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Originally published Tuesday, December 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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William Raspberry / Syndicated columnist

The what-next question

So, what's next? I've been wrestling with the question, in one form or another, ever since I decided that the end of this year would be...

WASHINGTON — So, what's next?

I've been wrestling with the question, in one form or another, ever since I decided that the end of this year would be the end of my 39 years as a newspaper columnist.

For years, I've had two nightmare scenarios. In the first, I'm sitting in a wheelchair on the deck of a luxury cruise ship, wearing a lap robe against the chill — and wondering where the devil I am. That is to say, I've feared that after reaching the point where I have the financial means to enjoy myself, with no further need to scrimp and save, I will discover that it's really too late for enjoyment. The second nightmare has me leaving my office horizontally, either dead or debilitated, without having had a real chance to discover who else I am, or what I might have done next.

The precondition for even considering the what-next question is having the energy to do something — which is one reason I've decided to retire now rather than too late.

The next step — or at any rate, my next step — involves two more questions: What is worth doing? What is within my reach?

The answers can be as grand or as humble as inclination and resources dictate. Jimmy Carter's next step was befitting of his knowledge and influence as a former American president. He merely set out to improve the world: to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and promote democracy, health, economic security and peace abroad. He and his Carter Center have done a lot of good on all these fronts. He may, in fact, be better-known — and assuredly is more universally well-regarded — for his leadership of Habitat for Humanity than for his service as the 39th president.

For others, including some neighbors of mine, the next step might involve cleaning and planting a tiny neighborhood lot.

I've recently come to know William C. Nelsen, whose next step was to sign up with the Registry for College and University Presidents, an organization of former college heads who make themselves available on an interim basis for colleges and universities that need executive help. He's now the temporary vice president for development at North Carolina Wesleyan College while also leading Scholarship America, the nation's foremost private scholarship and educational-support organization.

For retired educators, the next step might be mentoring young teachers or tutoring school children. For members of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), it is helping small businesses to gain a solid footing. For still others, it's anything from coaching tennis to teaching dance or flower-arranging. It comes down to priorities that are intensely personal: What's worth doing, and what is within my reach?

For me, the answers have been impressing themselves on my brain for a few years now. What's worth doing? One answer is helping to save an endangered generation of children. I still believe in the magic of education, a belief instilled in me by my teacher-parents. It scares me that the parents of so many young children today don't believe in the magic. It's almost as if they are afraid to believe in it, afraid to dream of success because they've become convinced that only failure is real. They may fantasize, but they don't strive.

What's the difference? Fantasy imagines success; striving asks: What do I do next?

I've taken it as my next-step project to help restore the faith that education can work wonders and to help another generation of young people learn to ask: What's next?

But within my personal limitations. The problem may be nationwide, but I've chosen to start in my hometown of Okolona, Miss. I've mentioned the project — Baby Steps — before. It is my attempt both to renew faith in the magic of education and to spark a faith in the efficacy of community. I believe that pulling a community together around the future of its children can do wonders to transform both.

The problem is that the effort is about to outgrow my ability to fund it out of pocket. And that brings me to my most immediate reason for stepping down now: I need to raise money to sustain and expand Baby Steps, and there's no way for a journalist to do that without being involved in a conflict of interest.

And so, although I'll continue to teach for a couple of years, I take my leave from a job that has given me extraordinary satisfaction and pleasure for nearly four decades. I thought you deserved to know what's next.

William Raspberry's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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