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Standing The Test of Time


An Interview With James B. Gardiner
by Arthur J. Schwartz

On October 31, 2002, James B. Gardiner retired at the age of 95. CAS President Bob Conger and SOA President W. James MacGinnittie issued a joint certificate of appreciation. The Actuarial Review was fortunate to catch a few moments with Gardiner on his last day as supervising actuary at the New York State Insurance Department. Our conversation follows:

AR: Many folks seem to look forward to an early retirement. In contrast, you have enjoyed working until 95. Please tell us about your work history.

Gardiner: I have enjoyed it, thanks. I started in 1927 as a summer clerk with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. I became a full-time employee on, believe it or not, September 11, 1929. I passed all the exams for Fellowship in the Actuarial Society of America, a predecessor to today's Society of Actuaries, in 19351. I was working in the group insurance contract bureau. We dealt with hospital and surgical contracts on group health and workers compensation. I began to wonder, because of the link to workers compensation, if there was something on the other side of the fence, casualty insurance, because they [casualty actuaries] were the experts in that field. So I called the CAS, and spoke with Albert Z. Skelding2, who at the time was charged with making admissions decisions. Basically, I was wondering, as a life and health Fellow of the Actuarial Society of America, if I could have some of the early CAS exams waived. These were exams dealing with basic math, including algebra, calculus, and probability. Of course as a Fellow, I had already demonstrated a mastery of topics that were much more advanced. However, Skelding was firm: "no waiver." I had to accept that decision philosophically. I reasoned that a review of these subjects would be a good refresher. So I started out taking the early CAS exams and eventually passed all of them, achieving Fellowship in 1948.

AR: Your dedication is admirable. I wish they could have made some exception, at least for the early exams.

Gardiner: I continued with Metropolitan in the group annuities area, all the way up to 1972 when I was forcibly retired. Metropolitan had a policy of requiring anyone achieving age 65 to immediately retire. I did not want to retire. I enjoyed my work immensely. So I was in touch with a few recruiters back then, to see if something could open up in the consulting area for pensions or annuities. While that was happening, I heard about a position with the New York Insurance Department. I went over and about ten minutes into the interview they asked me if I wanted the position. I accepted, reasoning that I could always leave within a year if something in the consulting area came through. I didn't realize that I could like a position with the government so well. I have been here ever since.

AR: Please tell us about your work with the Department.

Gardiner: My areas of interest have been group annuities and public pensions. New York is unique in that the State Insurance Department oversees the pensions of all public entities such as state and municipal employees, firefighters, police, teachers, and judges. This has an interesting history. Some of these systems were actually defunct before 1920, when the Department was given supervisory authority. These pension plans have a long-term nature. Projections, and the underlying assumptions, can have a dramatic impact on the needed income to the funds. Total assets under the Department's supervision today come to about $327 billion. I enjoyed my position as an overseer of the funds' solvency. The position was an interesting mix of actuarial science and politics. At times of financial stress, the funds are under political pressure to recommend the smallest possible payments into the funds, to keep costs down. Yet the Department feels that certain minimums must be met.

AR: Have you come across any areas that may be worth further research?

Gardiner: Yes. I have often wondered about the mortality rates among groups, especially religious groups like the Mormons, who espouse a policy of no drinking and no smoking. Another area is the recent study that disclosed, for the first time, a link between folks receiving higher pensions and having lower mortality. Additional research in this area would be useful.

AR: Maybe they live longer because they have a financial incentive?

Gardiner: Possibly. Stress reduces longevity.

AR: What are your plans during retirement?

Gardiner: One specific plan is to gather our family's history. I would like to gather up the notes and journals, correlate them, and put them into print. There are many sources of genealogical information; it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. When you make a breakthrough, it's quite a kick. With pencil and paper, interview the oldest living members of your family. Take down everything they say about where they were born and where they lived, and where their parents and grandparents were from. If they ramble, take notes anyway. I had one aunt who rambled on and on. Yet, when she said the same thing twice, I felt fairly confident it was accurate.

AR: Thank you very much. Please accept our heart-felt wishes for a safe and pleasant retirement.

1 The Society of Actuaries was formed from the merger in 1949 of two predecessor organizations, the Actuarial Society of America and the American Institute of Actuaries.

2 FCAS 1929