unretiring lives

In the unforgettable words of the classic comic book hero/mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, before he turned into Superman, “There is a superhero in all of us. We just need the courage to put on the cape.” Fictional characters aside, there are real life superheroes and heroines without capes: ordinary people doing ordinary things, extraordinarily well, here in Westchester.

Ardsley’s Ira Berkowitz (pictured above), 78, dreams up murder and mayhem as a best-selling author who never wrote fiction until he retired from a marketing career more than a decade ago. “I was bored to death in retirement,” he recalls. “Why don’t you write?” asked his wife, Phyllis, a University of Georgia gradate with a can-do attitude that comes from doing computer work with the NYC Board of Education. “I don’t know how to write,” said Ira. “So learn,” she replied. And he did: by reading detective novels and trying to write one of his own. His first book was rejected by some 50 publishers.

But Phyllis wouldn’t let him quit. She became his editor and first reader from there on. The result was the first of four Jackson Stieg mystery novels abut a retired cop. Family Matters became a USA Today recommended best seller. Stieg/Berkowitz have since gone on to win a Shamus Award, the most prestigious of mystery writing awards.

Then, a not-so-funny thing happened. Ira killed off one of his favorite characters. “I broke down crying, and knew I had to do something to take my mind off writing.” So he took a front desk job with the Rye YMCA to engage with people and meet potential new characters. “That Y job, my wife, our two kids and four grandchildren, and my writing keeps me busy and keeps me young,” says Ira. “So does my weekly poker game with a group of writer friends.”

Mamaroneck’s Peter Henry, 71, has always been handy and sees no reason to stop now. He continues to work as an indoor renovations specialist, doing everything from installing wood floors to repairing ceilings to building spare rooms.

He began doing odd jobs to earn money as a married undergraduate at Ithaca College. He learned carpentry by building stage sets for architect/artist Robert Leiter, who was starting a community theater near the college. While still an undergraduate history major, Peter built a two-family house.

He has been hammering away ever since. “I stay young by working hard, staying handy, doing what I love,” he says.
Henry has been known to show up to give job cost estimates in his tennis whites. “My work keeps me sharp and busy and my tennis is my therapy,” he says. “And loving what I do and having a supportive family helps.” That loving family includes wife Lori, an arts consultant who helps him bring artistry to his work, as well as three doting daughters.

Port Chester native Hank Birdsall, 71, has figured out how to stop time. He does it with a stop watch. For 36 years and counting, Birdsall has coached Port Chester High School’s cross country team. This is the same high school from which Birdsall graduated and went on to teach American history for nearly four decades. His wife, Isabelle (Issy), also a PCHS graduate, taught there as well.

Following high school, Hank had joined the army to overcome his fear of heights. He became a paratrooper, qualified for the elite Special Forces, and worked his way up to reconnaissance team sergeant: serving in Okinawa and Vietnam on special intelligence-gathering missions in and around Laos and Cambodia.

Birdsall came home, mature beyond his years, and felt teaching youngsters was a good starting point. Along the way, he and Issy immersed themselves in projects ranging from funding college scholarships for needy student athletes to buying track spikes for PCHS runners who couldn’t afford them. In an ongoing Memorial Day tradition started by Hank in the 1980s, they distribute 1,500 American flags (supplied by the Town of Rye), to honor those veterans who have fallen in past wars as well as local police officers, firefighters and others who have served their community and country.

They both retired in 2005, but kept on working – with Hank coaching and Issy teaching in the religious school at the Rye Church of the Resurrection, not far from their home. They also volunteer for Meals on Wheels.

The Birdsalls stay young by living an active life of service and purpose. There are a lot of Berkowitzes, Henrys and Birdsalls in Westchester: ordinary people doing ordinary things, making an extraordinary difference.

Michael Iachetta

Michael Iachetta, of Rye, is a former nationally syndicated writer, columnist, editor, arts critic and more with The N.Y. Daily News, now retired and still writing for regional and national publications.

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