By Walecia Konrad

Born just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling will forever be known as America’s first baby boomer. So who better to turn to for personal reflections and lessons about retirement? Like many of her generation, Casey-Kirschling has seen her life take some surprising, unexpected, and often fulfilling twists.

Now 66, Casey-Kirschling was a corporate trainer and public school teacher in New Jersey during her working years. She and her second husband, Patrick Kirschling, a former college professor, currently split their time between a house on Maryland’s eastern shore and a villa in Vero Beach, Fla. True to the generation she spearheaded by an accident of birth, Casey-Kirschling has been rewriting many of the retirement rules.

Getting and Giving Back

“We as baby boomers have been so lucky,” she says. “We made our country different and we got so much in return. That’s why we’re still giving back.” And so, in their retirement, Casey­-Kirschling and a few friends are planning a trip to Haiti within the next year or so, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, to help the destitute earthquake victims there. “Haiti is desperate for teachers, so we know there’s plenty of work to be done,” Casey-Kirschling says.

Volunteering has been her lifelong passion. In 1993, she took her youngest daughter, Jennifer LaRosa, then 23, to the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois to join the Salvation Army’s effort helping flood victims. After Hurricane Katrina, Casey-Kirschling spent three weeks in Baton Rouge working with the Red Cross to assist victims and train volunteers running shelters.

Although Casey-Kirschling wants to save the world during her retirement, she also yearns for plenty of time to kick the soccer ball around with her four grandsons and two granddaughters. Casey-Kirschling promised her oldest daughter, Beth Ann Juel, 43, that no matter where retirement takes her, she’ll rent a small apartment near Beth Ann’s New Jersey home, so her daughter and her four grandsons can have a home base.

Cobbling a Self-Made Pension

A devoted grandmother and a dedicated volunteer ready to roam the world — there’s no doubt Casey-Kirschling has her retirement priorities straight. But does she have the savings to pull it off?

As it turns out, through a combination of discipline, serendipity and investment smarts, Casey-Kirschling has cobbled together a self-made pension that will likely see her through.

While working for Nutrisystem as a corporate trainer from 1985 to 1991, Casey-Kirschling religiously contributed to the company’s 401(k). She also “accrued a bit of money” in 1987 as a result of divorcing her first husband -- an orthopedic surgeon -- after 19 years of marriage.

After going back to school and earning her master's degree in health policy, Casey-Kirschling decided in 1992 to become a public school teacher. And for the next 15 years, she taught seventh graders minutes away from where she grew up. At age 62, in 2008, Casey-Kirschling decided to retire from teaching, sell the home in New Jersey, and start spending more time on her passions.

“It wasn’t a fat teacher’s pension that made the decision,” she says. “I retired because I was ready for the next stage of my life.”

The Financial Crisis Hits

As it turned out, this was also exactly when the nation’s staggering financial crisis hit and home prices began tumbling. That meant a readjustment in their retirement planning. Even though she and her husband would like to unload their Maryland house and buy a little condo in New Jersey close to the grandchildren, “I’m not going to sell that great spot for a bargain basement price,” Casey-Kirschling says.

The downturn also led Casey-Kirschling to start collecting Social Security in 2008, when she turned 62.

A Prescient Investment Move

But Casey-Kirschling’s keen investment sense deserves credit for keeping the couple’s nesteggs from cracking. Like many boomers, for years, she and her husband had stuffed a high percentage of their retirement savings in stocks, figuring the growth would help ensure they wouldn’t outlive their savings. But in July 2008, Casey-Kirschling was watching CNBC and didn’t like what she was hearing.

Rumblings about banking and real estate problems were already beginning to hit the headlines, so Casey-Kirschling turned to her husband and said, “Secure everything in our retirement savings as much as you can.” The couple moved most of their money into cash and bonds.

At the end of the year, when the couple met with their financial adviser, he told them that they had lost only 12 percent. Other clients, he said, saw more than half of their savings vanish.

“How did you do it?” the adviser asked.

“I listened to my stomach,” Casey-Kirschling replied.

“The truth is,” she confesses, “I’m a risk taker. I’m not afraid to lose money that is earmarked to lose. But retirement savings is something different.”

Casey-Kirschling is sanguine about how the economy’s recent rocky years have treated her. “I feel extremely lucky that financially we’re OK,” she says. “But I think I’m like a lot of people in my generation when I say that I do believe spiritually that the more you can do for others, the more things work out for you.”

Walecia Konrad is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and business.

Read More On Next Avenue:
The Retirement Math That Matters Most
Are You Saving Enough For Retirement?
5 Ways Women Can Be More Confident Investors

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