Reinvent Retirement in Eden Prairie and Chanhassen

Local retirees add life to their later years by learning skills and developing new interests.
Ellen Kniebel became a woodworker and Sue Valiton became a humanitarian in their retirement.

Education and enrichment opportunities aren’t just for children. With seniors staying healthier longer, retirement years can provide a chance to learn and grow as well. We were inspired by these three Southwest Metro residents, who are still stretching themselves.  Ellen Kniebel: The WoodworkerWhen Ellen Kniebel, 65, of Eden Prairie, retired in 2005 after 34 years as an award-winning middle school band director, she didn’t slow down much. She continued her lifelong leisure interests of yarn and needlecrafts, reading and playing clarinet. Kniebel has been a member of the Bloomington Medalist Concert Band since 1971.One day, the women quilting at the Eden Prairie Senior Center noticed one of the supports for the quilt frame was loose. Kniebel volunteered to take it down to the men working in the woodshop, and while there, she was amazed by some pens one of them had made out of wood on a lathe. When she admired the work the man told her she could learn to do it, too. “How about tomorrow?” she replied. In less than a year Kniebel has turned dozens of pens, including some keepsakes for her brothers made from the wood of their grandparents’ canes, and one made from the wood used to make fine clarinets. “I was really excited to try it,” she says. “I think that the people I know who are retired that are enjoying it the most are the people who have things to do, or who are willing to try new things. I never thought I would be able to do this, and it has turned out to be such a fun thing.”   Bruce Hieronymus: The Renaissance Man Bruce Hieronymus, 70, pursued a long career in advertising, living in San Francisco before an injury prompted him to retire and move to Chanhassen to be closer to his sister and brother-in-law. His sister is the one who introduced him to the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. “While I was there, I fell in love with the stone carving class,” he says. “When you are unable to do the kinds of physical things you are used to, you want to do something creative with your energy. This is a great way to deal with your frustrations.” Hieronymus is working on his fourth sculpture, but hasn’t limited himself to visual arts. “I sing bass in the 60-member choir at Westwood Church,” he says, having renewed an interest he last participated in at the junior high school level. “I can’t compare it to anything else in life, even sports. There is a great spirit of fellowship even outside choir season. We are all one unit here on this planet; to try to isolate yourself is an exercise in folly.” Hieronymus is also excited about his latest venture: becoming a volunteer at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum where he passes on his knowledge of gardening to children.   Sue Valiton: The Humanitarian Eden Prairie’s Sue Valiton, 63, retired from her job as a speech language pathologist in 2008 to take care of her youngest son, Scott, a 32-year-old with disabilities, during his recovery from surgery. At least that was the original plan. “I thought I was the least likely candidate to do mission trips,” she says, “I thought, I can’t leave Scott. I am a grandmother. I am busy. I don’t have buckets of cash.” But after being touched by a news segment about orphans in Haiti, she learned about the children’s refuge “Project Hope” run by Free the Kids. When Valiton realized an eight-day trip would cost her less than $1,300, she recruited her daughter to look after Scott and made her first trip to Haiti as part of a team in 2009. In November, she will make her sixth trip, her third as a Team Leader. Valiton has discovered a lot about leadership and invites others to join in. “People who come with me learn a lot about a different country, meet fabulous people and learn their stories, are surprised by what they learn they can do and how much fun they have.”