10 People Who Found Their Calling Later in Life

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For some time now, we have been hearing that 40 is the new 20. Now the statement that “60 is the new 20” is at risk of turning into yet another cliché. No doubt people are living longer and staying more active than ever before, but the legends below were seemingly defying the aging process long before 40, let alone 60, was equated with the robustness of youth. In fact, these cultural icons didn’t gain prominence in their respective fields until most of their counterparts were looking forward to retiring to warmer climes.

10. Helen Mirren

Actress Helen Mirren toiled in obscurity until her mid-40s.

Photo credit: cinemafestival/Shutterstock.com

You know you’ve made it when “Sir” or “Dame” is tacked in front of your name. So Dame Helen Mirren has certainly made it. Considering that many aging actresses evolve into waitresses as opposed to mega-stars, the fact that Mirren ever became a household name, let alone at the age of 62 for her Oscar-winning role in The Queen, is a rare achievement. Born in 1945, the former Ilyena Mironov long had a steady stream of work, but she didn’t get her big break until she was in her 40s, for her role as Jane Tennison in the U.K. drama Prime Suspect. At least one anonymous palm reader once predicted Mirren’s surprising fate, claiming that she would enjoy significant success later in life. In 2007, that prediction came true when Mirren was crowned showbiz royalty, thanks to her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II.


9. Julia Child

Julia Child's career as a cook bloomed in her 60s and 70s.

Photo credit: MDC Archives

For the first 36 years of her life, Julia McWilliams was a chameleon of sorts. Born in 1912 in Pasadena, California, to a wealthy heiress and real estate investor, the future chef extraordinaire studied writing in college. Though she submitted many of her writings to the likes of the New Yorker, she went unpublished. In her second career incarnation, she began working in 1941 for a government intelligence agency. While working in this capacity, she met her future husband, Paul. Without his reassignment to Paris in 1948, chances are we would never have discovered Julia Child and the joys of French cuisine. After moving to Paris, Child teamed up with two other culinary students to develop a 3-pound cookbook. That two-volume megabook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, became legendary, despite its authors receiving a modest advance of $750 split among them. Child became a recognized “face” in the 1960s with the syndication of her The French Chef cooking show. Well into her 60s and 70s, Child made regular appearances on Good Morning America. At age 81, this writer-turned-intelligence-official-turned-famous-chef became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame. She died in 2004, just two days shy of her 92nd birthday.


8. Colonel Sanders

Col. Harland Sanders was strugging financially when he franchised his first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant at age 65.

Born in 1890 in Kentucky (of course), Harland Sanders’ father died when he was 6, forcing his mother to become the family breadwinner. At that tender age, Sanders was tasked with cooking most of the family’s meals. Through the years, he perfected his down-home cooking skills, while taking on odd jobs ranging from insurance salesman to streetcar conductor. His dishes didn’t gain a following until 1930 when he began offering “Sunday meals, seven days a week” to famished travelers at his Corbin, Kentucky, gas station. Five years later, the state’s governor named Sanders an honorary “Colonel” for his devotion to the state cuisine. At the age of 65, struggling to make ends meet, Sanders began franchising restaurants touting the secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. By 1965, the KFC chain had grown to 600 franchises and now serves more than 12 million customers daily in 110 countries. The Colonel died in 1980 at the age of 90.


7. Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt was 66 when his first novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, was published.

Photo credit: David Shankbone

Following the publication of his breakthrough novel, Angela’s Ashes, in 1996, McCourt characterized himself as a “late-bloomer” to the New York Times. That’s an apt assessment. Though born in Brooklyn, his Irish parents moved the family back to the homeland during the Great Depression, but they were unable to escape the poverty that haunted them Stateside. These stories about growing up painfully poor in Ireland during the Depression were later fashioned into Angela’s Ashes and McCourt’s follow-up novel, ’Tis. At the age of 19, McCourt returned to New York and — in a glimpse of what was to come — the gifted storyteller taught creative writing in Manhattan for several decades. It wasn’t until his retirement that he actually took his own advice, which he loosely described to his students as: “Write about what you know.” That narrative about his family life became Angela’s Ashes, published when he was 66. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book has been translated into 20 languages and sold more than 4 million copies. McCourt wrote two more books at the ages of 69 and 74. In 2009, he succumbed to cancer at age 78.


6. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder was 68 when she published her seminal work, Little House on the Prairie.
Wilder is the ultimate inspiration to older authors who hope to one day publish a book. With no formal training, Wilder was 65 when she published her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods. Her most renowned work, Little House on the Prairie, followed three years later. Born in a log cabin in 1867, Wilder’s family were virtual nomads, settling in then-relatively uncharted territories, including Kansas where Little House on the Prairie was set. Wilder completed schooling at age 13 and went on to teach two years later. What Wilder didn’t have in formal training, she made up for in intricate observation and raw talent; academics speculate that Wilder honed her skill for illustrating details with words after her sister, Mary, went blind at the age of 14. At that time, her father told the young Laura that she was to be her sister’s eyes from then on. Following the death of her sister and mother, and with the encouragement of her daughter, Rose, L.I.W. began putting pen to paper. Her tales of life on the prairie continue to be sold in 40 different languages. Three more books were published after Wilder’s death in 1957 at the age of 90.


5. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California at age 55.
Perhaps one of the most recognized career changers of all time, the 40th president of the United States didn’t start out with political aspirations. The Illinois-born Reagan was discovered by Hollywood in 1937 at the age of 26 after completing a screen test. For the next two decades, Reagan would appear in more than 50 films. We don’t remember Reagan for his acting chops, however. His political career took flight when he confronted the issue of Communism in the film industry while serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s. After switching from the Democratic to the Republican party in the 1960s, Reagan traveled the country as a conservative spokesperson. In 1966, at the age of 55, he was elected governor of California. Re-election followed in 1970 and, 10 years later, Reagan and running mate George H.W. Bush easily defeated then-incumbent Jimmy Carter. A second term followed in 1984. Reagan served as president until he was almost 78 years old. He died in 2004 at the age of 93, a decade after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.


4. Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin published his controversial book, On the Origin of Species at age 50.
Born into a wealthy English family, the renowned scientist’s father picked out two professions for his son: medical doctor or clergyman. Darwin had other ideas, pursuing his fascination with the natural world. At age 22, he was selected to survey the South American coast, including the Galapagos Islands, as the naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The trip would be the turning point in the budding scientist’s career. Darwin didn’t gain notoriety until publishing his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in 1859. At that point, Darwin was 50. Some academics speculate Darwin delayed publication of his work for many years due to pressure from religious figures. Even now, some 130 years after his death, his theories remain controversial.


3. Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill rose to the prime minister position in Great Britain in his 60s.
Long before he was “The Right Honourable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill,” he was the offspring of an American heiress and an English aristocrat. Rebellious by nature, the young Churchill could have worked his way through the ranks of military service, but instead sought out active military campaigns. His experiences in these campaigns were later recounted in novels, as Churchill was also a gifted writer and painter. Early on, his writings made him a public figure. The political career that would make him legendary gained momentum in the 1930s when he spoke out against granting India dominion status. On the cusp of World War II, Churchill became a member of the war cabinet and, following Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s resignation, he assumed the premiership at the age of 65. He served two different stints in that role until stepping down at age 80. Churchill also served as a member of Parliament until a few months before his death at age 90 in 1965.


2. Gandhi

Gandhi rose to prominence in politics in his 60s.
For 20 years, Mohandas Gandhi used his law degree to fight prejudice against Indians in South Africa. But Gandhi reached the global stage — and later attained icon status — when, at the age of 61, he led nationwide protests against British-imposed taxes. At age 73, Gandhi led the “Quit India” civil disobedience movement, a call for Indian independence from Britain. He was imprisoned many times in both India and South Africa through the years, and underwent many hunger strikes to draw attention to his cause. Eventually, this “Father of the Nation” lived to see his homeland break away from Britain. Still, he continued to protest over the partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan, which resulted in bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims. These final series of protests led to his death; a fellow Hindu assassinated the 78-year-old Gandhi 1948, en route to a prayer meeting.


1. Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses rose to fame as a painter in her 80s.
Anna Mary Robinson Moses stands as the prime example of someone achieving great success late in life. Of course, she’s much better known as “Grandma Moses.” A skilled embroiderer in her early years, when Moses’ hands became crippled by arthritis, her sister suggested the mother of five take up painting. Moses was 80 when her first solo exhibit, “What a Farmwife Painted,” opened to favorable reviews in 1940, according to the Orlando Museum of Art. Over the final two decades of her life, Moses’ works could be found on everything from holiday cards to calendars. At age 88, Mademoiselle featured her as “Young Woman of the Year.” Known worldwide for her artistic talent, she was also well liked for her down-home, unflappable-in-the-face-of-fame personality. When she passed away in 1961 at age 101, the Grandma who picked up a paintbrush on a whim had more than 1,600 works to her name.

Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.