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Working man offers retirement advice

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's Malcolm Mahr begins his new book on retirement with a handful of quotes, but they aren't the kinds of aphorisms you might expect.

You know the ones. Witticisms such as: "Retirement means no pressure, no stress, no heartache -- unless you play golf."

The quotes the author chose to begin his book go something like this:

"Mac, your company stock is worth millions. You're rich," Mahr writes in the opening pages of You're Retired Now. Relax.

"Our sales figures are lagging behind forecasts."

"You're hemorrhaging red ink."

And, finally: "You're 65, you have no job and your stock is worthless, Mac."

In 1992, Mahr, who led the Maryland Paper Box Co. to such success that he was named manufacturer of the year by his peers, suddenly found himself "retired," if you want to call it that.

His 75-year-old family company, crushed between the feast-then-famine holiday cycle of gift box sales and Asian imports, closed its doors, leaving 300 people without work, including the owner.

Overwhelmed by guilt, shame and depression, Mahr knew only one thing for certain: He had to find a job.

He took a course and learned how to help Yellow Pages customers design and place their ads. He became so good at it that he decided to write a "how-to" book and it was a modest publishing sensation.

"Thank goodness this place was paid for," said Mahr from his waterfront condo in now-posh Canton, where he has lived for 18 years with his wife of 56 years, Fran.

It was she who promised him in his darkest moments that they would make it.

How to Win in the Yellow Pages did more than keep the wolves from the door.

It put the starch back in his self-image and set him on the path to researching and writing books on topics as all-over-the-map as his interests:

A Haitian mystery, a mystery based on a missing da Vinci masterpiece and a humorous tribute to the institution which saved him from emotional bankruptcy: What Makes a Marriage Work.

Finding that he was a better salesman than any publisher, Mahr found a company to print his books and he promotes and sells them himself -- more than 100 cases of You're Retired Now. Relax are stashed all over their condominium.

"I pick subjects I like," Mahr said. "The research is fascinating, and it is a wonderful opportunity to fulfill my curiosities."

Watching Fran and Mac Mahr together in their sun-splashed living room makes you wonder whether he put everything he knows about marriage into his book -- and then left it there.

They never agree on dates, times or numbers. They interrupt each other regularly with corrections and then disagree on the corrections.

"I get poked in his books, but I poke back," she said, laughing.

In other words, they are a hoot together. And you get just a hint of the lively devotion that must have been a big part of the reason they survived the crumbling of their world.

"He makes me laugh. He is a good person. And he is very brave to have come out of that horror," Fran said.

His newest book, which gleans the best common sense out there on how to survive retirement and pairs it with hilarious New Yorker cartoons, is not the cod-liver-oil brand of advice those of us facing this transition are used to seeing: dire warnings about brain health, financial health and heart health.

Mahr certainly makes those points, but his lively personal anecdotes, including his exchanges with Fran on these subjects, make it more pleasant to absorb.

Of the 10 points he makes about successful retirement -- and they are printed conveniently on a flap at the front of the book -- two deserve emphasis, Mahr said.

Exercise as if your life depends on it, because it does. He quotes doctor and author Henry Lodge, who wrote that in 20 years, failure to exercise six days a week will seem as self-destructive as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

And find a way to give to others, because it is the only sure cure for the boredom and depression that can beset those in retirement.

"It is in giving that the heart is blessed," Mahr said.

Finally, he said, find something you love to do and do a lot of it.

"I came out of the Army, got married and went into the family business," Mahr said. "I never thought about what I wanted to do.

"Then I went from packaging manufacturer of the year to nothing in a year."

And now he has written a book about how to retire, when he hasn't managed to do that himself. A new book about Marco Polo is in the works.

"What is it they say?" Mahr asked. "Do something you love and you will never work a day in your life."


Malcolm Mahr will be signing copies of You're Retired Now. Relax at Greetings and Readings at Hunt Valley Towne Centre from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday.

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