Lawrence retirees give back

In September 2007, U.S. News and World Report declared Lawrence an “undiscovered gem” and one of the best retirement destinations in the country. The article cited the programs offered through the Dole Institute and the Lied Center as well mentioning the vibrant downtown as attractive draws for retirees. What writeups like these typically fail to mention, however, is what the retirees themselves bring to the community after they arrive, for if these three couples are any indication, the retired population in Lawrence makes a significant contribution to the community.

“Virginia and I developed a list of criteria,” says Tom Mach, who arrived in Lawrence in 2002 from San Jose, Calif. The couple were looking for a college town, “not more than 100,000 people, a convenient downtown location. (It had to) be close to an airport, have good medical facilities and have affordable housing,” he says. “Lawrence was the ideal location.”

What they found once they arrived surpassed their expectations, for not only did Lawrence fulfill all of their objective criteria, the history of the city captured Mach’s imagination.

“I was quite impressed with Lawrence when I got here,” he says. “I was so taken by the story of the Quantrill’s Raid in 1863, I immersed myself in it with the result of my coming out with “Sissy!,” a historical novel centering on the infamous Quantrill Raid.”

But Mach doesn’t only write for his own enjoyment, he also encourages others to pursue the craft. In addition to volunteering at the Pelathe Center, the Lawrence Arts Center and teaching through Lawrence Parks and Recreation, he has helped first-graders at St. John’s School learn how to put a story together.

“I’ve also been involved with the Lawrence Breakfast Optimist Club, where my favorite project was participating in handing out free dictionaries to fourth-graders from various area elementary schools,” he says.

Another couple giving back to Lawrence’s youths are Bill and Bonnie Lathrop, who moved to Lawrence in 1997 from Hays and almost immediately joined the New Generation Society of Lawrence, a philanthropic group that has given more than $50,000 to the Early Childhood Readiness Program since its inception.

Bonnie was skeptical about moving to Lawrence after her husband retired from his orthodontics practice in 1991.

“Our daughters went to KU, and we used to come to Lawrence every month or so,” she says.

So while they were familiar with Lawrence, Bonnie saw no reason to return to the town after their daughters left.

“I liked my life,” she says of her life in Hays.

Bill was more restless, however, and eventually he was able to convince his wife to lease an apartment in Lawrence so they could come here part-time.

“We used to pull into the driveway, and I would say, ‘Here we are! At your apartment and my home!'” he says.

It was during one of their Lawrence jaunts that a friend invited them to attend an event sponsored by New Generation, a popular group for retirees. Bonnie was hooked.

“It was great,” she says. “The people in the group are wonderful.”

As far as how she now feels about Lawrence? “It is so stimulating here! I wish I could do everything I wanted to do,” she says.

“New Generation recharges the batteries,” she says. “And it’s nice that they give back with the reading readiness program.”

As enjoyable as living in Lawrence has become for the Lathrops, the “icing on the cake,” according to Bonnie, is that their granddaughter has chosen to establish roots in Lawrence after meeting a man from Lawrence while she attended KU.

“Our daughter visits several times a year and it’s great,” Bonnie says.

Just as the Lathrops have observed other members of their family take root in Lawrence since their move to the community, Henry and Diane Silvestri have also watched their family increase since migrating to Lawrence in 2006 from Las Vegas. But, given that it was family who brought them here initially, maybe that isn’t so surprising.

After Henry retired, the couple had a decision to make. With a son in Los Angeles and a daughter in Lawrence, they had to decide between the two locales.

“We visited Tara (their daughter, a professor at KU) a few times while she was here, and I was impressed with how friendly everyone was. Coming from Las Vegas we don’t get that,” she says, recalling a trip to the grocery store during one of those visits. “I had all my stuff and was ready to check out and realized I didn’t have any checks. The cashier just said to put the amount on a deposit slip! I couldn’t believe there was a place in the U.S. that still trusted people.”

Once they heard that Tara was pregnant, “That was it!” Diane says. Since then, their son Tony, moved to Lawrence with his two children, and their daughter’s family has expanded to five, which includes 3-year-old twins.

When they are not busy caring for grandchildren, the Silvestris spend time with people they’ve met at church.

“We have found the dearest friends here — the empty nester group at church is wonderful!” Diane says.

Their time at church is not all social, though, and like the other couples, the Silvestris have found a way to give back to Lawrence.

“Henry is an absolute angel,” says Christi Sullivan, youth minister at Corpus Christi Catholic Church. “He’s part of our RGM, Retired Guys Ministry, and he can fix anything, always going beyond whatever we ask — and he does it because he is invested in the kids.”

Those who have come to depend on the Silvestris know, however, that they can only count on them for part of the year. “As much as we love Lawrence, we don’t love it in the wintertime,” Diane says.

Last year the couple bought a second residence in Mesa, Ariz. “We are going to be here for the holidays in November and December,” she says. “Then in January, February and March we are headed to Arizona — provided we can be away from the kids for that long!”