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  • Zelema Harris

Aging: My Journey | Part 2

St. Louis Lifetime Achievement Award. Photographed with Michael Patrick McMillan and Deb Hollingsworth. St. Louis, Missouri 2010
St. Louis Lifetime Achievement Award. Photographed with Michael Patrick McMillan and Deb Hollingsworth. St. Louis, Missouri 2010

I had just completed the first of what would become three retirements.  I was 66 years old and knew how important it was for me to continue having a meaningful life after being President of Parkland College for 16 years.  I did not fear retirement, but I was deeply affected by the untimely death of two of my friends and colleagues after they retired—one by suicide, and the other in a tragic accident that some of us suspect was a suicide. 

To a lesser degree, I had seen how others experienced a kind of ego death. I had observed several of my retired colleagues attend national conferences and become disappointed because they felt irrelevant.  These colleagues desperately attempted to recreate a life that had disappeared. When they held influential leadership positions, they garnered a lot of attention from job seekers and others who wanted to be close to power and influence.  However, after retirement their political social capital was gone or diminished.

Mine was diminished as well.  Before my retirement I was one of those individuals who was asked to write letters of reference, offered gifts, and received invitations to almost every event. I used my influence wisely and never accepted gifts that had a price tag. Today, all my friends are retired or deceased, and I no longer have anyone asking for help.

Fortunately, I was not swept away by this undertow.  I was anchored by my childhood.  I remembered growing up hearing my mother’s firm voice repeating several mantras, “Always remember where you came from.” “Don’t let a position go to your head.” “God loves a humble heart.” “Don’t get high and mighty, you just family.” “Don’t become an educated fool.”  The whole community repeated the last phrase.  I remember there was a young woman from Newton County where I grew up who had graduated from Prairie view A & M College at the age of 21.  After earning her degree, she suddenly insisted that everyone put a handle on her name and call her Miss Hicks* Even the people who had changed her diaper.  She’s what my mother would call an educated fool.  Those messages from my mother stuck with me and became a part of who I am.  I was grateful for having a rewarding position that paid well but it was not my identity.  I believe the separation I was able to make between me as a person and as the CEO allowed me to perform at the highest level. My ego was not influenced by the position I held or the decisions I made.  My family was and always has been the most important part of my life and they have reciprocated through their loving care and concern. 

During retirement, I stayed mostly at my lake home in Decatur, Illinois. I purchased the home in 2002 as a retreat for me and my family.  I had recently recovered from breast cancer surgery and wanted a place near water. Living on a lake had been a dream of mine for many years. My lake home was the most peaceful place I have ever lived. It brought joy to so many people I loved. And it was a healing place for me.  It made sense to spend most of my time in a place that gave me peace and comfort.  Living on the lake met another goal that I had – to stay away from Parkland because I did not want to interfere with the new president. I also wanted to protect myself. It would have been painful to see programs implemented during my tenure dismantled. Staying away from Parkland was a way to protect both me and the new president. I did frequent my home in Champaign, especially when I needed an extra place to house friends and family. The distance between Champaign and Decatur was approximately 45 minutes.

I remained active.  Requests for doing volunteer work came immediately.  I consulted with two Illinois community colleges, was appointed to a state gaming board foundation that gave scholarships, and became active in the Central Illinois Links, Inc., an international civic organization.  I also was forced to start going to Carle Pain Clinic in Urbana, Illinois. As much as I was enjoying adjusting to my new life the pain in my joints was becoming unbearable. At times the pain was dull and achy and at other times fiercely piercing.  And the pain would come at undetermined times. I began getting steroid injections in my shoulder and physical therapy to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joints.  Nothing stopped the pain completely.  However, I still enjoyed gardening, reading, traveling, entertaining family and friends and boating. I tend to pour a lot of energy into the things I love.

In 2007, one year after retiring from Parkland, I was asked to work as the Interim Chancellor at St. Louis Community College, a large muti-college district that served over 130,000 students annually. I was advised by the college’s consultant that St. Louis Community College needed someone with my experience as she outlined the college’s challenges.  One of my former Parkland board members, Jim Ayers recommended me for the position. Jim is an attorney and the CEO of his family-owned international manufacturing company. There were others who voiced their support - all without my knowledge but I had then and now a lot of respect for Jim. I accepted the position for two reasons, I believed I could assist the college and it was a short-term commitment. I had not gotten fully into the “swing” of retirement since leaving Parkland.  

However, in retrospect, I realize I missed Parkland and the regular interactions I had with colleagues around the country.  I missed the excitement.  I missed meeting with students and hearing about their needs.  I took a personal interest in encouraging students to utilize the services we provided.  I missed the complexity of the job—being confronted with something new and unexpected each day.  Otherwise, I do not believe I would have accepted the interim chancellor’s position.

As the new Interim Chancellor, the exhilaration of learning about the issues facing the institution and meeting the faculty, staff, students, and community leaders helped me to focus less on my chronic pain in my shoulders and back. There were times, however when I could not fake it and had to remove myself until the naproxen or lidocaine patches worked. Fortunately, I had my scheduled steroid injections before accepting the position.


After working with the college for a few weeks I was asked by the Board to assume the permanent position of Chancellor.  I was already hooked.  I enjoyed working with the faculty leadership and administration to find solutions to pressing deficiencies. My years of experience made my transition easier.

There were many perks that made my immense responsibilities more tenable, such as living in a luxury downtown high rise two blocks from my office, feeling a part of the boisterous conviviality at Busch Stadium during baseball games. The stadium was right across the street from my fifth-floor office. My floor to ceiling windows gave me a perfect perch to watch the scoreboard and to hear the winning sounds. The World Series was held in St. Louis in 2011 when the Texas Rangers were defeated by the St. Louis Cardinals.  People flooded the streets.  Venders were on each corners selling red, navy, yellow and white caps, and flags.  It was like a carnival.  Over the years the stadium provided a lively backdrop as I worked on the Fifth floor of our office building with a clear view of outside activities.

In 2010, three years after I became Chancellor, I began to experience pain in my right leg.  After blood tests and x-rays, the doctor determined that I needed a hip replacement.  My right leg had given out at a large reception for women leaders as I was entering the event. I was able to avoid falling by hobbling into a near by bathroom. The doctor prescribed 500 mg. of Naproxen, twice daily.  I was taking half that amount for joint pain already. I had planned to wait before having the hip replaced, but the pain that took me nearly crawling to the emergency room one day told me I could not wait.  I had to have my hip replaced as soon as possible.

I began the process of finding a doctor.  I wanted to find a doctor who had expertise in hip replacement as a specialty area.  While bedside manner is important, a positive outcome was more important.  I called Mayo’s orthopedic department to obtain a recommendation.  They gave me the names of three of their colleagues in St. Louis.  Two of them were on my list to do further research.  I began to narrow my list down by deleting the one doctor who was not on Mayo’s list.  I read articles and reports on invasive vs. non-invasive surgery.  In non-invasive, the surgeon’s instrument is computer-guided, and in the latter, the surgeon uses his hands to guide the surgery and replace synthetic parts. The invasive surgery leaves a more prominent scar.  I chose the doctor who performed invasive surgery.  He said in a video I reviewed, “I like to feel what I am doing.”  I felt confident from his reviews that I would be fine.  I never doubted successful results.  Besides, I was only 70 years old.  

The surgery was a success.  I followed the doctor’s directions completely.  I had physical therapy in my condo for two weeks after the surgery.  The doctor’s bedside manner was a three on a scale of five.  I had been warned by his nurse and other patients that he was an excellent surgeon but not very friendly. Two weeks had passed since my hip replacement. I used a cane to walk to my first doctor’s visit with my son.  The doctor was not in his office and did not see me walk in.  As I was leaving, I removed the cane from the wall.  The doctor asked why I was using a cane.  I thought he would be pleased that I was not using a walker.  He said tersely “do not use a cane.  It will affect your gait.”  I gave my son the cane and never used any support for walking after that.  Three weeks after the surgery I walked two blocks to my office unassisted. 

I retired for a second time when I left St. Louis two years later.  In my five years as Chancellor, I had led the college through a successful accreditation.  I reorganized for greater efficiency and cost savings and brought in new funding. I expanded business and industry training and secured a building for that purpose.  I was proud of the work I had done in St. Louis, still, something was whispering to me it was time to leave.  My board wanted me to stay.  I deliberated for a month whether I should stay longer or resume my life in retirement.  One January weekend I was at my lake home, I lay on my huge velvet moss green sofa in front of a roaring fire, gazing at the snow-covered lake.  I felt at peace.  I felt free.  I wanted to stay there.  I made up my mind to quit. 


*The name Hicks is fictitious. The story, however, is true.

Part 3 will be posted within two weeks or less.


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