Never Too Late

Joanna Riopelle (left) as Florence Lancaster in Noel Coward’s “The Vortex,” a production of Chicago’s Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Photo courtesy Anthony Robert La Penna.
Joanna Riopelle (left) as Florence Lancaster in Noel Coward’s “The Vortex,” a production of Chicago’s Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Photo courtesy Anthony Robert La Penna.

From executive careers to firefighting, acting and museum direction, these St. Norbert alums use their life experiences to keep on giving back

Late-breaking changes in career bring fresh rewards
Many look on the 20s as the time when people explore and change careers while they determine how they want to spend their working lives. Some might unexpectedly face that choice again later in life as old occupations slip away and new ones arise.

Other people make the switch at or closer to what we might think of as their retirement years when, instead of spending their days playing golf or fishing, they decide to begin a whole new career.

For some, it can mean chasing a long-held dream. For others it’s an opportunity to venture into an area in which they always had an interest and, for some, it’s something that comes out of the blue in which they suddenly find themselves immersed.

CEO to fire chief
When John Burgoyne ’64 was growing up on Green Bay’s west side, he never dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Nor did he think about it the 32 years he was with IBM or during his years as a consultant.

He didn’t even think about it that day in 2001 while driving with friends and seeing a burning ranch house a mile from his home some 40 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’d always lived in the city and I didn’t know how it functioned in the country, but I just ran home, put on some jeans and some boots and went back to see if there was anything I could do,” he says.

The volunteer fire department was fighting the house fire, which sparked a grass fire headed for another home and barn. He helped extinguish the conflagration, saving the barn and second home.

“I thought that was kind of exciting. I was 59 years old.”

He talked to his wife, who thought it sounded interesting and a good way to help their community, says Burgoyne, whose international consulting business was in process of phasing down.

Within a couple of years of joining the Greenwood Rural VFD, Burgoyne was elected chief, a position he’s held almost continuously since.

His wife, Nancy, a lieutenant, heads the EMS team. The 30-member department serves 5,200 people within 36.5 square miles. Burgoyne went on half its 540 calls in 2014.

“When you save someone’s home, or pets, or a child, there’s nothing as rewarding as that,” Burgoyne says.

Seventy-five percent of U.S. firefighters are volunteers. They are held to the same standards as paid firefighters, including mandatory training twice a month and 50-100 hours of specialized training annually, he explains. Volunteer fire departments run the same kinds of calls as the Fire Department of New York, Burgoyne says.

Serving as chief is like running a small business and requires using many skills he learned as president of IBM China, according to Burgoyne.

The greatest wasted resource in the United States is the retired population, he says, because they have skills local volunteer fire departments and other community service groups could use.

Managing director to cast member
For Joanna Riopelle ’76, going from banking to acting was more like completing a circle.

“My transition from banking to theatre was not so much a leap into the unknown as my Odyssey ‘home’ – a return to my roots,” says Riopelle, a former managing director of JPMorgan Chase and BankOne and senior vice president of ABN AMRO.

She earned her degree in communications with a concentration in theatre, and briefly pursued a singing and acting career before switching to banking. “For people who knew me in my youth, committed as I was to the arts, the ‘surprise’ would not likely be that I returned to theatre but that I left in the first place. Latent throughout my banking career (which I took very seriously) was the notion that I would always return to the arts,” says Riopelle.

She credits her success in banking more to her theatre and liberal arts background – with skills gained in critical thinking, creativity, imagination, communication and building relationships – than she does to her MBA.

“Even in the business world, people want to deal with people they like and trust,” says Riopelle, who keeps a foot in the banking/corporate world as a finance and treasury consultant.

Although she occasionally misses the paycheck from banking – “In theatre, you are lucky if you make $100 a week” – those thoughts are rare, especially as she recalls 70-plus hour weeks, extensive travel, early morning calls to Amsterdam and midnight calls to India, all while working in the telecommunications sector of international banking.

Riopelle has acted with several Chicago theatre companies and is an ensemble member of Dead Writers Theatre Collective, which stages historically accurate classic plays in a “Masterpiece Theatre” style aesthetic. She serves on its board, where she helps lead strategic planning, grant writing and fundraising.

For anyone thinking of chasing their dream through a late-breaking career, Riopelle suggests practicing your avocation while working; focusing on maintaining good health; pursuing one’s passions, especially in midlife; honing communication and presentation skills; being realistically optimistic; and enjoying the ride.

“The road to success in any career, first or second, is never truly linear,” Riopelle says. “When the speed bumps occur, replenish your spirit, revise your plan and reinvent yourself. It is possible.”

Banker to museum head
Jay WilliamsAfter 37 years in banking, Jay Williams ’73 decided to try something new.

He was spending weekends with his wife at their home in Hartland and the work week in Chicago as chief operating officer of PrivateBancorp, where he worked after 31 years at US Bank.

In 2001 their eldest son, Chris, was diagnosed with brain cancer. As his son’s health declined, Williams felt he needed to be closer to his family.

In 2010, Williams, who had long been interested in the government, education and nonprofit sectors, was approached by the Milwaukee Public Museum and was asked to serve as president and CEO.

“They basically needed a turnaround person to come in here and try to restructure the museum. I thought that it was a great opportunity, but it also tied into what was happening in the family,”he says.

He calls the museum a wonderful experience and the “greatest grandparent gig in the world.”

“Everyone thinks about a legacy, but it’s more about using the talents God gave you to make a difference in the world,” Williams says.

“I think everyone has certain gifts and however long your life happens to be, whether it’s 36 years or 86 years, you just want to feel that you did the most with the talents that you were given and I think that’s what made coming here to the museum important to me.”

As people age they have options they didn’t have when they were raising a family, Williams says.

“The options present opportunities to do things that you’ve always wanted to do with your life and to have experiences that help the community and help develop yourself, that we should all take advantage of. It makes it fun.” says Williams. He also serves on several nonprofit boards of directors and is chair of the St. Norbert College Board of Trustees.

He will be retiring from his museum post in May after four years in that position, but will continue to serve as chairman of its board of directors.

“People have to take chances at any age. There’s risk in anything you do. It’s fun, it’s interesting and it’s exciting to get outside your comfort zone,” Williams says.


March 31, 2014