Family, School, Town Combine to Create Distinguished Alumni

Image 7_copyIf you have the fortune to live in the world’s richest and arguably most beautiful country and can open your door to a stunning view of the Alps, why would you ever miss an industrial, farm town on the Rock River in the flatlands of Illinois. But I do.

Creating a sense of community in Geneva, international hub of the world, is the like building the foundation of the Taj Mahal in quicksand. The nature of the typical expatriate is transient; due to job relocation, everyone you meet eventually moves on. Though my friends include people from around the globe, few call Switzerland home and plan to retire here.Geneva

Sterling, Illinois offered more stable roots. Yet, other than lying in the richest soil in the USA, my hometown didn’t have much of a calling card. Sterling is not so much about the place; it’s about the people.

Next Saturday, May 10, some of those people will be inducted into the Sterling High School Distinguished Alumni Class of 2014. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors former graduates for their outstanding contribution to society. It is a tribute to a small town, to public education and to a community that teaches its own to pay it forward in their fields.

Some of the award recipients I never knew as individuals, but I knew their people. I don’t remember meeting Ruth Cooperrider, but I remember her family.

Every member of David Schrader’s family graduated from SHS and though I never knew him, his sisters and my sisters’ lives intertwined every step of our school years.

This year the award also goes to three inductees that I am proud to call friends. In each case, their families, too, have been a stalwart part of the community and, like me, they dedicated their lives to looking out for the underdog.

Carol Fitzgerald ‘68, CEO of the YWCA of the Sauk Valley since 1985, advocates for the national YMCA’s mission “empowering women and eliminating racism.” Her siblings all attended SHS and her mom, Dian, was a beloved English teacher at the high school.

Amy Eshleman ‘80, was my surrogate little sister in basketball and a member of the SHS 1st state championship team in 1977. She became the Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library and helped develop the resource sharing partnerships for the 79 public libraries in Chicago. The Eshleman family was a pillar in the community.

Image 4_copyPhil Smith ‘67 and his family rose above the evil legacy of Jim Crow. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, he turned the other cheek and gave back to the community becoming the first African American coach in the conference. At SHS he inspired hundreds of athletes –including me- to believe in themselves. His loyalty to SHS is parallel to none. Like he always said, “I bleed Blue and Gold.”

During the turbulent 50s, 60s and 70s, at a time of civil unrest, gender inequity and social injustice, our community gave us stability. Through our families, our schools and athletic teams, we learned to work hard, demand excellence, advocate for equality, and give back to society. No matter if we moved to the opposite coast like David in California, or Ruth across the state border line, or regardless if we remained in the local area, like Amy in the greater Chicago land or Carol and Phil in the Sauk Valley Region, we carried the lessons from our community into our careers.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there on May 10th to shake their hands in person, but today I’m giving a special nod from abroad to our distinguished SHS alumni, to my hometown, and to the families that laid the foundation of our lives. Rock solid, Sterling.Sterling H.S. photos July 2011 029_copy

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Top 10 Highlights of my Final Four Basketball Tour

2014-03-18 04.07.17_copyDuring media interviews and community speeches culminating with my keynote speech at the NCAA Final Four Banquet, I held center stage and had a chance to share the story of the pioneers. Here are my top ten memories riding the emotional roller coaster of my first Final Four.

1. My former Illinois State University coach, Jill Hutchison, whom I hadn’t seen in 35 years drove 10 hours to surprise me. From the front row at the banquet, she gave me the thumbs up and just like driving the baseline long ago, I nailed the performance under her benevolent eye.

2. My daughter, the first doctor in the family, illustrated the true evolution of women’s rights. “In 1970, less than 8% of physicians were women,” Nathalie said in her speech. “My med school class at the University of Minnesota was about 50% female. I’m privileged to have grown up at a time where my gender was not a major handicap to pursuing my dreams, and Title IX played a big part in changing things for the better.”

3. Young athletes, who never fathomed that there was day when girls had to sit on the sideline, sat up straight and listened when I talked about the trials pioneers endured to reach the pinnacle of our women’s NCAA Final Four.

4. The NCAA Chair, Dave Martin told me, “Awesome speech!” Better yet, he promised to pass my book, Home Sweet Hardwood, on to the next generation, his daughter

5. Beth Ball, the CEO of Women’s Basketball Coaching Association, echoed my words and gave a nod to Jill, cofounder and 1st President of the WBCA and to the late Betty Jayne, its first CEO. I felt the profound impact of being a part of history.

6. Shirley Egner, DIII Wisconsin’s winningest coach, a rival back in my college days, became an ally when my daughter played for her at UWSP. The Final Four cemented our friendship.

7. My book was displayed in a university bookstore right along with the Pointer T-shirts, baseball caps and college apparel.

8. I saw firsthand female basketball players dive for loose balls, bump under the boards, and knock down jumpers while fans applauded every action; male peers cheered the loudest.

9. I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio Route 51 to the background beat of Sweet Georgia Brown. That was same song the jazz band played when I was a child watching the boy’s basketball team warm up, praying one day girls could play, too.

10. The people who hear me chat all the time on the phone and during holidays – my sisters, brother-in-law, and kids – traveled a combined 2200 miles to hear me speak. My son, a history major, nodded in approval and told me I got the facts right. Now how cool is that?

A special shout out to UWSP’s director of general education and history professor, Nancy LoPatin-Lummis for making it happen. While watching her 12-year-old daughter’s basketball game, Nancy realized that had she wanted to play when she was child, her dad would have to court and fight for the right to participate. Nancy wanted her daughter to appreciate the opportunities available to girls today. Her epiphany inspired UWSP Title IX and Access to Opportunity lecture series celebrating the evolution of women’s rights leading up to their hosting of the DIII Final Four Basketball Tournament.

After a week of celebration where I felt like I had landed in basketball heaven, I flew back to Switzerland where no one had heard of March Madness. I went into withdrawal because I could no longer fill in brackets, follow teams, and watch games. But, hey, only another 300 some days until the next Big Dance.

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Opportunity to Honor Women Who Shaped Lives

IMG_1387_copyThe worst part about living abroad is that I can never be two places at once. Due to the logistics of a 7-hour time difference and 4000 miles distance, I grieved alone the passing of my grandparents and celebrated solo the accolades that mean little to folks here in Europe. Of course, I know better than most that all of the hardware in the world can’t help you get up and walk again, but after growing up in the shadows, it is humbling to be in the limelight.

I wasn’t there for my induction into the Illinois State University Hall of Fame in 1984 for basketball because I was living in Paris at the time, still recovering from a car accident and caring for a new baby. Nor was I stateside for my induction into the Illinois Coaches Hall of Fame in 2005. But my favorite all time coach, my dad, stepped in for me.

I wasn’t back on campus to receive the highly coveted “I” letter for participating in varsity sports. Prior to 1989, female athletes were not awarded Varsity Letters at ISU. Legendary basketball coach, Jill Hutchison, women’s advocate extraordinaire, righted that wrong. She initiated the Letterwinners’ Recognition Banquet February 8, 2003 to honor female athletes who in early and pre Title IX years never received that honor. Though I wasn’t physically present, my words – a column I wrote about the event -circulated to all the alumni. At the time, I was in my own gym at the International School of Geneva coaching my daughter’s team to their 5th consecutive European International Schools Sport championship.

A part of me feels undeserving of the honor to speak for my generation at an NCAA Final Four. Why me? For years, I stuffed down the ridicule, the snide remarks, the insults and kept dreaming. That little girl scorned is afraid to stand tall and shine. Yet, I will rise to the occasion.IMG_0767_copy

Because ultimately, I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood, not for my own bragging rights, but to pay tribute to the silent generation of women who fought so hard for the privileges we are have today.

Countless times when my spirit was broken, when I felt like giving up, when my legs no longer held me upright, my sisters lifted me to battle on and off the court. If I am triumphant today, it is because of the efforts of the mothers and grandmothers of yesterday. If my daughter rises in glory tomorrow, it will be due to the generations of women who have risen before her in pursuit of their dreams.

Historically, women have taken a back seat. Yet, it is women who have worked so hard behind the scenes to help us reach our goals, beginning with the mothers who believed in us from the day we were born. Pause and pay tribute to the women who guided you. Repeat their names out loud. Make a call, write a letter, send a prayer. Then continue doing what we do best, extending a helping hand, supporting one another, passing it on, and paying it forward.

When I step up to the podium at UWSP, I will speak in the “mother tongue” of our ancestors, representing those who came before us, honoring those who sacrificed in the past to create the opportunities we enjoy today.

Coach Hutchinson, coach Egner & Nat_copy

Jill Hutchison, Shirley Egner, Nathalie Lechault
3 generations of fighting women

Thank you: Sue Westphal, Karen Carlson, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Lenore McKinzie, Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, Shirley Egner, Nancy Lo Patin, Pat Summitt, Vivian Stringer, Kay Yow…

 

 

 

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Celebrating International Women’s Day and an NCAA Final Four

we all can do itEvery March 8 we celebrate International Women’s Day to raise awareness of women’s rights and their battle to achieve equal status. It also reminds us of the challenges, struggles and inequality faced by women worldwide. This year the UN’s theme –Equality for Women is Progress for All – echoes my life story.

Growing up in the infancy of Title IX, I sat on the sideline longing for the right to participate in sports like the boys. I had a dream. That one day, I too, would be allowed on center court. In 1972, Title IX mandated gender equity in all schools, which opened doors in education and sport. I was off and running, blazing a trail as a pioneer in women’s basketball.

International Women’s Day holds special significance this year as I have been given a platform to share my voice, a voice representing the silent generation of American women who fought so hard in the past to earn the rights we enjoy today.

I slouched through adolescence, feeling ashamed for my talents, ridiculed for my love of sports. But I am standing tall today. After the publication of my memoir, Home Sweet Hardwood, A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball, I have been invited to share my story all over including at the very men’s clubs that banned women when I was growing up.

When I was a kid even in America, the world’s greatest democracy, the basketball court was not the only arena where women were conspicuously absent. I didn’t know any female doctors or lawyers or businesswomen. It was unheard of. We fought for the right to play ball and in doing so, paved the wave for our high-flying daughters of today including my own biological daughter, a pediatrician, who went onto to become the first doctor in our family.

As part of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point educational program, Title IX and Access to Opportunity, I have been given a spot in the limelight. I’ve been invited to speak to the community and as keynote speaker at the NCAA DIII Final Four banquet. Forty-two years after the passage of the groundbreaking Title IX legislation, this international woman is stepping out, heading to the Big Dance.

March will be a month of celebration, but come April it will be back to work. Great gains have been made in some parts of the planet, but there is still work to be done around the globe to improve women’s health care, to protect reproductive rights, to guarantee equal pay, to curb the epidemic of violence against females, and to allow the voices of other women to be heard worldwide.

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Mix a French Printer and an American Writer and Watch the Fireworks Explode

IMG_4003_copyAfter 30 years, ze Frenchman said, “I am so sick of hearing about the damn book, publish it yourself.”

So I brushed off the dust of a manuscript I had worked on with 3 agents and a dozen different editors and started over again. Long before I felt that the 88th edition was ready, my other half gave me an ultimatum, “Now or never!”

Unite a pragmatic, logical, French, feet-on-the-ground-no-nonsense-businessman and a flighty, idealistic, touchy-feely artsy American writer and then watch the fireworks! I live in my dreams. He worries about reality – about spaces, margins, and quality of images.

Ze Frenchman, a CEO in printing, formerly headed a French book printing company; now he manages newspapers in Switzerland on a 24-hour deadline. However, I have worked on this memoir nearly half a century changing the content according to the whims of a regiment of editors.

“I hate WORD (the computer program)!”  I hear ze Frenchman scream from our attic office.

Ze American loves words. I am driven by words. Do they dance across the page delighting the reader?

“If your cover doesn’t catch the eye, no one will open your book.”

I worry about content; he focuses on form.

Meanwhile the website crashes. Spammers from outer space invaded the blog. Drafts are lost in cyberspace.

“Putain, vérole, bordel de merde!” he yells enriching my French vocabulary.

I learn new curse word every time something goes wrong upstairs in the attic. I jump, fearing his foot, slammed so hard, will smash through the floorboards.

What in the heck were we thinking publish a book? He wants it to be done; I want it to be perfect.IMG_3961_copy

His reputation is not at stake, he is the loving husband who endured three decades of his wife’s eccentricities: writer’s block, creative outbursts, artist angst.

I want to reread, revise, re edit, resubmit. The Frenchman says, “Non! Stop!”

I press forward, trying to sneak in one more rewrite quickly, so the Boss will get off my back! Fine for him to say “Just Do It,” he’s not the one standing on the high dive with acrophobia!

There is no hand holding, no coddling, no ego stroking, back patting, confidence boosting. It is just YOU and your idea flying solo through the universe on a wing and a prayer. Self-doubt is your sidekick.

I second-guess myself on every sentence. My English language fluency regresses daily. I live in a country with four national languages – none of which are English -and work in an international school where students speak in 84 different mother tongues.

Ze Frenchman adds a comma. I take it out. He questions the origins of a word. “You can’t use that word in English. It’s French.”

“No it is not.”

“Yes it is.”

We race to our respective language dictionaries.

“It’s not in Webster’s,” I lament.

“It is not in the French dictionary either. You can’t make up words with nice rhythms, just so they can dance!”

Oh la la…how is a marriage to survive.

What was I thinking?  Write a book.

Ta da boom! Three decades later, longer than it took to raise our doctor daughter, my dream, -his nightmare- takes shape.

Together we created a book baby, Home Sweet Hardwood, A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball. I hope that my story inspires readers of all ages to never give up on their dreams. He hopes that after publication, I will quit writing.

I could never, ever have attempted to publish a book without my techie sidekick, to whom I am forever grateful for standing by me.

What advice would ze Frenchman offer anyone embarking on such an all-consuming endeavor?

“Never marry a writer!  Especially an American!”

 

 

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“Olympic” Moms Teach Us To Get Up

first stepsFrom the moment a baby takes its first step, a mom’s heart is torn. With one hand, Mom beckons her toddler forward, while the other hand lingers behind ready to catch the fall. In the push-pull of motherhood, moms encourage children to step up to the next challenge, while longing to hold them back in the warm, safe, cocoon of unconditional love, knowing full well the world will never be so nonjudgmental and forgiving.

My mom cringed each time I got knocked flat playing sports. After every concussion, broken bone, and heart wrenching disappointment, never did she suggest that I should give up the game I love.

In turn, when the time came, I perched on the edge of a hard bleacher – my heart was lodged in my throat each time my child hit the hardwood. Yet, I continued to drive my kids to and from practices and games, doctors and chiropractors.

My daughter, long and lean, had so many injuries during her career that she received birthday cards from the urgent care center. From the time my hyperactive son’s feet hit the floor, he ran recklessly, slicing open his hand before the age of two, splitting his head as a 4-year-old.roller skate

Sprained ankles, twisted knees, separated ribs, compressed vertebrae, broken fingers. During my son’s ankle surgery in the middle of the night, I lay awake worrying about the long-term effect of a growth plate break in early adolescence. Would his right leg be shorter than the left one?

A shattered finger. A bruised rib. A broken dream. An ice pack, a back rub, a favorite meal. Moms know instinctively how to comfort, to console, to care.

After every setback, I cheered. “Go ahead try out”… for the team, the band, the play, the scholarship, the job.

“What if I don’t make it, Mom?”

“Don’t worry. There will be another game, performance, employment. Don’t give up.”

Very few kids will stand on an Olympic podium, but whether they play sports or put their energy into other interests, our children will be stronger for having given it their best shot.

Life will knock them on their butts. More than once. The greatest lesson a parent can impart is, « Get back up!”

When children need the extra oomph to rise after those discouraging losses, thwarted goals, career-ending injuries, Mom will be there with a helping hand, a kind word, and a chocolate cookie.

My dad taught me how to throw a ball and shoot a basket, but Mom was the one who listened to my fears, wiped away my tears and encouraged me to follow my dream. I’d apologize for unloading my problems, but after teaching all day, my strong Norwegian-American mom would point to her back and say, “I can carry the weight. God gave me broad shoulders.”

We all stand on shoulders of the women who brought us into the world.

And every mother knows there is an « Olympian » in each child, then coaches it out of them.

“This remind me of you,” my daughter posted on social media acknowledging that strength passed on from one generation to the next

Thanks, Mom. For teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.

Congratulations to all the competitors at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games!

And to the moms that picked them up every step of the way.cross country skiing Jura

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