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A Walking Start to Retirement

Colon Terrell - Heart attack survivor, former banker, coast-to-coast walker and Pickleball ambassador

Constantine Von Hoffman

When it comes to retirement, Colon Terrell believes you have to listen to your heart, especially if it’s telling you you’re having a heart attack.

In 2009, Terrell was facing one of the toughest challenges of his 41 years as a banker: how to successfully lead his North Carolina bank as president during the worst economic crisis in 80 years. And he was feeling the stress of it.

On Valentine’s Day of that year, he and his wife went out to a Mexican restaurant near their home in Florida. “After dinner, I thought I had the world’s worst case of indigestion,” says Terrell, 66. “I started getting cold sweats, violently throwing up, and then it felt like someone hit me in my left elbow with a ball-peen hammer.” He told Brenda, his wife of 47 years, he was having a heart attack. Not wanting to wait for an ambulance, she raced him to the hospital. As soon as they pulled up to the emergency room entrance, he jumped from the car, literally ran to the desk, and told them what was happening. Later he found out he had suffered a heart attack and had come within minutes of dying.

“I had five major blockages in the front of my heart,” he says. Being a longtime runner and former marathoner had kept him alive. His body had built a number of capillaries, small vessels that created an alternate route for blood to flow from the back of the heart to the front. “It looked like a little spider web of capillaries that was carrying some blood to the front of the heart so it didn’t die,” he says. “I attribute a lifetime of cardio exercise to saving me.” That and open-heart quintuple bypass surgery.

After recovering and helping to complete the first successful voluntary liquidation of a bank in U.S. history, Terrell decided it was the time to move on to the next phase of his life. That day was Dec. 31, 2011. 

Like a lot of high achievers, for Terrell retirement meant refocusing his energy, not just relaxing at the beach. The first thing he wanted to do was raise awareness about heart health. He felt fortunate to have overcome a genetic predisposition to heart disease compounded by stress. So he said to Brenda, “What would you think about me walking across America?” Her response was classic: “I’m all for it, as long as I don’t have to walk with you.” On March 1, 2012, he began what he named Heart Trek USA at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. It ended six months and 3,275 miles later on the Santa Monica Pier in California.

With support from his wife, the American Heart Association, and groups like the North Carolina Bankers Association, Terrell’s walk took him down the back roads and byways of 11 different states and into the company of a number of very interesting people. In Mississippi for example, Terrell, an avid fan of the blues, sought out the gravesite of master guitarist Robert Johnson. “It’s way out in the middle of nowhere in rural Mississippi, with cotton fields all around, at a little clapboard church,” he says. “When we got there, a group of about 30 people in two Mercedes buses was having a birthday celebration, partying around the grave. Everybody had put a guitar pick on the tombstone. They were having champagne and caviar and a grand old time.” 

The walk wasn’t the only unexpected thing that happened to Terrell as he embarked on the next phase of his life. He had assumed his retirement would involve banking consulting because, in addition to having been the president of four banks during his career, he had helped start a number of others. But with the financial crisis, the new bank business disappeared. “I saw the handwriting on the wall that there really would not be any growth,” he says. “My home state of North Carolina hasn’t had a new bank charter application in the last five years, and we used to have 10 or more each year.”

Not quite knowing what to do with himself after his cross-country journey, Terrell experimented with a lot of ideas before finding something he loved. “I tried to play golf but I just wasn’t good enough and didn’t enjoy it,” he says. “I’d played on a seniors softball team, but that wasn’t for me. I’d even worked on some driftwood sculptures, only to find out I had no artistic ability. You’ve got to try several things until you find something that gives you a passion.”

He found that passion in the fast-paced, oddly named sport of pickleball, which combines elements of badminton, tennis, and ping-pong. In pickleball, two or four players use graphite paddles to hit a wiffle ball across a net on a badminton-sized court. Invented in 1965, the sport boasts more than 165,000 players across the nation today and is billed as “one of the fastest growing sports in America,” according to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA).

“It’s a fantastic sport for all ages, but it’s particularly good for seniors because it’s low impact,” he says. “Even very experienced tennis players who play with us say they get much more exercise from pickleball than tennis. That’s because we typically hit the ball six to nine times before someone scores. In tennis, you hit the ball three times and somebody’s scored.”

Terrell says one of the great things about the sport is how you can learn it in 15 minutes and start playing immediately at a beginner level. “It’s a sport that everybody can play. I love it because women are just as good as men and us old guys can often outplay youngsters.” The sport rewards smarts over pure athletic ability, which means all ages can play against each other, have fun, and get a great workout.

“My regular partner in doubles is 75 years old,” he says. “We get guys in their late 20s or 30s who come out to play and try to win with pure athletic ability. They don’t learn the strategy of the game, so we often beat them because they’re all over the court making these great plays while we’re just hitting the ball where they’re not.”

It should be no surprise that this gregarious man also loves the social aspects of pickleball. He says he’s made more friends in a few years playing pickleball than any other period of his life. Talk to Terrell for any length of time and you will get the feeling that both numbers are pretty big. He is a natural ambassador for the sport, so much so that the USAPA named him the official district ambassador for the Florida Panhandle area where he lives today.

What’s made it possible for Terrell to enjoy retirement is the fact that he had been planning for it for many years. During his working years, he had consistently contributed the maximum possible into his 401(k) account and had been fortunate to receive stock option grants along the way. “Every time I had the opportunity to exercise a stock option, I took it. I sacrificed income in my earning years to buy stock,” he says. “That’s how I had managed to prepare to retire—building an asset base to provide income after my working years. My only problem right now is I better not live to be a hundred. Not sure I’ve got myself covered that far.”

For this father of two and grandfather of four, retirement is really about being able to focus on what he truly loves: Building community, helping others, and keeping active.

“Until you’ve had something like a heart attack, cancer, or something else life threatening, you don’t feel mortal. I knew other people died, but I wasn’t sure I was going to,” he says. His brush with death got him thinking about what is really important to him and how he would be remembered. “I don’t want to just be remembered as a banker. I was successful, but that’s not all there is for me. I’d like people to remember that I had some impact here before I left this Earth. Life is short. Live it fully and try to have a positive impact on others.”

About the Author:

Constantine von Hoffman is a business and financial writer. For the past 25 years, he has worked for CBS News, INC. Magazine, and The Boston Herald, among other news outlets. His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Harvard Business Review, Sierra Magazine, and The Boston Globe. 

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