A Retirement Paused by the Pandemic
By Sean Sullivan
For most Americans on the cusp of professional retirement, the onset of coronavirus last year may have seemed a signal to move toward the exit a bit early. But in March of 2020, as COVID evolved from a concern into a crisis, Jim White did the opposite.
He had been with the town’s health department since 1979, spending his last 13 years there as its director. His was a tenure long enough that the position he started in those decades ago now no longer exists.
That kind of institutional expertise and familiarity with the community is not so soon or easily replaced, so when the health crisis that is COVID came onto the scene, White’s retirement was put on hold.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot we haven’t seen here,” he said of his time with the town and the health department. He’s watched floods flow and hurricanes blow through, health scares emerge and subside. Under the purview of the health department are water quality, food safety, septic system issues, and a host of other areas that demand attention. Substance-abuse prevention and outreach has also fairly recently come under the department’s umbrella.
“There’s a wide range of stuff that we do here,” said White. On a given day, “You never know what you’re going to get into.”
But a crisis as pervasive as the recent pandemic was a first. Preparations were in place for White to leave in June of 2020, but COVID had other plans.
“I couldn’t leave,” he said. “I’m kind of invested in this. I would have been mad at myself if I hadn’t [stayed].”
Now, with the pandemic peak seemingly in the rear view, he retired at the end of last month.
“I think they’re in good shape to go on from here. They’ll be fine.”
As for his retirement, White said he sees it as switching gears - not standing idle. There’s over a year’s worth of golf to catch up on, and other projects on the horizon to occupy his time. Yet before that, he plans on taking a few months to decompress.
“I’m not going to sit around the house,” he said. “I need a few months off to take a breath and just step back.”
White’s career with the health department was roughly bookmarked by the Blizzard of ’78 and the COVID crisis. Having graduated that same year decades ago during a tight job market, he was juggling several jobs to make ends meet. Born and raised in the town, White applied for the job when it became available.
“I got the job because I was a Natick guy.”
The occupation grew on him as years and experience piled up. He passed through five roles and promotions within the department, earning applicable educational degrees as he went. White got married during those years, moved to Millis and raised two children.
“I got involved in local public health and really started to love it. Feeling that you’re doing something positive for the community is very satisfying.”