By: Stephen Lester, CSO string bassist since 1978
It was a chance encounter in a grocery store, a former colleague who had been in our bass section for all of my then twenty-five years in the orchestra and who had retired a couple of years ago. We greeted each other with enthusiasm, I had always liked him. Wayne Balmer was always ready with a witty quip, and after a typical exchange of pleasantries and talk about life in retirement (the history class he was taking, staying fit) he said to me, “ but I have to tell you, the most important thing about retirement is the pension! That security is everything to me, it would have been impossible without it.”
I was struck by his honesty, this was no quip. Clearly, for a single man without a family, this benefit was not just dollars and cents, it gave him the security that retirees are finding ever elusive. At that point in my life I was nowhere near retirement, but Wayne made me realize how important that benefit is. He was able to live in the same house he had when he was working, able to keep a car, go to the health club, maintain his independence. He could plan for his future, even in retirement. Though I had always understood our pension benefit, now I realized the other side of it, how it enhanced a person’s life.
When Wayne retired, his pension was almost sixty per cent of his final year’s wages. He had Social Security and some savings, but they only supplemented what was the bedrock of his security: the pension from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, where he had played for 37 years. That pension benefit, a defined benefit plan, was negotiated over the years between the Association and the musicians’ union. The Plan requires the Association to contribute to a fund that then pays out that benefit to retirees until they die. It may seem that the retiree hasn’t paid into the fund; however, as a result of those negotiations, money that would have been paid as wages was set aside for the pension fund instead. So, Wayne did, in fact, contribute to his retirement, albeit indirectly.
The pension is a promise, made by the Association, to use previously designated funds to help our Members when they retire. Let’s be frank, musicians are not money managers, we do not even have access to the type of financial investments that pension funds use. We cannot provide that level of security on our own. So the promise, to shepherd those funds and make them available when needed, is not just dollars and cents, but an opportunity to have a secure retirement. Wayne made that so clear in that one short statement; a meaningful pension made all the difference to him.
Over the next dozen years, my wife and I shared many good dinners with Wayne at a favorite restaurant in Evanston. He lived to be almost ninety, all but the last few months still in his own house.
Our Pension Trust Fund has been in existence for over forty years. It is one of the proudest accomplishments of our Orchestra and has made a huge difference to many musicians. It helps attract and retain our Members, and it keeps the quality of our retirees’ lives at a level of dignity and security that is commensurate with the lives they have led.