Hello from the Other Side: Julie N.

Hello from the Other Side: Julie N.

Tell me a bit about yourself: if you were narrating your story, what would it sound like?

My life sounds like something written by Horatio Alger. I came from a lower middle class family and we had strong values and great work ethic but very little money. I graduated from high school, but I couldn’t afford to go to college. And that was it, I figured. One day prince charming would come and rescue me and I would live in Detroit and have ten kids.

But that didn’t happen. I got a job at a TV station in Detroit, where I was born and raised, in the 60s, when TV was an exciting new industry. They were just starting to broadcast in color. And little did I know, this would be my career. I started at the entry level, as a secretary, and moved my way up. When I retired, I was the Senior Vice President of Programming at a major cable network. All without going to college. I had mentors along the way who helped me, and I had my own drive. I loved the business; it was exciting and crazy and hard work and stressful, but it was fun.  

What are you doing now?

Now I’m sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee and doing crossword puzzles! As much as I loved what I did for 45 years, in Detroit and Washington, DC and New York, where I spent most of my growth years, I just knew when it was time to retire. And I just did it. I walked away from a fabulous job. At 65 it was time and I’ve never looked back. I’m a gardener, I love to cook, and I spend time with friends and neighbors. I get to spend time with my husband, the love of my life. And I don’t miss it.

When I told friends I was retiring, they said, “You?! You’ll be back in six months.”

But I’m just appreciating everything I have. It was time to do something for me and my husband. I’m taking care of my health, which is something we lose sight of when we’re working all the time. I retired on May 1st and on May 22nd we got a dog. Because for the first time I had TIME. Time and health are the most precious commodities.  

What were the hardest decisions you had to make in the past? How did those decisions turn out? Any regrets?

Towards the back end of my career: the decision to retire. That was a real life changer. Making that decision took a long time; my husband and I thought it out very carefully. We worked hard to make sure that, financially, we could retire and maintain our lifestyle.

But, the big decision was to leave Detroit. Here I am, a young kid in the mid-1960s living in Detroit. I’m living through the early race riots, the economic situation was worsening and there weren’t a lot of jobs being created. I had no marriage prospects, so I thought: “I gotta do something for me.” So I moved away from home to pursue work. Women just didn’t do that very often then. It was scary and exhilarating.

I moved to Washington for a job in programming, and then I moved to New York. And I was myself. I didn’t wait for a guy to come around; I just went and lived my life. It was a blessing. On top of the fact that I enjoyed my career, I was buying and renovating brownstones in Brooklyn. I bought my first house at 34, a dilapidated brownstone, and I designed the floor plan and got an architect and renovated it and turned it into three apartments. And then I bought another building and did the same thing, and then when I met my husband we did another building. So there wasn’t much time for anything between that and my job. And it turns out it was a really good time to have rentals in Brooklyn!  

Are there things that you spent years stressing out about that turned out to not really be that big of a deal?

Pick your battles.

When I was young, everything ticked me off. Then you start working, its really stressful, and you start getting angry about stuff. And you really have to choose to let that one slide and go after this one. Most of my stress came from work. As well as I handled it, I think I handled it even better after I got married. My husband is very stable and calm, and he would pull me off the walls when I thought something was hopeless. It helped to balance me.

I carry that into my old age – not much rattles me. Either I walk away from it, or I deal with it and put it aside. I only have so many years, and I’m not going to spend those years angry about something. When you see that the path forward isn’t quite as long as the path behind you, you become more calculated about making those decisions because you don’t know how much time you have left. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I take advantage of every day. I say, “This is a good day, and I’m not going to let that thing affect me.” Maybe it’s time to be a little selfish.  

What do you wish you had spent more time doing over the years?

Well, work really consumed so much of my life, and because work was all encompassing – my friendships came out of work – there wasn’t a division of time. It was just a whirlwind.

I can really appreciate how hard it is for young people now: you see them just leaving at the crack of dawn, and their lives are just spinning. And they just wish they had more time. The days just run into another.

I wish I had more time – I wish I were like ten years younger, I’d like to be maybe… sixty. That was a really cool time. I find that as women get older and they know who they are, they don’t have to take crap anymore. You tell it how it is. You don’t like it, move on.  

How have you balanced your and your partner's goals and ambitions with your marriage?  One thing we never did was meld ourselves into each other to the point where we became one person. Part of that was marrying in our 40s. We were already so set in our ways that, yes, compromise is something you have to do, but we knew that he had his interests and I had mine (and I was consumed with working night and day).

Nick comes from a totally different place than me: he’s born and raised in Italy, and they have a totally different attitude about family and women over there. And he married this brash, American, woman executive, and here he is this sweet Italian man. The two of us worked so well because we had the same values and respect for one another.

When we moved to the country, we both worked like dogs. Nick, my husband, would drop me off at the train station at 7am and pick me up at 7pm. We’d eat dinner and then go to sleep. We did that for five days a week for years. I think we just supported each other emotionally. And we lived a really simple life. But we had the same values.  

Kids: its such a loaded word for women. Did you have them? Did you choose to (or not)? 

For me, I wasn’t going to have a child if I wasn’t married. I met Nick late in life, in our 40s, and while I could have squeezed out a kid at 40, we had a discussion and said, “You know, it’s not for us.” So we opted not to have kids.

I’ve always been great with kids, and I think I turned my maternal instincts onto the people who worked for me: mentoring. It was seeing the value in people and nurturing them. I had the greatest staff throughout my career and I see these kids – adults now – in jobs all over the industry. They’re leading their own companies. And they started in entry level jobs.

Older colleagues as well: When I started at the network, there was a woman in her 60s, she was a secretary and she looked every day her age. One day I said, “What do you want to do here? Would you like to schedule some movies? Or maybe be responsible for this channel and screen the movies?” Well it turns out that she was an excellent scheduler. And she ended up being responsible for scheduling one of the cable networks. She’s in her 80s now, and she writes me letters and tells me how much she appreciates the opportunity.

I turn a blind eye to youth and I turn a blind eye to age. It’s what you’ve got inside of you. It’s like kids, maybe one is tall and one is short and one is chubby. Maybe one likes school and one likes sports. You find a way to nurture them and find the good in them. I really feel very fulfilled – I never look back and wish I had children. It wasn’t meant to be.  

What would you say your highlights have been?

It has to be my job and my husband.

I had so many fun experiences through television that it was just unbelievable. The people are nuts. You’re always rubbing elbows with TV personalities who are just loony, and yet it’s very hard work. It’s a medium that has such an impact on people’s lives. Look what it is today – it’s something you can’t live without. I grew up with black and white and now we’re streaming.

And then, of course, meeting my husband. I never thought that was going to happen. I thought love was never going to come my way. And God knows I dated a lot of frogs before I met my prince. And he came my way and he was it – we both knew immediately. And we’re now enjoying the golden years and they’re really golden, as corny as that sounds.  

And the low points?

We all have them, don’t we?

I think the lowest point is when you lose your parents. Both of my parents lived into their mid-80s, so I was lucky to have them a long time, but they died a year apart from each other. And man, that really makes you face your own mortality. And then you lose friends your age, to cancer or AIDS or whatever, and it just knocks your socks off for a while. It helps you take care of yourself, to realize that you’re mortal too. That would be the only low point – nothing has hit me as hard as losing family and friends.  

What do you think has changed the most for women over your lifetime?

Oh my Lord child, you’re asking a woman who came into adulthood in the early 1960s! We were fighting for equal rights. I was living in DC during Vietnam, and I looked outside my office window to see protests, rocks being thrown in the streets. And then the sexual revolution of the 70s.

You watch Mad Men? I was working in that environment. That was really how it was in TV and advertising.

So here is a woman who has seen it all. But the fight is not over. I think that women have moved forward, but it’s not over. Young women today have a little bit of an advantage, greater acceptance and inclusion in the workplace, but it’s were not 100% there.

The most important thing is to deal with it as effectively as you can: Don’t let it define you or defeat you. You always think its your fault, “Maybe I did something wrong.” No, it’s not your fault. Don’t believe that.  

What would you like to see continue to change and improve for women?

I’d like women to be their own best friends. We still have that problem where we don’t think enough of ourselves to know that we are really responsible for your own destiny. To look in the mirror and say, “Damn I look good,” no matter how old or how saggy you are. To look in the mirror and say, “I’m a good person and I look good and I feel good.”

I have a lot of confidence in today’s women. I admire them. And I feel sad for some of what they have to go through, but I think we’re going to be just fine. We’re strong.  

Looking back at the past 50 or so years, what words of wisdom would you have? 

Be responsible for yourself. Be proud of who you are. If you don’t have the confidence in yourself, how can anyone else be proud of you? Whatever you do – whether you’re running a company or staying at home with children – you should never have any doubts that you can run the world. We raise the children, we take care of our families, we work – it’s our world to run.  

Where do you see yourself in five years, ten years? What does "retirement" look like to you?

When you ask someone who is 73 what they hope to be doing in ten years, they say, “BREATHING!”

I used to ask that question when I interviewed employees, but, like I said earlier, you never know how long you’ve got. If I’m still enjoying retirement, and we are still lucky enough to be married, then that’s where I want to be: here, surrounded by my friends, enjoying life and travel. Not bad, huh?

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