Penny Gold and her quilt “If Only (Jeremy’s Wedding Quilt)” created in 2020. Photo by Steve Davis
Being a professor at Knox College is more than a full-time job. Faculty at Knox are brilliant teachers but they are also passionate mentors, committed leaders, innovative researchers, and dedicated colleagues. In addition to giving their all in the classroom, Knox faculty lead busy, full lives on campus, serving on committees, advising students, sponsoring groups, and pitching in wherever help is needed.
So it should come as no surprise to hear that Knox faculty don’t lose a step in retirement. We sat down with three former Knox professors to chat about what they’ve been up to since they cleaned out their offices. Spoiler alert: they’re not sleeping in and taking it easy. Read on to hear about the amazing things Penny Gold, Tim Kasser, and Rick Ortner are doing to make the most out of retirement.
Finding a New Way Forward
During her 36 years at Knox College, Penny Gold held many different roles. She was a professor of history, religious studies, and women’s studies; the author of four books; and a valued colleague to many wonderful friends across the College. Outside of work, she was involved in the community and took pleasure in family life with her husband David Amor, and their son, Jeremy. In her free time, she carried on her childhood hobbies of knitting, sewing, and quilting.
But when Jeremy died in 2004 at the young age of 18, Gold’s life stopped. She had been working on a quilt for Jeremy to take to college, but it sat untouched as she waded through the deep grief, regret, and loss that comes with losing a precious child. But sewing was also a comfort, and eventually, she returned to the quilt and was able to complete it after finding a way to acknowledge her loss. “I decided to angle the ‘logs’ of the log cabin design askew, rather than at right angles, creating a disruption in the overall pattern,” she said. “I could then finish the quilt, knowing it acknowledged Jeremy’s death as well as his life.”
In 2005, she attended a quilting workshop led by Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle which focused on the design process, asking students to see a quilt as a work of art requiring careful composition. These teachers encouraged their students to build the entire piece around a single “big idea.” This approach resonated with Gold immediately. “Having something to design around helps enormously in all of the decisions you have to make: what colors should I use? How much of each color? What kinds of lines or shapes? Designing with a central idea in mind was transformative for me,” she said.
The workshop and this unique approach to quilting also provided Gold with a way to cope with the ongoing grief she felt many months after her son’s death. After the workshop, she began work on her first art quilt: an abstract portrait of Jeremy next to a wide field of black. She called it “Loss,” and something inside her shifted. “Creating this and successive quilts gave me a way to live with loss, and art replaced scholarship as a path of meaning-making in my life,” she said.
Gold continued with her teaching and research at Knox, but in 2011, in the midst of a favorite course with a delightful group of students, something felt off. After nearly four decades of life as a professor and a scholar, she realized her work at Knox was done, and she made the decision to retire.
In retirement, she had more time to compose new quilts, many expressing feelings related to Jeremy’s death. When she had created a body of work about loss, Mark Holmes, her friend and Knox art professor, suggested she exhibit the pieces at his gallery space, The Box. The exhibition was held in 2016.
Her work is evocative and emotional, and it resonates with her audience on a deeply personal level. In 2015, she showed a piece at a national quilt show that stole the show. The quilt was titled “Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface” and the design included large black letters spelling out “I AM A WOMAN WHOSE CHILD IS DEAD” on a stark white background.
“I was humbled by the extensive and heartfelt response, and gratified to know that my work can touch others deeply—both those who have suffered loss themselves and those who haven’t but who appreciate an insight into friends who have,” Gold said.
In addition to continuing with art quilts, Gold has made many patchwork quilts as gifts for others. She still thoughtfully considers the composition of each piece.
“I’ve long had the word ‘perseverance’ up in my studio, a reminder to keep going, to set aside the mistakes and try again,” Gold said. “Whether in writing a book or creating a work of art, whether on the job or in retirement, this word has helped me through.”
Creating in a New Medium
As a professor of psychology, Tim Kasser spent a lot of his time at Knox College in a classroom. But when he wasn’t meeting with students or teaching, once a week you could find him at the piano in a rehearsal hall in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts, leading a faculty/staff jam session. Kasser, who describes himself as a “passable” musician, remembers those afternoons with colleagues from across the College as informal, energizing, and fun.
But when he retired from Knox in 2019, Kasser and his wife relocated to upstate New York, and he got used to jamming solo. He also got used to a completely different rhythm to his days. He traded lectures and research papers for chores around their 17-acre homestead near Keuka Lake. “We have a donkey, goats, a cat, and big gardens. Plus, we live across the street from 2,500 acres of state forest, so I spend a lot of time hiking and snowshoeing there,” he said.
During the pandemic, he felt a tug to do something more, so he took a parttime job with the local school district. The district is small, with fewer than 400 students total in K-12th grade, and all of the grades meet in one building. Kasser is a teacher’s aide in the elementary classrooms, working with each grade level each day. He works with kids one-on-one and supervises lunch and recess. “I really enjoy helping the children, and now instead of Professor Kasser, I’m Mr. Kasser,” he said. “It’s a great gig for me right now.”
In his free time, he kept up with his music and, for his 55th birthday, he headed down the road to a local studio. “About 20 minutes from where I live, there’s this barn that a guy turned into a recording studio. For my birthday, I booked time in the studio just to see what it was like, just to have the experience,” he said. “It was only for fun but the studio owner encouraged me to come back and cut an album.”
The suggestion struck a chord with Kasser. Even with a part-time job and a large homestead to care for, he had been feeling an itch to do more. “As a professor, you’re used to doing a lot of big projects. I came to see that I needed to take on some kind of challenge beyond the house and my work as an aide,” he said.
Fast forward to today, and the album is fully underway. And after a solid nine months of work, Kasser has a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into making an album. He’s been learning about the recording process, from bringing in other musicians to background vocals to editing to mixing. He’s planning on 11 tracks, and 10 are in progress. “I’m doing this to learn about the recording process and I love it because it is stretching me,” he said. “It’s just been so interesting working with other musicians and the producer. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to get to the final product that people hear.”
He has also found unexpected parallels to his career as a writer and a scholar. “The recording process is very interesting to me as a writer, because I know writing is editing over and over until you get to something you like. Turns out, recording music is not dissimilar,” he said. “There’s the initial musical performance and then there’s all of the editing that goes on afterwards to turn it into something hopefully better. That’s a lot like how writing is: get your initial idea down and keep working with it until you get to what you actually had in mind.”
Embracing a New Community
When Rick Ortner left Knox College in 2002 to teach painting at Louisiana State University, he never imagined he would return to the Midwest. But, after 40 years of teaching, Ortner surprised himself (and most of his friends and family) by moving back to Galesburg. “I think people really wondered, why would I ever move back to a place like Galesburg for my retirement?” he said. “But the sense of community here is really great, and the connections between faculty members from all across the spectrum is special.”
Community is something that Ortner appreciates whether he is painting at home or at his studio in Italy. His current painting seeks to capture the special community he found in a nearby Italian village. “The focus of the piece is the main piazza of the village neighboring the one where I live,” he said. “It’s very ordinary but I really love the geometry of it.”
Ortner is far from a tourist in this part of Italy. For the last 15 years, he has been spending summers in the same little village. He has the same routine every year: as soon as school is out, he heads east, returning just a few days before the fall semester starts. And every day in between, he paints.
This may sound simple, but it’s quite a commitment. Summer in Italy is, well, hot. “Last summer, I was painting in full sun in the middle of a stone piazza that was just slightly concave, so all of the heat came down directly onto my head,” he said. “But I went every day. I want as much time as possible to paint in the way that someone else would want as much time as possible in their lab or to write another novel.”
The size of the project has also been a challenge. When he first started sketching, the preliminary drawings just kept getting wider and wider to accommodate the shape of the piazza. In its final form, the canvas measures nine feet across.
There are some faculty who retire and go play golf for the rest of their lives. But for most of us, what we teach is what we do.
When he returned to Illinois last fall, the canvas traveled with him and he is finishing it from memory at home. “Right now I’m working on mostly little things, like this color should be a little bit warmer, this color should be a little bit lighter, the angle of this road isn’t quite right,” he said.
As for his plans for retirement, he hopes to spend longer stretches in Italy and has considered renting an apartment in Naples, which is, in his words, “much more lively and cultural compared to the calm countryside I’m used to.” Naples is also home to many lovely art museums and the San Carlo opera house. But there is a special place in his heart for the Italian countryside.
“I really got to know the villagers so very well because I was a curiosity,” he said. “Every day, people would come by midday to sit around the central piazza and chat before lunch and in the evening after lunch, and there I was, in the middle of it. Those interactions shape the painting; it becomes almost like a journal. When I look at the painting, I remember all of the stuff that happened to me, the people I met, the way it felt. The little things don’t show, but they do come through.”
But friendships and fantastic opera are secondary to his primary goal each visit: to paint. “There are some faculty who retire and go play golf for the rest of their lives. But for most of us, what we teach is what we do.”