John Procknow at 89 is intellectually vibrant and as enthusiastic as ever to step out and enjoy the day. Though limited some physically – due a pair of cranky knees a round of golf, weather permitting, is still on the menu. He claims that his full life just keeps filling up. He says Learning in Retirement is a wonderful capstone to a long life of enjoyment — learning and living to the fullest. John is one of the founding fathers of this organization and its first curriculum chair. “That was back in 1998” he recalls, “when we were all aglow trying to find ways to bring a fledgling organization to firm footing.”
An Oshkosh native, he enrolled in the then Wisconsin State Teacher’s College after graduating high school, but quit when he felt he wasn’t ready for it. He worked for his brother at Campbell’s retail store on Main Street, later commuted by train to an Appleton job, and then, still in his teens, worked retail for six months down in the Chicago Loop. With encouragement from his brother he went back to college, earned a BS in Secondary Education and signed his first teaching contract ($8,000) in 1941 at Shawano High School. However, his draft number came up and the job was cancelled. He put off starting his teaching career, joined the US Air Force and trained to be a weatherman. He was assigned to the Air Force Ferrying Command, supplying British troops in Burma and elsewhere. At the time of Pearl Harbor, John’s orders took him to North Africa and the Middle East attached to various commands as weather chief. He never got back to the states for further training, spending the entire war in the Middle East theater at numerous U.S. heavy bomber bases. He worked a long time at the now international airport in Cairo, when Rommel was knocking at the door of Alexandria, and spent time in the Libyan desert, Palestine, Iraq and Iran.
When the war ended, John decided in favor of becoming a doctor — over being just another stateside 1V weatherman. Under the GI Bill he applied to the University of Wisconsin Medical School and to the University of Chicago Medical School and was accepted at both at age 28. He remembers how cooperative at that time the Wisconsin State Teachers College administration was in fashioning a select mini-curriculum that he and one other pre-med student needed before their acceptance into medical studies. “Professor Frank got me through organic chemistry, professor Duncan gave me a course in advanced physics, Jean Mercier taught me French I needed a foreign language– and I had Natalie James, Nevin James’ daughter for an interesting classmate. All fond memories.”
He completed his internship, residency and a fellowship at Chicago, eventually becoming Chief of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases. Although he did a lot of research on mycological and viral respiratory diseases John says, “With a name like mine they dubbed me ‘Dr. Procto,’ which I suppose was inevitable, but humorous all the same.” Doing rounds with medical students got John back into his teaching mode, and while he enjoyed this aspect of the position, he found it sometimes exhausting. He recalls, “During internship and residency you were almost a slave to the system. I rarely left the hospital. There was no time for any kind of social life. Here I found myself in my thirties, married to my profession … and being a bachelor sort of grew on me. So I just stayed one. Besides, doctors make lousy mates … they’re gone all the time. And heck, I liked the freedom.” John is retired from practice now for 25 years. In academic medicine you are “invited” to resign at age 65. He enjoyed a 3-month fellowship learning about tropical diseases in Central America and managed a 3-month sabbatical circling the globe visiting medical schools.
In the late sixties he was hired by the University of Southern California Medical School as a full professor and medical director of a respiratory disease hospital. John was also a medical consultant for four Los Angeles psychiatric hospitals. In 1980 he retired to Costa Rica, and through a business venture with a Costa Rican faculty member built a lovely retreat on the Pacific Ocean. It was as if a dream had come true. A pool, servants, leisure – or so he thought!
He soon found that retiring into the tropics, and doing very little, had its limitations. Socializing, drinking, swimming, entertaining so many guests was not what he needed full time. While gardening interested him – he sculpted a world-class lawn — he found himself antsy to travel and to see more of the world. He took to traveling with a passion, returning to his Costa Rican home for a few months before taking off again. But steady leisure was not his way. He has been on safaris in Africa, taken trips down the Nile, been to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Kashmir, Cambodia to mention a few places. When John ran out of countries to visit, having traveled extensively on all continents, he felt another shift coming in his life. “It was part impulse,” he says, “part fancy, and I knew I needed to move on.” He sold most all of his belongings — and his tropical home. With two suitcases full of valuables and a few mementos of his travels, a retired physician returned to Oshkosh. He took residence on the Paine riverfront property, got involved as a Paine Arboretum docent, did hospice work, earned Master Gardener status and for the past six years chaired a project creating “enabling gardens” at Parkview Health Center. While auditing select courses at UW Oshkosh on topics he now had time to pursue, a feeler flyer came to him with the proposal of a new lifelong learning program for the community. He had been on a dozen Elderhostel trips and appreciated the value and the opportunity of continued learning. “I had had my fill of travel,” he says, “so why not stay close to home and have pretty much the same benefits at my doorstep.” John got in on the ground floor with LIR and was our first curriculum chair, followed by Fred Born, Ken Uslabar, Barry Johnson, and others as we grew in stature and recognition throughout the state. John was coordinator of many symphony sessions, a series on religion, and William Waters. His interests in books leans to history and biography. He is an opera buff, attending as often as he can the Madison Opera House and the Lyric Opera House in Chicago where as a young man he saw Callas, Tibaldi and other notable early opera stars perform when the Lyric first reopened. He attends many symphony events yearly in Madison, Chicago, Milwaukee or the PAC in Appleton. And he makes good Broadway fare, as well as certain jazz, part of his musical enjoyment.
The only tip John has for those on the cusp of retiring is to simply stay involved. He is a walking witness that keeping your brain and limbs active can stave off the effects of aging. “Constant learning,” he advises, “seems almost necessary. Crossword puzzles help you to remember, and keeps those neuro transmitters honest, working, stretching. If only my dam physical being would tolerate more I’d be doing more…but it doesn’t!” John is easing into doing lighter things, and says his trip to Italy last year might have signaled the end of long distance traveling. A handy, local, golf course and cruises seem more sensible to him now.
The LIR membership is grateful for all Dr. John Procknow has given to Learning in Retirement. We hear his advice: Be steadfast in learning. Step out and live. Be slow to anger. Have kindness in abundance.