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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

A different path A different path (August 28, 2002)

Instead of grabbing for the brass ring, two men stepped out of the arena altogether -- and discovered a whole new world

by Carol Blitzer

What if?

What if you had the opportunity to retire early, had accumulated enough assets to live comfortably, but knew there were many things you had never tried in your life?

Two men -- John Dhuey of Palo Alto and Lee Middleman of Portola Valley -- gave up their day jobs to pursue their passions. Dhuey chose to learn to teach -- not a small commitment -- after working as a patent attorney for nearly 30 years. Middleman wanted to tap back into his creative core, this time choosing ceramics instead of physics.

Each went through a period of examining values, wondering if he could "afford" to retire, assessing what he'd have to give up and what he had to gain. After surviving mergers, buy-outs and downsizing, each had decided he had had enough, and concluded there was much more to life than the pursuit of money -- and no better time than now to begin.
John Dhuey: Meeting his own potential

The fourth time John Dhuey went through a downsize/merger/buy-out, he stopped to ask himself just why he was still working as a patent attorney. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy his career -- he did -- but Dhuey always thought he'd like to try his hand at teaching.

This would not be Dhuey's first career switch. He began as a chemical engineer, nearly earning a Ph.D. before going to work as a patent agent for a pharmaceutical company in the Midwest. While there, he decided that a law degree would take him further and soon he was taking night courses at Loyola University in Chicago.

In 1979, Dhuey took a job with Syntex in Palo Alto and worked as a patent attorney there for close to 18 years before it was purchased by Roche, which let the legal division go. He then spent a year with a private law firm, but objected to the incredibly long hours and soon found himself at Alza Corp.

"I had always thought about teaching and talked about it," he said. While at Syntex, the legal division participated an Adopt-a-Classroom program at Menlo Oaks School, and he had helped out in the classroom once a week. He had also mentored two students over the years, both in Evanston and here, developing long-term relationships with both of them. When his daughters were younger, he coached soccer and softball.

So, when Alza considered a merger with Abbott Labs (which eventually fell through) he began looking into teaching more seriously.

After adjusting to three other significant staff reductions, he knew he could do it again. "But this was the time -- I was getting older," he said noting that at 58 he could draw upon his Syntex pension to supplement his income.

Dhuey entered the teaching world slowly. First, he cut back to half time at Alza and did an internship at Beechwood School in East Palo Alto. There he functioned as a teacher's assistant, doing yard duty and teaching math and science.

During that internship year, he asked himself two key questions: Can he afford to teach, and can he do it well?

"I wasn't real comfortable, going from a lawyer's compensation to what was going to be ours, but I figured I could do it. I had saved a little bit over the years and figured there was a slush fund, if I need to go into something. I just felt this was worth it," he said.

Dhuey's wife Sandra is a homemaker who volunteers with the Downtown Food Closet, and his daughters have already graduated from college. Expenses in his Duveneck-neighborhood home, purchased back in 1979, are minimal. Travel and savings could be put on hold.

The second question was a little trickier. At Christmas time, Dhuey had a self-to-self conversation about whether teaching was the right step. For one thing, it was more frustrating than he imagined.

"The big issue for me was I felt there would be a significant amount of personal satisfaction doing this and I didn't get it. I had to make up my mind whether I could go on without that," Dhuey said.

"The difficult teaching issue is you have a whole range of children in a classroom, those that are difficult learners and children who are more advanced, or learning comes more easily to them. In 45 minutes, you have to deal with that whole range. ...I'm a fledgling teacher. It's difficult to deal with that well," he said.

Once he decided he could live with the small satisfactions, he pursued a job in a private school since he did possess a teaching credential. Scrolling through job listings on the Internet, he found an opening at St. Elizabeth Seton School in Palo Alto, where he quickly applied.

Dhuey just finished his first year at Seton. He taught six classes a day including four different math classes, fifth-grade science and second-grade P.E.

As for that sense of satisfaction, Dhuey is convinced it will grow.

"Is it perfect? No. Am I ridiculously happy because of the work? No. It's very difficult work. Do I think it's important what I'm doing? Yes. Do I think I'm good for the kids? Yes," he said.

All last year, Dhuey rose at 4 a.m. to prepare for his classes or correct problem sets and quizzes. Most days he was at school by 6:30 a.m. (class began at 8 a.m.) and home by 5 p.m. He usually devoted one weekend day to work, figuring he put in close to 80 hours a week on teaching.

Because it was his first year, he prepared detailed lesson plans, tried them out, then made alterations when they didn't work. He's received feedback that knows his subject matter, but sometimes seems to be addressing college students instead of 11-year-olds. He's working on improving his communication skills.

He's also still trying to figure out how to look over 1,800 problems a day, knowing that there are not enough hours to grade each one.

What drives Dhuey is the sense that his charges have so much potential to be good students and good people.

"You see the potential particularly in the lower grades; they're so exuberant about learning. As they go on, somehow we repress the exuberance. ...That's a big problem for me," he said.

His goal is to figure out how to make learning enjoyable. "I know the subject matter. How you make it a lot of fun and still control the classroom, that's hard," he added.

Comparing his experience to working in patent law, Dhuey notes he did enjoy his time as an attorney and thought he was pretty good at the profession.

"I think I'm a good teacher, but those are different terms. I'm a good teacher because I work hard and care about the kids. ...As a patent attorney, I felt I was a good attorney and my skill level was high. As a teacher in the classroom now, the learning curve is steep."

Dhuey is giving himself three years to acquire the skills that will keep the students motivated and help them learn, ideally at their highest possible level. But he's holding off on any self-evaluation, cutting himself some slack while he develops new skills.

He said he misses some of his law colleagues, but added he has found "terrific people" among his fellow teachers, both at Beechwood and at Seton, as well as the students themselves.

Along the way he's adopted the motto of a fellow teacher: Never give up, either on himself or on any child.
Lee Middleman: Crafting a new career

Lee Middleman figured he was too young to retire at 53, so he decided to take a six-month break, sort of a sabbatical. Growing more dissatisfied with his work -- after yet another buy-out -- he wanted some time to step back and consider his options before re-entering the work fray.

Although he'd had plenty of creative outlets as a physicist, earning patents along the way for his inventions, the later years of his career were spent in management, or leading transition teams through yet another merger.

"It wasn't as exciting as designing new products," he said, but it tapped into other skills, such as managing people.

His last job was as a vice president for research and development for Nellcor Puritan Bennet Incorporated, where he worked in both research and operations. By 1998, through mergers and acquisitions, Nellcor grew to a billion-dollar company.

Ultimately, it wasn't the long hours and strenuous travel schedule that made him think twice about his work. Nellcor was purchased by a large Midwest-based pharmaceutical company. Middleman was asked once more to lead an integration team.

After the buy-out, things stopped being "fun. ...We were always focused on how we can cut costs, how we can make numbers that were promised to Wall Street, less and less to where are we to go technically," he said. Middleman said he didn't think the new company understood the concept of working in teams and investigating the marketplace; they were strictly interested in reports and numbers.

His fantasy was to take six months off, relax a little and travel with his wife, Donnie. Their kids were grown, their mortgage insignificant, and Donnie continued to work at her full-time financial planning practice.

Soon he was inundated with business lunches with companies and venture capitalists, where he was asked to evaluate opportunities. He realized he'd need more like nine to 12 months -- and he announced at his going-away party that he really wanted to get back into art, specifically clay.

Middleman had dabbled in art in high school, even helped earn his way through Johns Hopkins by working as a commercial artist. But he hadn't seriously considered taking an art class until this sabbatical when he discovered the Palo Alto Art Center.

"I took a class and absolutely loved it," he said, noting that for $2.50 per hour he could rent studio space and practice what he learned in class.

"I started coming in four days a week, then five days a week, coming in at 10 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m.," he recalled, noting he often interacted with other potters -- both amateur and semi-professional -- while working in the studio.

To ease his transition -- and perhaps test his desires -- he took a job as a "virtual V.P. of R&D" for a medical company. He came in two days a week, offered his advice, then spent the rest of the week behind the wheel.

"I actually could shut it off," he said, referring to the day job, "I was surprised I could compartmentalize as well as I could."

As he looked at opportunities, it was becoming clearer that nothing quite fit. In fact, he was dreading some of the things he'd have to do -- fighting for resources, getting hammered for why products were late. His wife, the professional financial planner, soon sat him down for a realistic chat about how much they needed to live comfortably.

Middleman had done very well in the work force and had accumulated savings through bonuses and stock options as well. The real question was, was it enough?

Middleman pondered, "(Hypothetically), if you had $4 million would that change your mind? If you had four, would $10 million make that much of a difference? Or $20 million? My goal is not to be a $100 million asset person. There wasn't enough pulling me to go back.

"We could pretty much hold onto our lifestyle by managing our assets, by my wife working," he said.

He had no delusions about making a living as a potter, and was pleasantly surprised when he started selling his pieces at a premium.

Nearly four years later, Middleman spends most days in his home studio, which he built facing the open space behind his Portola Ranch home. He still spends one day a week at the Palo Alto Art Center's Open Studio, mainly for the interaction with other potters. Although he spends most of his time working alone, he makes a point of getting out to pottery guild meetings -- and chatting during the day with his wife, who also works from home.

Having judged that he'd reached a turning point in his development as a potter, Middleman began selling his work about a year ago. First, he applied to the Association of Clay and Glass Artists of California, which juries in fewer than 500 artisans.

His first major showing was at the ACGA's 10th Annual Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival in July, where he selected 75 of his best pieces to sell. He also participated in the Open Studio, where 350 people came traipsing through his studio in two days and he "did phenomenal sales." Next may come galleries.

"I don't have an income goal," he said, which would include doing eight shows per year, for example. "I want to keep it simple. I want to do more art than craft, what I enjoy."

What he enjoys does not include teacups or platters, but tends to the more abstract ceramic forms. "I seek to create shapes that reflect the curves found in nature and patterns and textures that emphasize the organic interplay between order and randomness," he notes in his artist's statement.

Lately he has spent a lot of time developing textures by impressing patterns into thrown cylinders. Then he expands the cylinder only from the inside, letting the textured pattern evolve.

Still a physicist at heart, his studio is well-organized and labeled, with notes on his experimental glazes and textures neatly filed away. The pieces he likes are displays in a room next to the studio. Those he doesn't like are destroyed, knowing he can improve upon them in future.

"When I first started the clay work, I wasn't sure I'd make any money at it. It has worked out. How far I'll go I don't know," he said.

"I'm a very serious potter, but I don't have to make a certain amount of money in order to pay the rent."

Whereas before, they almost couldn't spend their money fast enough, today the Middlemans have cut back on their lifestyle. "We think about the size of trips, how we're going to spend our money," he said.

Is there anything he misses from the corporate life?

"Oh, yeah. There's power and ego. You have a lot of people working for you," he said, noting that at one time he had close to 1,000 people working for him. "You get to jet around and stay at the best hotels, eat at the best restaurants. ...In the end, the thing that got me most is I miss the people I worked with, I miss the interaction. It was a really solid group of people. ...I definitely gave up something," he said.

And on the positive side?

"I have the pleasure of doing what I want to do," and that includes seeing enormous progress in developing his art. "Some of my former colleagues don't get it. They can't believe that I left all that and this is what I'm doing now. I've given up the power, the ego, the money, the fraternity," he said.

"I'm creating art now. It's creative. It's not inventing products any more," but he is developing his own techniques for texturing his work. Eventually, Middleman said he'd like to teach a workshop, but today he feels he's still evolving his skills.

"There are so many things I want to try, not just patterns and textures. There are not enough hours in the day."

E-mail Carol Blitzer at


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