Well, now, it’s International Women’s Day and the celebration is flooding social media sites. All of this encouraged me to think back on the many influences I’ve had over the years. There are many, and I won’t remember them all.
It would be easy to name those who have influenced you from afar, such as Harper Lee or Rachel Carson. Carson’s book, Silent Spring, had a major influence on me as a youth, that perhaps there were sides of stories we were not being told. This was as much a start of my interest in journalism as was artist Georgia O’Keefe was in different ways of looking at nature.
However, I prefer to think of influential women closer to home. This starts with my mother, Mary Laurele Dunham White, who was just as sharp mentally at 100 as she was when I was a child. She was the first in our family to earn an advanced degree, and upon finishing college hit the road with three of her closest female friends for a road trip before WWII. Women just didn’t take road trips back then, not in 1939. Her sister, Helen, followed her to college and was eventually part of the team for the Manhattan Project.
Mom taught me about fishing, and perhaps most of all, insisted we always have a hand hobby. “If you use your mind, you’ll need to use your hands to relax,” she said. She encouraged curiosity and individualism … to not be concerned with what the neighbors thought. Her mother, who died of a stroke before I started school, was said to be very independent … the entire family, from my grandmother’s generation though mine, and the girls and now women of the more recent generations have that same trait. More than once I’ve said that if all women had grown up in our family, no one would have heard of Gloria Steinem.
After high school I ran into a completely unexpected influence, one whose name has long passed me by. We grew up in a small town in segregated times. If you were black you knocked on the back doors of stores for entry, and you weren’t served at the lunch counters. A year before I started high school the board desegregated the senior high, and my black classmates were more seen than heard. Immediately after graduation I went into basic training, and was stationed at Fort Sheridan in the motor pool, ran by a boisterous and quite confident black woman. She was extremely outgoing and confident, and she ran the office with complete authority. She was an eye opener for me, and to say I was influenced is putting it mildly.
Moving on … here are some others:
Susan Beloit Thompson, my college sweetheart, who taught me to how to find joy in the small and common stuff, that everyone has a story and usually a good one. She found immense joy in running a small town weekly.
Jodi Cobb was one of the first women photojournalists and a colleague at the Denver Post, and later was a National Geographic mainstay. Yes, she could shoot with the best of us, without fear, and with a damned fine eye.
Sharon Yedo White, my late wife, who despite her personal demons of depression had a heart the size of Texas, and a love for anyone disadvantaged in any way.
Kylene Olson, a dear friend, who showed me how you could successfully blend activism with policy, and sell those ideas to those who might disagree with you.
Asa Fanelli showed many of us that you can lead with love and compassion despite a corporate “bottom line.”
Audrey Arner moved into the prairie and showed us how to combine art with farming, and that no horizon was too distant to reach. She was instrumental in developing one of the area’s first permaculture farms.
CJ Ford, along with her late husband, Chuck Weibel, proved you could convert a strange idea of growing vegetables in the middle of the winter, in Minnesota, by using passive solar and making it work even as a CSA. They published a book that eventually led to forming of a state-wide organization.
Amy Rager championed a way to develop a program called the Minnesota Master Naturalists, borrowed from the Master Gardener program, that has trained thousands of volunteers in three distinct ecosystems on how to volunteer and educate others on the necessity of natural quiet places in nature. Now her program is being used in many other states.
Julia Ahlers has introduced me to the incredible depths of spirituality, and the broad underlying necessity of recognizing and listening to the unspoken.
Oh, there are so many women who have inspired me through my lifetime, so many there is hardly time to remember and recognize them all, and yet, I’m ever grateful. Through it all it goes back to my mother, who taught me to be open minded, curious and adventurous … that people of any race or gender have something to share, and your role as a human is to be open and accepting of that generosity.
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John… I think, perhaps this is one of my most favorite writings by you. Your mom was so amazing, fun and indeed a character. I was blessed to meet and visit with her. And yes, your dear precious Sharon… She did have the hugest, loving heart. Before my back injury I did direct care work with developmentally disabled, my first passion in work. I was so blessed to call Sharon a dear friend and kindred spurit. Sharon and you brought 4 AMAZING kids into our lives, thanks to EF. And we were blessed by many of the kids that were here during our EF kids time, here. You are a dear friend, John. Thank you for sharing…