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Hitting It Big—Finally

Many wildly successful people didn't become superstars until after age 50. Find out how you can too.

Just One Book—That's All It Took

Sylvia Nasar, 58, Tarrytown, New York

Hitting It Big

John Blais

Sylvia Nasar learned about the life of John Nash, the genius mathematician who would make her famous, in 1993, a year before he won the Nobel Prize in economics. She was interviewing a source for The New York Times, where she was an economics reporter, and he mentioned the rumor that the long-forgotten Nash was a Nobel contender. As a graduate student in economics, she had studied Nash's equilibrium theory, first published in 1950. Nasar assumed that Nash was dead, but she soon learned that he was roaming the campus of Princeton University, a ghostly figure slowly emerging from the paranoid schizophrenia that had fractured his mind during his youth and destroyed his cometlike career. "I really felt like this was the most amazing story I'd ever come across as a reporter," she says.

Nasar wrote an article detailing his precocious youth, his decline into schizophrenia, and his remarkable journey back to sanity. Her story drew an enormous response from readers—and lucrative book offers. She hadn't intended to write a book, but these two factors "made me realize I've got to do this," she says.

"A Beautiful Mind" was published in 1998, when Nasar was 51. It wasn't an overnight success. But when the book was made into a film directed by Ron Howard—which won an Oscar for best picture in 2002—it became a bestseller. (And yes, she met Russell Crowe.)

"I didn't write the book because I thought it would get me somewhere," she says. "I just thought the story was so compelling." Nonetheless she enjoys her success: "I've met amazing people. I'd never gone to a book reading or an author lecture before I gave them. And is that fun? Oh, yeah, that's fun."

Thanks to "A Beautiful Mind," Nasar is now Columbia University's first Knight professor of business journalism and is busy writing her second book, which is about great economics thinkers of the 20th century. She feels incredibly lucky: "I have options about what to do with my life at an age when a lot of people's options are narrowing."

Plays With Dirt, Feeds the World

Pedro A. Sanchez, 65, Upper Grandview, New York

Hitting It Big

If things had gone as planned, Pedro A. Sanchez would be running his father's fertilizer company in Havana and much more of the world's population would be starving. Instead the Cuban Revolution forced his family to flee in 1960 to the U.S., where Sanchez, the oldest of four children, was studying agronomy at Cornell University. As the family business was gone, Sanchez switched to plan B: to become an expert in tropical soils so he could fight world hunger. A seminar at Cornell had stunned him by revealing the potential for massive starvation in India. "That threat inspired me to choose this work," he says. He had no inkling that he'd one day be honored globally as one of the most prominent people in his field.

In 1968 Sanchez went to Peru and helped the country achieve self-sufficiency in rice in just three years. Later he helped Brazilian scientists use 70 million acres of land in the Cerrado region, long assumed useless, and now their soybean production equals that of the U.S.

After 50, Sanchez began his work in Africa, where he has helped millions of farmers boost their crop yields by planting trees that add nitrogen to the soil. "I love to play with dirt," he says. Asked if he gardens, he replies: "My garden is a village in western Kenya called Sauri, where they made me an honorary tribal chief, telling me that the trees had restored the villagers' dignity because now they could feed their families."

While Sanchez was held in great esteem by grateful farmers and his peer scientists, he achieved worldwide acclaim only after two recent events.

In 2003 he won the World Food Prize—often compared in importance to the Nobel Prize—for his lifelong achievements in reducing hunger. A year later he was awakened from a nap by a telephone call from the MacArthur Foundation telling him he was receiving one of its "genius grants" of $500,000.

Now the director of the Tropical Agriculture Program at Columbia University's Earth Institute, Sanchez understands the changes and opportunities that have come with his recognition. "I've got notoriety now," he says. "People take me more seriously, and I can influence the cause of eliminating world hunger for good."

She Has a Ph.D. in Perseverance Too

Verna J. Willis, 78, Atlanta, Georgia

Hitting It Big

For most of her life Verna J. Willis has known very little stability. Divorced in her late 40s, with five of her seven children still at home in Orchard Park, New York, she had jobs that always turned out to be short-term. She kept at her studies, however, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in education from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

By her late 50s Willis was frustrated and wrote a set of goals. At the top: a tenure-track position at a university. "I knew that was the only way I'd ever have job security," she says. She had no clue how to get there.

She took a 13-month teaching job with a World Bank project in Indonesia, and she began to feel desperate as it was winding down: "I was going home in a few months and I had nothing to pay the mortgage."

Then a friend told her of an opening at Georgia State University. Willis flew halfway around the world on her own nickel to interview for the job in Atlanta. "I think that impressed them," she says. At nearly 62 she was hired to create a new degree program in human resources development. And four years later Willis was awarded tenure.

In 1991 Willis called for the creation of a new corporate job: chief learning officer, in charge of expanding worker skills. Today the position exists in hundreds of organizations, such as Boeing and the U.S. Navy.

Willis retired last year at 77. "I figured that if I didn't, I wouldn't have any retirement," she jokes. She now teaches her courses online.

From Struggling Duffer to Golf's Iron Man

Dana Quigley, 58, West Palm Beach, Florida

Hitting It Big

Golf is Dana Quigley's obsession. He plays every day unless it's raining so hard he can't, and he doesn't think it's extraordinary to polish off 54 holes—three rounds of 18—in a day. When he lost his exempt status from the PGA Tour in 1983 after five middling years, he took a $40,000-a-year job as a teaching pro at a country club. "I didn't have to work very hard to stay there," he says.

Another obsession was undermining his potential: alcohol. He drank heavily, he says, because he never thought he was good enough as a golfer. Drinking cost him his first marriage and the custody of his two children and caused two automobile accidents. Finally one night in 1990, as Quigley was speeding home from the golf course, "half-gassed again," he recalls, "I thought: Man, this is crazy." He switched to nonalcoholic beer. Amazingly, without the help of rehab or Alcoholics Anonymous, he hasn't had a drink since.

As he neared 50 Quigley started thinking about joining the Champions Tour, which is the PGA Tour's circuit for players 50 and over. But he still suffered from the paralyzing lack of confidence that had sabotaged him years before. "My game was always good enough," he says, "but I had no self-esteem." If players like Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson came near him on a practice tee, he'd slink away.

At the urging of his brother, Paul, and his friend professional golfer Brad Faxon, Quigley spent three days in November 1996 with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. "We'd get up in the morning and talk," he says. Rotella convinced Quigley that he had a winner's game and was a match for anyone. The pep talks caused a transformation that still leaves Quigley astonished. "I have no idea how Bob did it," he says. Quigley went on to win the next five events he entered. In 1997 he joined the Champions Tour and has played in 264 consecutive events since—a record that has earned him the nickname Iron Man. In last May's tour he surpassed $11 million in career winnings—more than Jack Nicklaus's career tally. While he no longer lacks confidence, Quigley is still adjusting to fame. "I spent 50 years in obscurity," he says buoyantly, "and now people who don't even know me, know me."

She Proved Her Mettle With Steel

Barbara Manzi, 61, Brooksville, Florida

Hitting It Big

Barbara Manzi's life acquired purpose when her high school sewing teacher told her: "Barbara, you'd better learn to cook and sew, because as a poor black child you're not going to amount to much."

"I didn't even know I was poor until she said that!" says Manzi, who grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the third of 12 children. "But her comment made me realize that I was going to be a hard worker and I was not going to cook and sew all my life."

After she graduated from high school, Manzi married a New York City police officer and had two children. She began working in retail, and her sales experience eventually landed her a job with a local metals distributor that offered on-the-job training. She leapt at the chance to sit between the company's two top sellers so she could study their skills.

In working with clients Manzi discovered that the federal government reserved about 20 percent of its contract awards for women- and minority-owned suppliers. After she gained experience with federal contracts, she started thinking about leaving to open her own metals-distribution business. An executive scoffed at the idea, saying that she would need too much start-up cash and implying that as a black woman she'd never get it. "I thought, Oh yeah? I can do this just as well as you can," says Manzi. She resigned.

Refinancing her two cars for seed money, she opened Manzi Metals, Inc., in Brooksville, Florida, in 1995. At age 51 her total revenues that first year were $145,000. Today she has 14 employees and, thanks to customers such as Lockheed Martin and Rolls-Royce, her revenues in 2004 were more than $5 million. Manzi's goal? To grow enough to omit the words small businesss from her credentials. "I want to become the Oprah of raw materials," she declares.

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