The first installment in Reflections on Retirement is here.
Given that my childhood did not put me on a path that led directly to the place of wealth and philanthropy, how the heck did I end up there? I guess you could say I sort of fell into it. Come to think of it, when I look back I can see that my life was pretty much unplanned all the way along, I just availed myself of opportunities presented to me and fairly naively took it from there. I’ll show you what I mean.
Take college for example. One day, Miss Rice – my social studies teacher at Cottage Grove High School who also served a kind of career counseling role – handed me an application for a scholarship and said, “Your SAT scores are good, I think you should apply for this.” I looked at it, it was an application for the Grass Roots Talent Search program at the University of Chicago that – if you were accepted – guaranteed complete financial assistance for four years if you kept up your grades and contributed positively to the university community. Early in high school I had my heart set on going to Stanford, I don’t really remember why, probably because I had heard of it. But then in my junior year I read somewhere that 200 valedictorians flunk out of Stanford their first year, so my heart abandoned that plan and I figured I would go to the University of Oregon because it was close by. But I went ahead and filled out the U of Chicago paperwork because it didn’t have a submission fee, even rather enjoyed it because it included a writing assignment, and promptly forgot all about it. I continued to check out colleges in Oregon like Willamette and Pacific Universities.
Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of April 1967, I got a letter in the mail that said I had been accepted into the University of Chicago and had a four year scholarship that covered all expenses (tuition, room and board, books, etc.) I went into shock and had an out of body experience, like I was drifting through the air watching myself drive to the high school to show Miss Rice, then on to my after school job at the Cottage Grove Sentinel. I instantly knew I would say yes. My sister reported that my parents were against me going there, but in my head I was already packing. It was a way of escaping the boundaries that are so easy to get caught in around a small town where everybody knows your business, and you know theirs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just knew I needed more exposure to more differences: different experiences, different points of view, different places, different people, different everything…
Well, that was a rather long detour, was it not. I went there because it shows how I fall into things rather than devise a plan and follow it. My style is more one of discovering the possibility of a plan and giving myself over to it. Fallow, not follow. If I had a plan upon leaving high school, it would be that I would become a journalist. I had really found my niche working at my hometown newspaper, over time doing pretty much all the steps required to publish a newspaper, even selling advertising. Once I got to Chicago, I discovered it didn’t have a journalism program. Oopsie! At the U of C, majors weren’t that big a deal, but they did exist. Even ones with names like Philosophical Psychology. My favorite classes in high school had been geography classes (CGHS had a very innovative geography program before the regular school day started). Chicago had some very distinguished geography professors, so I took several classes. Mind you, I took as many art and art history classes, but my declared major was Geography. Now geography as a major doesn’t get all that much respect, but take my word for it, it’s the most interesting thing ever, because it’s about everything. Anything and everything from a spatial perspective. It’s really that great.
So during fourth year of college, when I started thinking of what to do next, and my husband at the time wanted to go to law school, I figured since we will be at a campus, I might as well go to grad school in geography. By the end of the fourth year, Chicago’s physical environment was getting really hard for me to take (I swear the potted cactus on the window sill got cancer from the coal dust in the air) and Oregon was tugging on my heartstrings. And that’s how we ended up at the University of Oregon after college and I became a duck after all.
Beginning in grad school, I taught geography classes at the U of Oregon, and then continued doing so at Portland State University, Willamette University, Lewis and Clark College, etc. after we moved to Portland. Again, just kind of fell into it beginning when a professor at PSU was on sabbatical and they needed someone to teach his classes. I was still teaching and leading field trips through Portland right up until the month before Blaine was born.
And, of course, that day everything changed.
I tried to continue teaching after Blaine was born but my heart wasn’t in it. Child care was an issue, because most people didn’t feel comfortable watching someone with as many complications as Blaine. He went to an early intervention program beginning when he was 18 months old and I found myself spending a lot of time navigating though a tangle of medical systems and social bureaucracies that a family with a child with a disability encounters. And mind you, this was back in the day when families were not considered a very important part of the equation. Given my nature, and my excellent college and grad school education that prized inquiry, I was not one to lie back and be happy with whatever we were told or not told, shown or not shown. For example, in the beginning, it took weeks and weeks and much back and forth communication to even get copies of medical reports. I became a vocal part of the movement toward family-centered care. (And we really changed things. A new day has indeed dawned in medical systems for families of children with disabilities. The tales I could tell!) I began sharing what I learned by publishing a newsletter… well, it was more like a zine but zines hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe we invented them????
Well, advocacy and writing a newsletter didn’t produce income, and after Blaine started first grade, I found myself battling the public education bureaucracy I felt did not serve students with disabilities as well as the law required. I got a paying job as an advocate for families of children with disabilities. Well, the pay wasn’t great, but the job was pretty much right up my alley at the time. And the best part was meeting, working and becoming family with the other mothers from around the state doing the same job in their regions. OMG. I love those women so much. And when we get together it’s like only an hour has passed since we last hugged and talked and laughed for hours on end.
Returning to the actual subject of this post, I had to leave that job and take one that paid a little better when I was going through a divorce. It was with a consulting firm that worked on disability issues, purported to be in support of families of children with disabilities. I thought it would be a continuation of the kind of things I had been doing for the past several years, but I was wrong. They did evaluations of disability programs around the country and I got to see the sausage making that goes on inside consulting firms.
When Blaine was 12, he had the most complex surgeries of his life, which involved putting rods that attached to both the front and the back of his spine to arrest his ever worsening scoliosis (he had two curves in opposite directions that had to be addressed in serial surgeries.) He was in the hospital for more than two months, and encountered one complication after another, including sepsis from an infected Hickman central venous catheter. The very day the doctor had tears in his eyes as he told me how sorry he was about all the things that were going wrong, I got home to find a fed ex envelope in the door with a letter inside terminating me from the firm for my absences. It felt like such a cruel irony because I had been recruited for the job so they could say they had someone on staff with a child with a disability. When, during the interview, I told them they would be crazy to hire me because Blaine was facing the biggest surgeries of his life, and I would need to be with him during that time, they told me it was not a problem because they kept a sick leave pool I could draw from to cover my absence. So having the actual parent of an actual child with an actual disability on their actual staff was more than they could actually handle, I guess.
Blaine was in a full body jacket at home after leaving the hospital, and it was really hard. I remember the time Niki watched me carry Blaine in his body jacket up the stairs to his bedroom. Her eyes widened in horror and she promptly started taking Blaine’s bed apart so we could move it to the first floor and set it up in the dining room. Shit was getting real.
That’s when I faced the reality that I had to get a job I could do from home. One day Abby called to say her friend Sandy had called on behalf of the place she worked, they were looking for someone who could work from home who had a Macintosh. Well, that sure sounded a lot like me so I called and met with the executive director of the Meyer Memorial Trust. He hired me, and I began inputting, reading, analyzing and writing reports on the applications to the Small Grants Program.
That’s how I fell into philanthropy. I blame Blaine. And Abby and Sandy. And Steve Jobs. In that order.
Next time: What I found inside philanthropy once I got there.