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He's Taking a Detour to Retirement

In his 70s, Gene Sander changes gears to head the University of Arizona

Retirement planning? Don't mention it to Gene Sander these days. At 75, he did it by the book — sold his home, bought a new one near the grandchildren where his wife was awaiting him, said his good-byes at the University of Arizona, where he had worked 24 years, and was days away from leaving town when everything changed.

See also: America's oldest college football player.

Gene Sander, 78, the new president of the University of Arizona

Retirement can wait. Gene Sander, 76, is the University of Arizona's new president. — Photo by Luke Adams

Instead of fishing, he's working six days a week as the new president of a Pac-12 university, and loving it.

It all changed while standing in line for a sandwich at the student union. Robert Shelton, then University of Arizona president, dropped a bombshell, confiding that he was leaving his own job, very soon.

Several faculty friends asked Sander to at least listen to an offer from the Arizona Board of Regents when they met in a few days in Flagstaff. There several regents beseeched him to become the university's 20th president.

It was a logical choice. Eugene G. Sander had been the UA's go-to guy for more than two decades, as a dean, executive vice president, vice president for outreach and provost.

"I would have loved to have gone fishing for a month, but they wanted me to come on right away," Sander says.

He called his wife, Louise. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked. She said she couldn't bear to think that she had discouraged him if he really wanted the job.

He flew to Houston for a retirement celebration with family, got in the car and returned to a furnished rental in Tucson's foothills. "I just grabbed a toothbrush and walked in," he says.

When his wife returned from Texas to join him, he recalls, "it was like starting over again."

Grueling schedule

Sander isn't the oldest U.S. college president, but he took the job at an age when his peers are on the way out. The International Association of University Presidents knows of two other college chiefs his age, and they have announced retirements.

Would he take the job permanently, for the usual five years?

"I'm 76, and then I'd be 81 years old," he said. "I enjoy my work, but I've always said I am not going to die at my desk."

Next: From farm boy to president. >>

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