Mark Howard has embraced change since he moved to Aspen, at 22, in 1973. He was a ski bum and restaurant server who rewired to become a 9-to-5 white-collar guy and family man. He he was a financial advisor who, at age 57, took a 90% paycut to teach English at Basalt High School. Now retired, he’s published a nontraditional memoir about his concept of periodically “rewiring” one’s life. The new book, “A Rewiring Life,” is excerpted here.
I arrived in Aspen on September 13, 1973 and the first few years in Aspen I pursued the ski-bum life. After a year at a ski shop, I worked on the night crew at the local grocery store. My days were filled with skiing, playing softball, tennis, going too fast on my dirt bike, and enjoying life. I dated and partied. Life was carefree. I started teaching skiing at Snowmass, got married in 1977, and four years later became a father with the birth of Erin. It changed my world, as fatherhood does. Erin was the first baby I had ever held in my arms, and I adored her. A life of risk-taking with my dirt bike and skiing out of bounds ended abruptly.
Along with teaching skiing in the winter, I got a waiter’s job at a new Chinese restaurant called Eastern Winds. Over the next two years it became one of the most popular restaurants in town, and I became the headwaiter and manager. My wife and I purchased a condo downvalley. I was starting to live the American Dream. I was a husband, father and owned my own place to live.
At Eastern Winds it was common for us to have an hour wait for a table in the winter. We did have a private room for famous guests, since autograph seekers would bother our famous diners; another change in the transformation of town. I’ll never forget the night O. J. Simpson came in with Nicole Brown Simpson, insisted on sitting in the most high-profile table facing the sidewalk, and got so rowdy, banging on the windows and waving to strangers on the sidewalk, that I had to ask them to leave.
Sometimes life is fortuitous, and you are in the right place at the right time for where you are in life. The next-door neighbor at our condo was an insurance salesperson. I was teaching skiing in the winter, and then off to Eastern Winds the rest of the year. I didn’t get home until around midnight most nights, riding the bus home exhausted.
“Mark are you ready to do something different?” she asked. “Have you ever considered the insurance business?”
He worked for Bankers Life and Casualty out of Chicago, serving clients from Carbondale to Aspen. Leaving the valley, he needed to replace himself.
I was ready for a big change again and a regular 9-to-5 job. I said yes, got my state insurance license, and dove in. It was November 1983, and Mark W. Howard Insurance began. I quit teaching skiing immediately, and Eastern Winds that April.
I worked for Bankers for two years and soon was a broker with a lot of options for my clients and prospects. I had a small office in downtown Aspen and moved to a bigger one. It was still just me but I was growing and loved what I was doing. I was able to be home in the evenings. Life was going well.
In the history of mankind, retirement is certainly a new concept. When you are hunting and gathering, you certainly do not retire. Running from saber-toothed tigers (did we actually do that?), you did not retire. Agrarian farmers didn’t retire and let the land take care of itself. Social programs such as Social Security gave birth to the concept; you paid in and finally collected toward the end of your life.
I once had the dream of retiring to Hawaii and living out my days in a golfing paradise, but my path took me in a different direction. After 25 years in the financial services business, I felt the passion for it was gone.
“What do you want to do about it?” my second wife, Danielle, asked.
“I want to teach high school English.”
“Well, I guess you need to find out how to make that happen,” she replied.
I still marvel at that response, as our income would certainly take a major hit if I would make such a move.
Colorado, along with many other states, has something called an Alternative Teaching License. If you are offered a position, you can earn your license in the first year and a half while you begin teaching. The philosophy is that there are people who have “real world” experience who can bring in another perspective that a 22-year-old with a teaching certificate cannot.
I had found my calling.
I took and passed exams. Licensed toteach English, history, and business, my strategy was to be a substitute teacher at the three local high schools and determine where I would like to work if given the chance. I taught skiing at Snowmass as well, mostly over the holidays.
It was a new and fresh beginning, and I felt liberated from the confines of the office.
I began the life of a substitute teacher and found it was quite different from what I had envisioned. Many times I wasn’t teaching at all. I was simply giving a test to the class or showing a movie. Teachers didn’t believe that a substitiute could teach a lesson, but gradually they were hearing that we were having good discussions in class. I began to get requested and became quite busy.
Then something happened that changed my life. Basalt High teacher Ben Bohmfalk called and said that he had received a grant to teach in Romania for two weeks and wanted me to take his classes over while he was gone. A real teaching job complete with lesson plans! Over the next ten school days I was on fire. I knew what I wanted to do next in life. I followed the lesson plans, but added my own life experiences and perspectives. One class was on World War II. I told them about my father, who as a 19-year-old was on the beaches of Iwo Jima. The principal and vice principal started to regularly come into the classroom and observe me. When Ben returned from Romania, he reported that he did not have to reteach anything – the ultimate compliment.
I heard that the school had an opening in the English department for the following year. This is going to be a storybook ending! I interviewed for the position and thought I did really well. I finished second. I had hit a roadblock. A door I thought was open had just closed.
Summer came, and I had no job. Danielle was running quite well what was now her business. I went to the Roaring Fork Club and asked for a job from the head pro Dexter Pettit, whom I had known for many years. I became the course marshal, starter and had a fun season.
As the summer ended the owner of the club came to me and said he had learned I had left my office. I told him what had happened with teaching and he said, “Come work for me. We are starting a private club at the Snowmass Ski Area.”
As a certified ski instructor I took new members and prospects out onto the mountain.With two salespeople, we sold out the membership in three months.
I had proven myself to the club owners and now came the next big project, to create a new club in Cabo San Lucas. My job was showing the properties to our existing members in Colorado and California. There I was in “my” private jet, flying from Aspen to Sonoma to Cabo. I was living the dream of a jet-setter: eating great food, drinking expensive wine, and playing golf at private clubs. I had forgotten the dream of being a high school teacher.
Then one of the owners said I had to move to Sonoma for a couple of months to arrange trips for the Sonoma members – not a hard thing to do (“Want to go to Aspen and Cabo on our private jet?”). I occasionally went home for a few days, but felt disconnected with my family as a glorified traveling salesman.
As the summer of 2007 went on and the Great Recession began, the project quickly was gone along with my job.
Then my phone rang. Tim Root, the vice principal of Basalt High School called to say that the teacher that I had finished second to the previous year had quit.
“I don’t really want to interview again, Tim,” I said. “You know what you are getting with me”.
“You don’t understand Mark, I’m offering you the job!”
My dream of being a teacher was resurrected. I was going to be a 57-year-old first-year high school teacher. I felt a comfort inside. I was going to do what I was destined for. Then it hit me, in a few weeks I would be teaching six classes and facing around 150 teenagers.
What had I gotten myself into? I was rewiring again!
YOUR PERSONAL ESSAY
I taught from 2008 to 2017 and each school year I asked my students to write a personal essay. More than a few have come back after graduation and said it was the most important assignment they did in their high school years.
The rule was to write at least four pages on something that happened in your life that changed who you are.
Some students argued that they had nothing in their lives that was life-changing.
“Come on,” I’d say, “as a 16-year-old I know you can think of something. It doesn’t need to be Earth-shattering. I sent them back to keep digging into their past.
I would be stopped in the halls, “Mr. Howard I know what I’m writing about!”
“Okay, let’s talk.” It felt like it was something they needed and wanted to do.
The first year I did the assignment I was stunned. Coming from a relatively vanilla adolescence, I was not prepared for the topics of my students. Both females and males told how they were molested by family members, how they moved on in their lives. Others told of the day parents said they were losing their houses because of the Great Recession and the shame they felt with their friends. A common story was sneaking out of the house to go to a party and getting caught. These were powerful, too, as they described what it felt like losing the trust of their parents.
One student recalled as an 8-year-old, wading into the cold, turbulent waters of the Rio Grande River, ready to swim across the U.S. border the next day. That night their “coyote” raped one of the girls in the group. The men of the group delivered immediate justice that night.
“The next morning I looked at the dead, beaten body of the man who was to lead us across the river. It was the first time I had seen someone dead.”
His journey had brought him to my classroom to tell his story. He didn’t take his education and opportunities for granted. I knew why. I hated to destroy that paper when I was done, but I had promised.
I challenge you to complete the assignment that I gave my students. Think of the one day that changed your life and influenced who you are today. You might not have such a dramatic story, but take the time to remember, and it will be yours. Share it. Keep it. Burn it if you wish, but write it. “A Rewiring Life” is my personal essay.