Happy Trails

Monday afternoon, I attended the retirement celebration of Dr. Max Ruhl, the respected Dean of Education at Northwest Missouri State University. I usually don’t attend retirement get-togethers, but this was a big one. First, Dr. Ruhl shook hands with everyone who showed up, except for the 20 or so that snuck in the side door. They wanted to get to the food line quicker. It was a lot of hands to shake. The crowd was large; probably 200 or more of Dr. Ruhl’s friends, employees and colleagues.

You knew this day was special. Dr. John Jasinski, the Northwest Missouri State University president, opened the festivities with some very nice comments about the guru of our education department. His doctorate degree advisor even drove in from Columbia and brought along Dr. Ruhl’s 1987 dissertation. It was a classy day for one of the last days of Dr. Ruhl’s distinguished employment at Northwest Missouri State University. I have to admit, my motivation was both for Dr. Ruhl, who always has a “how’s it going, coach?” every time I run into him and for watching my son sing. Sam is part of the Horace Mann (Bearcat) choir that helped take Dr. Ruhl into retirement with Roy Roger and Dale Evan’s favorite theme song, “Happy Trails.”

I’ve always been intrigued about how different people are ushered into retirement. The one I love the most is the politician who has a term restriction. The president of the United States is the most public. Take President Bill Clinton. That man took more hits to his character in his eight years in office than about any other president. He was labeled with the dirty “L” word (Liberal), messed around with the help, and lived at the edge of a Middle East war most of the eight years. It was also a very prosperous time for our country. Love him or hate him, he lasted two terms even with an impeachment attempt. During that final campaign, no self respecting public servant wanted President Clinton anywhere near them. He was made a villain by members of both political parties. In the end, a conservative Republican was elected. All of a sudden, everything is hunkie dorie. Newly elected President George Bush had nothing but praise for the outgoing President Clinton at the inauguration. The same thing happened after President Bush was replaced eight years later. I’m not sure I could go into retirement as forgiving as those departing presidents. The song Happy Trails hardly describes the retirement of a politician.

Northwest’s past president, Dean Hubbard, didn’t get a “Happy Trails” song like Dr. Ruhl, but he did go out on a wave of praises. He announced well in advance of his retirement plans. That brings another interesting phase into retirement procedures; what do you do with an important person who you know is on the way out? Here’s the trouble. You can really extend your retirement celebrations to go over a year in advance. It also makes your bosses anxious to make changes. Dr. Hubbard was lauded for his many advancements to our computer and technology driven campus. He also had to accept early changes the board wanted to make to his staff. Things got a little tense and the retirement party soured a little. The Trail wasn’t real happy in the end.

The retirement of much less important employees is drastically different. A nice cake, a cold glass of punch, and you’re headed into retirement with an overload of sugar. What’s wrong with that? It’s a lot less drama than for presidents. The Horace Mann choir doesn’t have to learn a song only the retirees know from old cowboy shows. For the most part, you don’t have to listen to long speeches that have meaning only to the speaker and the retiree. You don’t have to put up with people that have said bad things about you. They wouldn’t dare show up. Also, there’s much more time for a secondary get-together that still may include unhealthy food and drink. The only problem is some of your fellow workers will remember you more for your lemon-flavored retirement cake than for your previous years of hard work.

People in the athletic department go out in different ways. I had an athletic director once spend his last spring on the job mowing his lawn and watching his beloved Cubs playing day games on the television. He showed up at 9:30 a.m., left at 11 a.m. so he could mow before it got too hot, check-in after a well-earned lunch, and finally pack it in to see the Cubs play at 2 p.m. His lawn was the best groomed in his neighborhood. I don’t remember if he got a cake during his last days on the job. I do remember we couldn’t get him out of his office. I was supposed to move in, but he kept showing up just enough that no one could touch his stuff. Finally, our president had enough of his games and had the janitors move his stuff into a closet. That was hardly a fitting goodbye to a 40-year employee, but at least I could paint my new office.

One coach I knew announced a year early he intended to retire. I really didn’t understand why until the basketball season began. Every time he visited a conference school, our opponents would try to outdo themselves with going-away presents. Of course, he got the expected rocking chair from one school. He often received presents with the opponent’s label on them. He really didn’t like those presents. However, I think the one he enjoyed the most was a toilet seat from our arch-rival. The logic was he had been kicked out of so many games in that particular gym, that he spent parts of many game in the locker room listening to games while sitting on that toilet seat. I don’t think the retiring coach minded the opposing school’s mascot printed on the toilet seat. The coach went into retirement with a store shed full of memories and a memory of his arch rival he could view several times a day as he truly found his “Happy Trails.”

I knew a head coach that announced his retirement a year early due to pressure from the community and administration to win more games. He showed them. His high school team won a state championship. All of a sudden, the community, administration and school board couldn’t do without him. He jumped on his horse and hit “Happy Trails” with a real smile on his face and a finger jester to his critics.

Personally, I think retirement should be quick and easy. I had a president once tell me if you talked about retiring, you probably had already started retirement. I think he probably knew what he was talking about. When he was nearing retirement age, the president said he would start retirement plans when the board remodeled a historical building on campus. Those that wanted him out made sure that building got remodeled quickly. The funny thing was he was given all the credit for getting that old eye sore completely remodeled in record time and the board was blamed for the many years delay in starting the project. I think the bell tower played “Happy Trails” as he left his office for the last time.

I’m getting scarey close to an age I might think about retirement. However, the economy has definitely made me take that thought out of my head. I would hate to see Sam, my 10-year old son, practice singing “Happy Trails” from a homeless tent. I think the best way to go out is quick. Sneak in during the middle of the night with boxes, pack your stuff, leave a request for vacation under your boss’s door, and head for those “Happy Trails.” The trouble is I would probably be arrested by Campus Safety for stealing college stuff in the middle of the night. There goes the first social security check to get me out of jail. Happy Trails!

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.