology.” This life after retirement is far from relaxed, says Claar Whitelatch. “You don’t own the winery. The winery owns you.”
The pursuit has allowed them to blend their children into the business. Today, older son John focuses on sales and marketing and James handles the vineyards. “It has been great. And Bob and I have been able to travel with it, going to New York, Massachusetts, and Florida,” to represent their wines at shops and restaurants, says C
laar Whitelatch. Still her favorite part of the business is “making a quality wine and seeing people taste it and respond to it.”
As the business matures, the Claar Whitelatchs plan to transfer the day-to-day duties to their sons and keep the most enjoyable parts for themselves: expanding the business, making wines they’re proud of, and adapting to whatever nature and industry sends their way. “So much changes in the seasons and with the winery,” says Whitelatch. “It’s never the same.”
“We’re living so much longer, it gives us a lot of freedom to make something new and create a new meaning for aging,” says Bolkan. “Despite a lot of negative perceptions, most older people are happier. Older people are better at managing their goals and are more focused on doing what is meaningful.”
Late life has at times been viewed as a period of decline and disengagement rather than creativity and contribution, writes Bolkan. It’s something that is reinforced in the media. These aging stereotypes can have a negative effect. But there is also a way to look at aging, identity, and adaptability (for example the ability to negotiate physical losses like strength and flexibility) that can highlight the resilience of older adults. We sometimes forget that throughout our lives, and well into being older adults, we are continually refining and can be redefining ourselves, says Bolkan.
Some scholars have determined that by knowing ourselves and by integrating age-related changes into our identity and maintaining a positive self-image, we can age more successfully. “Nothing in our psychology supports the idea that you just check out and laze about,” says Bolkan. “If you are more active, the better off you will be—and happier. That’s the new future of retirement.”
Bunny Levine will be the first to say that while her Hollywood life is lively, it isn’t entirely glamorous. She competes with a pool of talented actors. There are some women, when she sees them at an audition, she knows they’ll get the part. “The rest of us might as well leave,” she says. And in the past few years with the recession, fewer shows were being made and parts were harder to come by. Often actors who before would only take lead roles were seeking supporting parts on TV shows, pushing the character actors like Levine out of jobs.
Still, her credits include Everybody Loves Raymond, Gilmore Girls, Community (as Pierce’s mother), Southland, Criminal Minds, a Disney Channel show, and a score of commercials (think Capital One—she’s the lady swinging her purse at a Viking in a checkout line). When it comes to identity, Levine has no problem defining herself. “I look sweet, but I’m not sweet,” she says. “The real me is sort of tough.”
When Levine isn’t acting, she’s meeting a friend for brunch and a movie, swimming twice weekly at the Motion Picture Home, attending her book club, and often flying back to the East Coast to visit her family. The secret to a good retirement is finding and doing things you love, says Levine. “And most of all, have fun.”