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Making travel a priority

Michigan couple immersed themselves in culture during two decades of travels

Created date

October 14th, 2014
man in front of Dallas Hall

Springs resident Walt Thieme remembers gazing at Michelangelo’s Pietà at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

“It was mesmerizing,” says Walt. “But it was just a taste of what I wanted to see. I wanted to visit Michelangelo’s David in Florence and the Mona Lisa and Rodin’s Thinker in Paris. I wanted to tour the Russian palaces in Saint Petersburg and walk along the Great Wall of China. I wanted to see the pyramids in Egypt and the ruins in Greece. I wanted to explore other parts of the world and experience new cultures.”

So Walt and his wife Rae planned accordingly.

“We knew we could save money for future travels if we lived below our means,” says Walt, who worked in pharmaceutical sales for The Upjohn Company. “We lived in a 1,600-square-foot home and kept our cars for many years.”

The couple’s plan worked. Walt retired in 1994 at the age of 57, ready to take on the world.

Exploring the globe

Walt and Rae’s travels took them to China, Japan, Thailand, Egypt, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Wherever they went, they made a point to immerse themselves in the local culture.

“We were on a boat in Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, when we struck up a conversation with a Swiss lady,” says Walt. “She invited us to visit her and her family in their home. Since then, we’ve visited them five times, and they’ve come to America to visit us. The relationships we’ve formed during our travels help us understand the culture in a personal way.”

Another time, Walt and Rae were touring a yellow-eyed penguin sanctuary near Dunedin, New Zealand, when they met a couple from Australia. 

“We started talking, and our friendship grew from there,” says Walt. “Rae and I had already been to Eastern Australia, snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef and hot air ballooning across the Outback. But this couple was from Western Australia. We visited them in their home and explored Tasmania together. In 2010, this same couple visited us for a five-week, 5,000-mile road trip across the Eastern United States. Those type of friendships are priceless.”

Heading south

In December 2013, Walt and Rae moved to Highland Springs, the Erickson Living community in North Dallas.

“We were living in Kalamazoo, Mich., where The Upjohn Company had its headquarters,” says Walt. “But when it came time to choose a retirement community, we wanted to be closer to our daughter in Dallas.”

The couple selected Highland Springs for its many activities, friendly staff and residents, and abundant amenities, including the on-site medical center.

“There’s always something going on at Highland Springs, and I like to keep busy,” says Walt, who has channeled his love of travel into a unique opportunity for residents.

“I filmed all our trips with a handheld video camera, and I’m in the process of turning them into narrated 30- to 40-minute films about each country or region,” he says.

‘No-hassle travel’

Walt’s films have soared in popularity among Highland Springs residents, prompting Community Resources Coordinator Barbara Blachly to schedule a series of “no-hassle travel” programs featuring one of Walt’s films each month.

“Walt’s films are unique because they offer a firsthand look at the countries he’s visited,” says Blachly. “He’s inviting residents to join him on the discovery of these amazing places.”

For Walt, his traveling days aren’t done. He’s working with Blachly to plan a trip for residents to tour buildings around Dallas that echo famous places, like the Pantheon-inspired rotunda at Southern Methodist University.

“You can’t really understand your own culture until you experience other cultures,” says Walt. “Our travels have given me a fresh appreciation for the life we have in America.”