Meet Virginia…

The third woman in the Amazing Women Series is Virginia. Her resilience is inspiring to me.


Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.  This little jingle from my girl scout days ran through my head as I sat at a round table in the front window of a little diner in my sister’s new hometown in Michigan.  Seated around the table were her au courant friends and there was a whole lot of silver going on.  Each woman was at least into her seventies and fully engaged in life and their hometown. They gathered here each week following their Thursday morning volunteer work sorting and shelving books at the local library. They come often enough that the waitress called one of the women “raisin toast extra dark”, her weekly order.  That woman is Virginia.  She sorts the children’s books.

Virginia grew up in Virginia and in 1956 she entered the same small women’s college that her grandmother attended, eventually making the decision to transfer to University of Virginia.  She described the university at that point in time as “a bastion of male superiority”, having only about 60 women on campus.  She graduated from the University with a degree in English and History and went in search of her future.

With her new degree in hand and feeling adventurous, Virginia knew she wanted to leave her home state. The 1950s and 60s were the height of prosperity in Flint, Michigan.  The school district had partnered with C. S. Mott Foundation and the result was a first-class school system and it was seeking teachers.  Virginia applied and was immediately hired. She considered teaching in this energetic environment a privilege, but that did not mean it wasn’t demanding.  By Friday night, she and her fellow teachers were ready to meet up at The Civic Park Bar and let their hair down.  One fateful Friday night, a favorite teaching friend of Virginia showed up with a boyhood friend. Virginia was drawn to this man’s intelligence and willingness to discuss (argue) politics with her. 

They married in 1965 and built a rich and fulfilling life together until he passed away in 2016, two months shy of their 51st anniversary.  During their marriage, they had two children and politics continued to be a popular topic in their home.  Over the years they traveled extensively, both domestically and internationally.  Virginia particularly treasures her memories of their bike trips in Europe, driving trips in England, and visiting their daughter who was living in Mexico.  They also traveled to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. 

Virginia and her husband on a trip to Mexico.

Sometime around 2004, Virginia began to notice subtle changes in her husband which became more pronounced, finally resulting in a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2006.  His mother had suffered the same disease, spending seven years in a nursing home, so Virginia was aware of her future challenges.  They made one last trip to Europe, but as he declined, they reached the point where it became necessary for him to stay home. No more dinners out, no more beloved concerts, no theater, no trips.  Over time, he was able to do less and less for himself. Virginia was fortunate enough to have help come in and assist with bathing and dressing.  Two weeks before his birthday in 2016, a bed opened up for him in a local assisted living facility for a two week stay.  Virginia would have a bit of respite from the constant care and regroup.  Sadly, he never came home, dying on his birthday.

Although rationally every committed couple realizes that one of them will go first, that still doesn’t prepare the heart.  Virginia acknowledges that she is a strong southern woman who is fairly self-sufficient, spending hours reading and attending events. Yet there are times she misses having someone to share moments in her life and the person so much a part of her memories.  

I haven’t spent a lot of time with Virginia, but I’ve had drinks at her house, been to the diner with her, and seen her working at the library.  She is engaging, funny and whip smart.  I asked her how after being married for a lifetime, she adjusted to not having the other person there and how she got on with living her life.  For Virginia, it was friends.  Too much time alone at home can hang heavy, so you just have to reach out and find something to do. Call a friend to have a cup of coffee.  No one available?  Take your magazine, go to the coffee shop, and look for friendly connections.  She admits it is not always easy, but her loyal friends have carried her through.  Those friends include many she has had for years plus some newer ones.  When married couples no longer asked her to do things with them, she discovered a brand-new pal to attend concerts with.  

As I approach the third act of my life, I question whether the girl scout ditty is quite accurate.  Virginia’s new friend she attends concerts with is every bit as important to her as those in her book group that she has known for years. The person she sees on a regular basis on her daily walk and gives a smile and a wave to is often a priceless gift in her day. Silver-haired friends, old and new, can be pure gold and enrich our lives beyond measure.  As we grow older, we realize happiness lies not in our bank account, but in our confidants, our sidekicks, and companions.  They are our treasures.

In the words of Ms. Virginia,

“There is a part of me that lives with the grief but a part that is still able to sit by the fire, listen to winter music, read beautiful poetry and know that in many ways, I’m blessed.”

C’est la vie.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

There are only a handful of people in my life that I can remember meeting for the first time. Lou Anne Pillers is one of them.  On a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the summer of 1990, I was corralling my brood out to the pool area of our town’s brand spanking new Day’s Inn where we were meeting a new employee’s family.  A woman sitting poolside looked up from her Diet Coke and with her blond hair and distinctive sunglasses, I immediately knew it was Lou Anne. We sat together watching our collective children perform their best aquatic tricks, ensuring they didn’t drown in the process and began the dance of getting to know each other.  We were brought together because Lou Anne’s husband had accepted a position at the same printing company that Mr. Smith worked for and the Pillers were in town looking for a place to live.  Luckily for me, their search led them to purchase the home two houses down from me on Diamond Street.  It was the beginning of a long and event-packed friendship.

Lou Anne quickly settled into life in her new town.   Over the years our friendship strengthened, our children grew older, and life was busy. While coordinating events for her two children, slumber parties for her daughter and outdoor activities for her son, she still found time for book group, church activities, charity projects and providing many satisfied customers with delicious baked goods.  Her cheesecakes are legendary in our small Indiana town.  When both her children were in school full time, a dear friend of hers persuaded Lou Anne to take a position as an assistant at a preschool, which she did for the next eight years.

Despite her busy life, Lou Anne still felt incomplete.  She had taken some college classes after high school and “piddled” at it over the years, but in 2002 finally decided that she was going back to school and pursue a teaching license.  She isn’t sure what pushed her to finally commit to get her degree, but she felt it was the right time.  Perhaps it was her daughter off to her first year of college or the shocking events of 9/11, both events that make one aware of the passing of time.

So she left her preschool position and became a college student with the goal of becoming a history teacher.  And she loved it.  Undaunted by instructors who were younger nor bothered by being the oldest student in many of her classes, she excelled, earning top marks.     One day in a conversation with an instructor she mentioned that her major was social studies.  Their response was, “Do you know how hard it is to get a job teaching Social Studies?”  Well, no she didn’t, so she simply added an English minor to her academic load.  

Five years later Mr. Smith and I found ourselves sitting in an auditorium and looking on with affection as Lou Anne received her college diploma.  In 2007 with her teaching license in hand she began the job search.  

While obtaining her degree had been easier than she anticipated, finding a job was much more difficult. She would often get an interview, but not the job.  She would go for the interview, leave thinking it had gone well, only to watch someone younger and perkier land the position.  Seeing a pattern developing, Lou Anne signed up to be a substitute teacher.  Disappointed but not defeated, she persevered, hoping to make connections that would lead to a full-time teaching position. Few new teachers think substitute teaching is an easy gig and while there are a couple of classes in her early subbing days she would like to forget, for the most part Lou Anne found the students to be great.   Her reward for this was a principal who appeared in her classroom doorway one morning, checking on all the classes with subs that day.  “Oh, it’s you.  I never worry when you’re the sub.”  But when she interviewed for a position there, despite having concrete evidence of her ability as a teacher, she still failed to get the job.  It went to a young woman fresh out of college.

Subbing was exhausting so Lou Anne was thrilled when she landed a long-term assignment.  An English teacher had left in an angry huff in February and she stepped in to finish the year for her.  She felt she had found her home.  The entire English Department and the principal acted like Lou Anne was a natural for the permanent position.  Yet at the end of the academic year, the female principal retired, a young man became principal, and he decided “to go in a different direction.” Again, she was stung by disappointment. Was it her age?  It certainly felt like it was.

 Was it that every principal she interviewed with was male? Or was it her?  Feeling more than a little frustrated, Lou Anne did some research on a group of students she had met while working on her degree who were also endeavoring to make a career change midlife.  She was surprised and discouraged to learn that none of the group had found a full-time teaching position and many of them had allowed their teaching license to lapse. But not Lou Anne.

She was disheartened by what she viewed as recent lower expectations of students and a creeping apathy toward learning at many of the schools and frustrated with finding a permanent position.  Yet she didn’t give up.  In 2013 she was rewarded for her perseverance when she accepted an invitation to join the faculty at St. John Lutheran School.  She knew the school.  Her children had attended St. John’s and she thought it might just be a great fit for her. And it was.  Instructing 6th, 7th and 8th grade students in Social Studies, US History, English Language Arts and Art, she would be teaching all things she loves.  

One benefit of a smaller size school is that it fosters a close-knit staff.  Lou Anne feels like they are working together toward a goal based on trust that allows her independence and creativity to flourish. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she helps with extracurricular activities like spell bowl, fundraisers for the annual Washington DC trip, student council and outdoor education.  Teaching different subjects calls for a tremendous amount of prep work.  Starting her workday at 7:00 a.m. and not leaving school until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., she still feels the need to spend some time in her classroom each weekend.

Fulfilling goals at any age is empowering and she will always be proud and grateful she persisted.  In a bittersweet decision, Lou Anne will be retiring at the end of this school year and her talents will be missed.  A part of her is sad to be leaving because she feels she has accomplished a lot and touched many lives.  But the pull of the prospect of time spent with grandchildren and relaxing days watching TV from her sofa without feeling guilty is fiercely tempting.  No lesson plans, no papers to grade, no grades to record.  Just Lou Anne, the cozy couch and the remote.  And probably a Diet Coke.

C’est la vie.

You are capable of amazing things…

“You may want to sit down for this.”  This was the caveat my friend, Julia Tipton, used before revealing to others the adventure on which she and her husband Tracy were about to embark.  The news was certainly unexpected and astonishing, but for those of us who know Julia, it was amazingly true to her nature, and as it turns out, to Tracy’s.

I’ve known Julia for over 30 years, meeting her fairly soon after Mr. Smith and I moved to northeast Indiana in 1988.  We belonged to the same philanthropic organization, I took an exercise class she taught at the local Y, and we trained together for my one, and only, 5K race.  She has devoted her life to public education starting out as an elementary teacher, progressing to instructional facilitator for curriculum, to principal of an elementary school.   In 2019, Julia left public education when she was hired as the executive director of the new Community Learning Center in the town where she lives, helping to build a non-profit from the ground up. 

Julia and her husband Tracy met when they were in the eighth grade. They dated off and on through high school and college, eventually marrying in 1985. They filled their home with three active offspring, providing them with a safe space to grow and flourish. With the daunting task of parenting three children and successfully launching them into the world behind them, they were just beginning to truly relax into their “empty nest”, enjoying their adult children and their newfound freedom. 

The Sunday before Christmas 2018, they were walking into church when they ran into a friend who works for Hand in Hand International Adoptions. She shared she had just made a trip to Wisconsin to retrieve two children from an adoption situation which had turned dreadful.  Knowing how connected the Tiptons are in the area, she asked if they knew anyone who might be looking to adopt.  To say Julia was surprised when Tracy responded “Yes, us”, is an understatement. 

The two children who were brought back from Wisconsin, Jethro and Dorothy, are from the Philippines. They share the same mother but have different fathers.  Neither knew their father and they primarily lived with their maternal grandmother. 

The children’s odyssey began one morning when Jethro was 9 and Dorothy was 5.  In what must have been a painful decision, their grandmother had them pack a bag and took them on a boat to Manila. Once they arrived in Manila, Grandma walked them into Social Services and left them there.   Social Services took them to an orphanage and the two had no subsequent contact with their mother or grandmother.  

During their years at the orphanage, they hung onto the dream of finding their “forever family.”  They thought that had happened when a couple from South Carolina chose them as the children they wanted to adopt.  Along with apprehension, there was excitement and hope as they boarded the plane to South Carolina.  After a month there, the parents decided it wasn’t going to work out.  I cannot imagine what Jethro and Dorothy were thinking and feeling when they boarded their flight back to Manila. 

They returned to the private, non-profit child caring home they were at before the trip to South Carolina, somehow hanging onto the faith that life was going to work out ok. Eventually they were chosen for adoption by a second couple, this time from Wisconsin.  Once again, they boarded a plane and flew off to meet their forever family.  They lived with their prospective parents for over six months which ended shockingly with the mother’s suicide.  It was at this point, Julia and Tracy’s friend went to rescue the children from this tragic situation.

Tracy had often brought up the idea of fostering children during their marriage, but Julia so totally immersed in the public education system, felt she was “fostering” all day and was not  drawn to the idea.  But faced with the plight of these two children, now teenagers, who had endured so much in their short lives, Julia and Tracy talked.  What followed were hours upon hours of soul searching and a couple of sleepless nights.  The situation was critical and they didn’t have months to make a decision.  They brought their adult children in for a family discussion to get their insights and perspectives.  Then they came to a decision.  They would open their home and their hearts to these two orphans who had known so much disappointment in their lives and try to provide them with an environment in which to heal.

With the decision made, the adoption agency began the process of their investigation.  Before they knew it, Tracy and Julia received a phone call telling them they had been approved and the kids could move in to their home.  The first order of business was to decide where Jethro and Dorothy would go to school.  They were looking at three possibilities: the district Julia worked in, the district where their son teaches which is smaller and more rural, or the local district where they would be living, increasing the possibility of nearby friends and activities.  The choice soon became crystal clear.

While meeting with the guidance counselor at the local district, a small miracle occurred.  Many tears were shed that day when they met a student currently attending the school who had been with Jethro and Dorothy at the very same orphanage in Manila.  Later Dorothy shared her journal with Julia, showing her photos from the orphanage of Jethro, Dorothy and the student.  The serendipity of this still makes me misty eyed.

Happily, the children’s adoption was finalized on March 21, 2019.

Jethro, Tracy, Judge Kramer, Julia and Dorothy

Julia is the first to admit there have been challenges.

 “It is hard and I think it should be hard. Nothing this big should be easy.”

They have spent the past two years learning each other and building trust, as well as adjusting to cultural differences. Through the bumps and hiccups along the way, Tracy and Julia have marveled at the resiliency of these two children who have endured so much disappointment over the years. Dorothy and Jethro are very close, but very different, each having their own particular needs.  Jethro will graduate from high school this year.  He goes to school half days and is employed through the Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education Program the other half.  He opened his first bank account and is learning to handle money.  He plays guitar and is happy to entertain, singing and dancing. At age 20, Jethro is looking forward to graduation and hoping to get his own apartment and try life on his own.

Currently 16, Dorothy is more reserved than her brother, but has found a niche in soccer and tennis.  She’s never experienced the support of close friendships with other girls her age, and Tracy and Julia are thrilled to watch her grow more independent and form relationships.  Having grown up in a family of all girls, Julia has often said her sisters are her rocks and she hopes Dorothy will develop a similar support system of her own.

 In addition to bringing her and Tracy even closer, this experience has made abundantly clear something they knew all along.  Humans have the innate ability to grow to love, nurture and protect another human being, whether you gave birth to that person or not.  Yet after speaking with Julia about their experience, I was still left wondering exactly what made them say yes.  What was the deciding factor?  I believe the seed was always there in Tracy.  His nature is such that he feels most content with kids in the house and people to care for.  And as for my beautiful friend Julia, much like young Owen in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, I believe all her life experiences were preparing her for this moment.    

The every growing Tipton family!

In flipping through Julia’s Facebook feed looking for information to help me tell her story, I came across something she posted as encouragement to others. “You are capable of amazing things.”  Julia and Tracy were 57 when they stepped out of their comfort zone to save two children and nearly 60 when the adoption was finalized.  At an age when many people are regularly checking their retirement clocks, they are attending high school sporting events, making sure homework is done and providing a safe environment for two young people to heal.  At any age, that’s a pretty amazing thing.

C’est la vie.

A Woman of Much Importance…

The famous Aunt Ruby walked into my life two to three years before she did in Stormy’s. She was the beloved sister of the man brave enough to date and later marry my mother, a struggling divorcee with five energetic ragamuffins between the ages of 2 to 11. 

Mom, her new husband, and her five little ones – August 9, 1953

We children where introduced to her around 1952.  We all climbed into dad’s silvery teal Mercury and drove from Indiana to Ruby’s house in Illinois. Like her brother, Ruby was quiet and I thought quite dignified, yet we discovered her quick humor when we would tell her our bad kid jokes or act out as brothers and sisters often do. As we grew to know her, she became a treasured member of our cabal.  She kept our secrets.

Mom and Dad with Aunt Ruby, the matron of honor and Uncle Ike, best man.

She eventually began to fill the role of an absent grandmother. It was comforting sitting next to her while engaged in absorbing child–adult conversations.  Like my dad she was very intelligent and could add to any subject our youthful minds would conjure. 

For all her attributes, to me, an inquisitive preteen, the most valued was her frank honesty. It was an absolute boon to us kids.

As children we had been surrounded by adults who were not always judicious with the truth. We received answers that were often meant to mollify us and telegraph the idea that we were not included in family decisions. My mother was known for stonewalling and refusing to answer our questions, while making us think we should never have even asked…

When Aunt Ruby entered our lives, things changed.  Ruby, when queried, would look you in the eyes and answer honestly with further explanation should it be needed. When my mother realized this, if we asked her questions about the dreaded sex or biology subjects, she would quickly suggest we “ask your Aunt Ruby”.  Eventually we would go to our Aunt if she was available. She opened our minds to other ideas and opinions. That gift, both she and my dear Dad gave me, was the okay to be honest about situations. It occasionally causes consternation to me and others especially when they disagree.  But right or wrong I usually have some opinion…(ask my siblings and friends).  Thank you Aunt Ruby.  


It’s just her nature…

Perhaps you have noticed in many of my postings I often mention a special person. Growing up, I didn’t have grandparents, but I did have my beloved Aunt Ruby. She was my father’s sister and the best woman I have ever known. And she loved me unconditionally.

A young Aunt Ruby.

At age eight, she experienced a devastating train-auto accident that took the lives of her parents and baby sister, leaving her and my father orphans. As a young mother, she suffered through the loss of her two youngest children in separate accidents. Despite these hardships, Aunt Ruby never succumbed to bitterness, but remained a warm and kindhearted person throughout her life.

There is much I don’t know about this gracious and thoughtful woman. In my child-like way, I though she existed just for me! And in many ways she did, always more interested in me than in talking about herself. The few stories she told me of her life always were told with her innate sense of humor. She once told me of hitchhiking from Illinois to Texas with her husband and their two-year old child during the depression because they heard there might be work there. They ended up with more money when they arrived in Texas than when they left Illinois because so many people wanted to give her son a few coins. Her very nature led her to be amazed that strangers generously gave them rides and money, not looking down on the family or resentful of their current circumstances.

Rock-a-bye Stormy…

She was known for her gorgeous hair that changed from brown to a startling beautiful white mane by the time she was 19. With her twinkling blue eyes and comforting arms, there was never a doubt in my mind that she would do anything for me.

Aunt Ruby, her brother Ray (my dad), and me.

Aunt Ruby was aware of my contentious relationship with my mother, particularly during my teen years. At age 15, I called her one day and told her I had run away from home. She didn’t miss a beat. She simply said, tell me where you are and we’ll come get you. Even as an obnoxious 15-year old, I felt sheepish telling her “April Fool!”

The reason she said “we’ll come get you” is because she never had a driver’s license so would need her husband to drive her. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t know how to drive. She once told me of driving a Model T and trying to run over a woman her husband, Uncle Ike, was “stepping out” with. I said “stepping out?” and her response was “You know what I mean!”

Throughout my life I have often wondered just what made Aunt Ruby such an exemplary human being and the best aunt I could hope for. Luckily for me, it seems to simply have been her nature. Whenever I find myself in a particularly challenging or uncomfortable situation, I tell myself to channel Aunt Ruby. She was a true lady.

Aunt Ruby with my first born, Emmet.

While I’ll never know everything I would like to about my beloved aunt, I will always know this. I loved her unconditionally.

Read the blog on Wednesday to find out the effect this wonderful woman had on the five children my mother brought into her marriage to Ruby’s bachelor brother.

C’est la vie.