October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

After nearly three decades of marriage, Nick and Julie Bosustow seemed to be living the California dream. Nick was an Academy Award-winning producer of animated films, following in the footsteps of his late father, Stephen, the creator of Mr. Magoo. In recent years he’d been earning enviable fees as a consultant, negotiating production and distribution arrangements for a variety of projects. After raising their two daughters, Julie had earned her education degree and become a grade-school teacher. The Bosustows owned a charming house in tony Pacific Palisades, outside Los Angeles, and Nick drove a Jaguar. But something was missing. “I was no longer doing anything,” says Nick. “It was just deals. It was about money.”

In fact, the couple envied their older daughter, Nicole, 27, who had done something they had talked about but never committed to: She had joined the Peace Corps, becoming an agricultural adviser in Lesotho. Visiting last year, Nick and Julie were impressed by Nicole’s warm relationships with villagers and her minimalist living space (a hut without electricity or running water)—the perfect antidote, the couple thought, to their late-midlife doldrums. “There were no cell phones, none of this L.A. crap,” says Nick, 59. “I realized, ‘My God! There’s a reality to life!’ ”

Smitten, the Bosustows put aside all doubts and bravely reinvented themselves. Selling their home and most of their possessions, they forsook Hollywood for a hardscrabble existence as Peace Corps volunteers in the Guatemalan mountain state of Totonicapán, where they have lived since May. Nick still consults, but instead of doing power lunches he helps local natives market their bread and pottery. And Julie, 59, still works with children, but now she focuses on promoting basic hygiene. “Getting kids to use latrines,” she explains, “instead of peeing and pooping out in the fields.”

Their younger daughter, Jenny, 22, a student at San Francisco State University, is impressed by her parents’ metamorphosis. “I’m in awe,” she says. “There are so few people who realize their life isn’t wrorking for them and they drop it all and change it, especially at almost 60.”

To those who think of the Peace Corps as a relic of ’60s idealism, director Mark Gearan (who recently resigned his position) points to a revival in the organization, which has 6,700 volunteers in more than 100 countries. “A few years ago we’d receive about 100,000 inquiries [from prospective applicants],” he says. “The past couple of years we’ve averaged approximately 150,000.” And the percentage of volunteers over 50 has increased sevenfold since the organization’s founding 38 years ago. “Many, like the Bosustows, would have heard the call to service in 1961,” says Gearan. “But it may have taken years to answer.”

Nick’s first calling was cartoons. The younger son of animator-writer Steve Bosustow and his wife, Audrey, he was an infant when his father formed United Productions of America and won Oscars for films featuring Gerald McBoing-Boing and the nearsighted Mr. Magoo. After earning a business degree from Menlo College, Nick started with mail-room jobs at CBS and Universal Pictures before Steve got him started in producing. His first solo effort, a 1970 short on tolerance titled Is It Always Right to Be Right? won an Academy Award. “I didn’t think,” Nick says of his moment at the podium. “I just started naming names.”

In October of that year he began dating Memphis-born Julie, who had been seeing a friend of his. The only child of a broken marriage, she was raised by her grandmother in St. Louis and spent two years at the University of Missouri. In 1968, after a brief marriage, Julie moved to L.A., taking jobs at a commercial-production house and a venture capital firm. The pair courted for six months, married in April 1971 and bought their house in Pacific Palisades for just $35,000.

Nick went on to produce segments for Sesame Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and educational programs. Later he turned to consulting for foreign animation studios. “It was incredible money,” he says. In the mid-’90s, Julie earned a master’s in education from UCLA and began teaching first and second grades. By then, Nicole had graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and in 1997 she left for the Peace Corps and Africa. “I always encouraged in Jenny and Nicole the sense of being part of a bigger world,” says Julie. Nicole agrees but adds, “It was definitely the hardest two years I’ve ever spent—being in a village all by myself, having to rely fully on my intuition, to be my own best friend.”

Nicole had to leave Lesotho prematurely, when she and other volunteers were evacuated last November amid political unrest. But she stayed long enough for her parents’ life-altering visit. “In the mechanism of our marriage, it was the right time,” Nick says of their decision to apply to the Corps. “We were in sync, ready to move on, ready to share the adventure.” It took them less than 24 hours to unload their house—at an $835,000 profit. “It was kind of like losing a family member,” Julie says. Nick sold his Jag, while furniture and other possessions went in a garage sale. The rest—140 boxes of memorabilia—went into storage. Friends generally supported the move. Still, recalls Pam Mullen, a close friend, “My first reaction was, ‘No, you can’t leave me!’ I have extreme admiration for them, but I also miss them terribly.”

Though there were no guarantees, the couple requested a posting in Latin America because Julie spoke a little Spanish and they could easily reach L.A. to visit. Assigned to Guatemala, they arrived last January and were bused to a Santa Lucia training camp. Living with Guatemalan families, the Bosustows took intensive Spanish, and Nick was sent to another city for six weeks of business classes. On May 21 they were sworn in, officially beginning their two-year stint in Totonicapán. Their first home was a S54.50-a-month storefront (each spouse receives the equivalent of S200 a month for living expenses) with a shared toilet and no hot water. They used a Mr. Coffee to warm water for the bucket they used for bathing. (“I thought that was pretty creative,” says Julie, beaming.) After three weeks a school principal found them a townhouse with three bedrooms and two baths, a Versailles by Corps standards. “After visiting Nicole,” Julie says, “I thought we’d be in a more primitive situation.”

Settling into their jobs, the Bosustows have attacked their work enthusiastically. “They both have a wonderful childlike quality, but they’re extremely capable,” says Charles Reilly, Peace Corps director for Guatemala, of their eagerness. On one recent morning, Nick walked the dusty streets to his office at a rural development agency. Already a familiar figure, he exchanged smiles and hellos with men on bicycles, boys tending cattle and young women balancing baskets on their heads. Later he was greeted warmly by Amelia Eufracia Vásquez Puac, who bakes and sells pan dulce, a kind of roll. Thanks to a loan Nick’s agency arranged, she and her partners have a new metal oven, which is a big improvement over their old adobe model. “I just love these ladies,” Nick says.

The next day, Julie led elementary schoolers in a rousing sing-along. The kids clearly adore her. “She’s motivating the students,” says Susana Tacum Batz, a local teacher. “I’m very thankful for her.” Julie has also bonded with her Peace Corps colleagues, many of whom are in their 20s. “I’m kind of a surrogate mother,” she says. “It helps me get by not being with my kids.”

Nicole and Jenny plan a three-week visit in December. Meanwhile, their parents seem to be doing just fine. “I wouldn’t want to send the message to other couples that if they join the Peace Corps, it’s a second honeymoon,” Nick cautions. “It isn’t.” So far, though, their new lifestyle agrees with them. When their hitch ends in May 2001, they may sign on with CARE or some other aid group. “We certainly had more in the States, but that doesn’t matter anymore,” Nick says. “This is our second life.”

Richard Jerome

Don Sider in Totonicapán

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