Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm is facing a crisis. He’s about to retire, but he doesn’t really want to.
There is almost an irony in the fact. It would seem Lamm has good reason to go through with his plan to retire on Aug. 3 — his 82nd birthday — and start enjoying the easy life. Governor from 1975 to 1987, a scholar and educator since, he has been honored as one of the 100 most important people in Colorado history.
Lamm co-directs the University of Denver’s Institute for Public Policy Studies, where he challenges students to deeply consider the difficult choices to be made in public and medical policy.
His curriculum vita lists north of 250 publications.
The would-be irony here is that a man reluctant to retire at 82 is famous for his obsession with end-of-life questions. The governor in him sees the problem vividly. Thankfully, there is a finite amount of taxpayer money for government to get its hands on. Given that health-care spending makes up a sizable and growing portion of that limited pool of dollars, does it make sense to keep seriously ill people alive when their quality of life is minimal to nonexistent? Even while we lack the leadership to reform entitlement spending?
As he puts it to me on a recent visit to his Denver home, medical ethics lack lateral vision. “When I look at the literature, and there are such things as $93,000 prostate operations at some stage of prostate cancer that might give two extra months of life, it is outrageous.”
He’s writing a paper with the working title: “Is There a Conflict Between Medical Ethics and Ethical Public Policy?”
“It seems to me that medical ethics drives too much marginal spending,” he says. And that spending is piling on the debt for the next generation, which leads us to another of Lamm’s obsessions.
Given that the number of good professional jobs available also is limited, does it make sense to keep working well past the accepted age of retirement?
“This sounds more sanctimonious than I mean it to be,” Lamm says, “but there is something about having 82-year-old, full-tenured professors. There just is something about that. The academy needs young blood. There are all kinds of brilliant young scholars working their way up, and here I’m sitting. From what they are paying me, they could hire two, two-and-a-half other people.”
When Lamm was 12, his father called him into his study to tell him, “Son, a man must work.” He got a paper route and has worked ever since.
Along the way Lamm became attached to the idea of secular Calvinism, a belief that, even if you’ve made enough to live comfortably, you keep working. There is a holiness in one’s duty to be as productive as possible.
Lamm has no hobbies. He doesn’t want to play golf, “or set up a wood-working thing in my basement.” For vacation, he and his wife, Dottie, seek out travel based on research.
“I don’t want to go sit on a beach,” he explains.
And so the observation that Lamm’s situation isn’t a true irony, which requires a solid dose of the unexpected. Lamm’s work ethic and his sense of duty to the next generation predict that he would someday run headlong into this predicament.
He’s literally worked himself into a corner.
The scholar-leader looks about his patio. “I ask all my friends, ‘How do you do it?’ ” he says.
He leans forward. “There’s something a little unhealthy about feeling that you have to put every hour to productive use,” he says.
He drops back in his chair. “I do realize how ludicrous it is to feel guilty about retiring at age 82,” he says.
Maybe he’ll volunteer at a food bank.
I ask: “What does it mean to live a life you can be proud of?”
The question takes him immediately back to decisions he made as governor.
“It is nice to get to my age and know that overall, I did the right thing,” he says. “But you can’t be governor without hurting some people.”
Then it’s like he catches himself. “This meditation on growing older,” he says. “At some point it’s unseemly to try to act like a 50-year-old.”
He summarizes a short story he read once about a high school football star who intercepts a pass behind his team’s goal line and runs the field for a touchdown. For a time the young man is the talk of the town. As he ages, though, folks get tired of him trying to relive the moment.
“He goes from being a hero to being unseemly,” Lamm says.
“I had a 100-yard run called the governorship,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s nice to be recognized and remembered, but I recognize that that’s really only a part of my life.”
As I gather my notes to leave, I feel a kind of panic before the example of this man. No sooner do I choke that back than I feel a kind of panic for what faces him.
Stepping out the door, I’m struck by chalk drawings the Lamms’ youngest granddaughter made that day before. Pastel flowers and whorls cover the garage door.
Already, they are fading.