Friday, September 15, 2017


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Pavasaris

Ten years after punting for the UConn Huskies, Chris Pavasaris has a new game plan: to meld his gridiron experience, post-grad work with the U.S. Senate, and chaplaincy training at Yale Divinity School to improve workplace culture and emotional intelligence. Through Xapis Strategies, he now offers individual and executive coaching, situational consulting and soft skill development, among other services.
The Mistake:
Taking so long to realize that my longtime knack for talking authentically with people could be a means to improving workplace morale and productivity.
I’ve always had what I now call the “gift of grocery store conversation.”  I’ll meet somebody in aisle 10 and leave five minutes later knowing all about their life. Eventually I began to wonder, why does that happen? Why is that interaction going on?
When I played football at UConn I used to run a study group with some of the guys, and we’d ask fellow students and players over to our apartment. It wasn’t like we were always reading in depth. Still, as I look back now, I think it was an opportunity to come to terms with the stretch from being an athlete and also being a student—and balancing what was going on in their lives. I didn’t know it then, but it was an early venue to share the small group coaching Xapis Strategies promotes.
My role on the football team was unique in the sense that I was a punter. So I wasn’t somebody who played every down. I wasn’t somebody who was charged with having this great physical strength, but I was somebody who had to remain calm, had to remain focused, and kind of balance all of those situations that were ongoing. I think that mentality more so was something I was trying to pass on to some of my peers.
I called a colleague from those days a while ago and told him about my idea. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “You always were so good with me, helping me to stay on track and balanced.”
“I did?” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me that five or six years ago?”
When I talked to co-workers at my current job in finance at Global Atlantic, right after Divinity School, I found myself, once again, listening for this meta-narrative, I’ll call it, in the stories they told. And my role became asking questions, and kind of delving into these personal situations. I’d reflect some of that back to the person and afterwards they’d say, “You really helped me work through some things.”
There are going to be challenges at work and in life, but being able to be joyful ... serves not only the person, but their workplace as well.
The Lesson:  
There’s a need in the workplace for “corporate chaplains,” who have an office, like you would see in a hospital, and are there to serve the workers. There already are coaches who are strictly business strategy; there are psychologists who are coaches. For me, the role would necessitate understanding the person’s present and maybe also understanding a bit of their past, though I’m not going to be one who is going to repair past relationships or experiences in the way a therapist would. It’s more like getting the client to learn to live in the present moment, at work.
A lot of employers will say, ”Oh, we have human resources for employees as long as they come and take advantage of it." But my question is, “How can I get to the people who don’t necessarily come to the door for counseling? That is what led me to this model.
Granted my own faith journey and faith life inform a part of what I do, but I’m not proselytizing. I’m not going in with my faith as a leading strategy. My goal isn’t necessarily providing happiness for my co-worker. Instead of happiness I guess I would call it joyfulness. From the theological perspective, joy is not based in feeling good. Joy has a deeper root meaning of gratitude. Joy in the present. You’re not looking for a hedonistic outcome, which I associate sometimes with happiness. Your life is going to have ups and downs. There are going to be challenges at work and in life, but being able to be joyful by having that steady state of wholeness (as implied in Xapis, the Greek word for grace) serves not only the person, but their workplace as well.
Follow Xapis Strategies on Twitter at @xapisstrategies
Photo by Gerry Dyer


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John Roche

John Roche is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Western Connecticut State University. His first novel, "Bronx Bound," was published in 2015.
The Mistake: 
I used to think real talent was all I needed to become a successful writer. Bull! Sheer talent doesn’t do it. It’s a falsehood that talent is enough.
I’m a huge Derek Jeter fan. I had the opportunity to cover Jeter when I was a newspaper reporter, when he spoke to kids at two events in the Bronx. I’ll never forget when somebody asked him, “What is the best advice you ever got?” and he said, “That’s an easy one. My father told me that there will always be somebody more talented than you, but there should never be anybody working harder than you.” I still get goosebumps when I think back to Jeter saying that.
His message might have been lost on the fourth graders but hearing it changed my life. I thought, here’s a guy who at that point had already won three World Series Championships. He had already won Rookie of the Year, World Series MVP and All-Star Game MVP.  Yet, he’s talking about how there is always somebody more talented than him.  He explained how in high school he might have been the best but guess what? He went to the state championship and there was somebody better there. Then he went to college, then to the minor leagues, and then he got to the Yankees. And he wasn’t even the best when he got to the Yankees. But he brought his father’s advice with him.
So I starting thinking to myself, “You know what? I’ve been given this talent,” just like everyone else in this writing program. We are all given that writing talent. But the talent’s not enough. Nobody’s going to come in and say to any of us, “My God, you have this aura of talent about you. What can I do for you?” No. You need to work at it. You really need to respect your own talent. It’s not being boastful. It’s not patting yourself on the back.
There will always be somebody more talented than you, but there should never be anybody working harder than you.
The Lesson: 
Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, talking about all writers, but I know for me, I sometimes get into that artist idea. I think that I have to be in the right frame of mind to write. That the atmosphere has to be perfect; the Muse has to strike. But sometimes you just need to look at yourself like a carpenter. A carpenter never says “You know what, I’ve got to refinish that bedroom today, but I’m not in the mood. I just don’t feel like doing it.” They might feel that way but they go and do it anyway.
I had to learn how to respect my own talent enough to work really hard at it. The key to a successful writing experience is simply writing the best you can. I may look at a classroom of writers and think I know who the single-most talented writer is. But if I had to choose who will work hardest at becoming a better writer, I'd like to able to call it a tie by choosing all of them. Think about what Jeter said—there’s always going to be someone more talented than you, but there should never be anybody who works harder.
Photo courtesy of John Roche.
Follow John Roche on twitter at @johnrochewrite.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Crain's "If I Knew Then: Evangeline Leah Rookey, Owner, Artistic Hair Salon LLC

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Evangeline Leah Rookey

As a 12-year-old, the smell of a salon caught Leah Rookey’s attention. “How cool is this?” she thought, and thus began her journey, first as as stylist and then as the owner of Artistic Hair Salon in Windsor Locks, Conn. Her 37-year career has led her to travel the world to learn the latest trends of hairstyling, manage a business, and more recently, look deep into herself as a work in progress. 
The Mistake:
As much as I loved to style hair, I needed to do less of that and learn how to build the salon by honing my business skills and investing in me.
When I was going through a divorce I had an epiphany. Up to then I didn’t need to work full time. I had a tiny little business. Life was great! When I realized I didn’t want to be married anymore I thought, “How am I going to live?”
I went from working three days a week to full time and now trying to hire an employee. That was a game changer. For over 25 years I had worked alone in the salon. Besides stylist, I had been my guests or clients’ therapist (behind the chair). Business was very busy but when my clients came into the salon, they liked the one on one. Some clients found it challenging when staff was brought in, but I had to keep my eye on the bigger picture.
I looked for answers and that’s when I found the Summit, a salon consulting company.  The Summit gave me direction. It taught me I needed to understand my numbers. I needed to understand my P&L (profit and loss). I didn’t even know what that was because my mother did my books. Bless my mother.
So I began to get the numbers end of it. Next came learning how to brand and market with social media to build the business. That is still a work in progress. Yet I realized something was still unbalanced. It was my spiritual side.
I‘m learning how to find the balance. My mother died last year and my 93-year-old father moved in with me. In the last few years I’ve committed all of “me” to my parents and the salon.  I realized I had to get back to the gym, which I did, and I hired my trainer back, two changes I’m really happy about.
Then I found Passion Squared, an online school for small business owners, because I needed more business coaching. And it’s through my Passion Squared seminars that I began questioning. "Do I really need to learn more about how to cut a straight line? Do I need to understand how to put bleach on a different way?" Yes, I’ve done a lot of that but there’s a part of working on “me” I’ve never done. Passion Squared connected me with a spiritual coach to help with that.
Fixing a problem is way harder than continuing to live with the problem.
The Lesson:
If I am not centered as a person, no business technique or social media is going to build my business successfully. If I’m not whole none of that is going to matter. And that’s with anybody in anything. It took me six years to find two really great stylists that understand this, and I’m still searching for more. Just like learning about how to run a business and how to invest in myself—it isn’t easy. If this was easy, everybody would be doing it. But when it’s not easy people walk away or they say, “Oh you’re just a hairdresser.”
People let themselves stay in bad situations—business and personal. I see it everyday in my chair. People quit trying to fix themselves and stay in their unhappy lives. They quit and stay in their jobs. They quit life but stay in the insanity, and then they get stressed. I said that to a guest the other day. Fixing a problem is way harder than continuing to live with the problem. That’s why people don’t get out of bad relationships. Because when you get out—you’ve got you. If you can’t get along with yourself, how can you get along with anybody else? You know what I mean?
I can actually say I love my career. Moving forward, my passion is to help coach young stylists to help them develop their individual talent behind the chair. I was very lucky to discover my career as a hairstylist at such a young age.
Photo courtesy of Evangeline Leah Rookey

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Crain's If I Knew Then: Rhona Free, USJ President

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rhona Free

For the 50 years since Radcliffe merged with Harvard, fueling the trend for women’s colleges to become coed, the University of Saint Joseph has remained an all-women’s institution. President Rhona Free talks about how she came to realize it was time for USJ, founded in 1932 by the Sisters of Mercy, to open its hallowed halls to male undergraduates. Connecticut’s last all-women institution of higher learning will begin admitting male students to all full-time undergraduate programs in the fall of 2018.
The Mistake:  
Applying a mission statement too narrowly
When I started here in 2015 I loved the idea of being at a women’s college and I interpreted the mission as a women’s college. After being on the campus for about a year and a half, I kept thinking of things I would like to offer to the women students and realized that the constraints were in many cases not financial. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the funds to create any program or another co-curricular activity, but rather that we did not have enough interested students.
To achieve the dynamic undergraduate experience I envisioned, we needed more students than were interested in coming to an all-women institution. Research indicated only 2 to 4 percent of students who take the SAT say they will consider a single-sex institution. Those statistics surprised me. I didn’t expect that it would be very high, but 2 to 4 percent was much less than I anticipated.
How could we open our door to those other 98 percent of students headed for college? Was I thinking too literally, interpreting that our mission was just for women undergraduates? 
Before approaching the board of trustees with any recommendation, we created a task force with twelve different working groups. Each of those working groups looked at what would be the impact of becoming coeducational and how it would relate to our mission. Would it push us too far from our mission? Would it allow us to support the mission?
The consensus from those groups was that there have been enough incremental changes at the University of Saint Joseph, so that becoming fully coeducational would remain within our mission. Men have attended the graduate school for almost fifty years and live in the graduate residence hall. Men are enrolled in the part-time program for adult learners and also attend classes on campus as part of the eleven-college Hartford Consortium for Higher Education. For example, students from Trinity College who want to get certified as teachers come to USJ to take Education courses.
You can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions.
The Lesson:
We came to realize our mission really focuses on educating a diverse student population to meet society’s needs, with an emphasis on developing the potential of women.  I think I (and others) had first thought, “Well that means undergraduate women,” but obviously when you read it more carefully, it doesn’t say to the exclusion of men. It just says that you will keep—and we will keep—that focus.
Changing from Saint Joseph College to the University of Saint Joseph a few years ago indicated that the board understood that you can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions. What if someone had said 50 years ago that this institution would be starting a school of pharmacy offering a doctoral degree? I think many people would have just said, "Oh no, that is not what we’re here for."
By opening this sense of what the mission is and not interpreting it too literally, the University of Saint Joseph remains consistent with the vision of its Founding Sisters of Mercy. We will have more resources and more students that will support activities. Right now our undergraduate enrollment is about 770. We’ll possibly go up to 1,000 but we probably won’t go beyond 1,000.
I’ve learned to keep a sense of what an institution’s mission is and allow for enough flexibility to respond to change in the markets and in external conditions, but at the same time not be so loose with interpreting the mission that you get steered into directions that are not ideal for the institution. The University of Saint Joseph has always had a pretty high level of expectations for student performance and preparation and that’s a part of sticking to the mission and the history that we didn’t want to change. 
Follow the University of Saint Joseph on Twitter at @USJCT.
Photo courtesy of Rhona Free.

Crain's If I Knew Then: Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks Producing Director

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rob Ruggiero

Doubters warned that bringing a big Broadway musical to as intimate a stage as Hartford’s TheaterWorks would be risky. Yet, on June 26 Rob Ruggiero’s spring production of "Next to Normal" earned five Connecticut Critics Circle Awards for best musical, director, actor, debut performer and lighting. Affiliated with Theaterworks since 1993, Rob has been its producing artistic director since 2012. He said the theater is  “extraordinarily supportive, which is rare to find.”
The Mistake:
Listening to others when my gut tells me otherwise.
I’ve directed big and small musical plays all over the country. One of the critical aspects of being a director is knowing how to cast the show, putting the right people around you. There have been times when I have been talked into or pressured into casting somebody I felt innately was wrong for the role. And I’ve always regretted that decision. It always has resulted in diminishing the impact of a show.
Other times I’ve been told I had to have a particular designer. Or told we had to use someone who was on staff or resided in the city we were in at the time. For the most part, when I have had a strong feeling that this is not a good idea, I would say 80 to 90 percent of the time it has not worked out.
There have been other projects where I’ve thought, "Oh we have a lot of budget strain this year, do I think this is wise?" And then I go on to choose a smaller scale project thinking, this’ll be good because I know that we’ll be risking less and it feels a little more responsible. Then the project ends up actually not doing as well as I thought it would.
Doing "Next to Normal" terrified me. I took a big risk with that. There were people who reminded me TheaterWorks doesn’t generally do musicals.  Some of the subscriber base asked, ”Oh why are you doing that?” Still, I knew the Pulitzer Prize pedigree would help the cause. And it’s not a musical with dance numbers. It has a strong profound story, so we made our production about a family struggling with the impact of mental illness. To me, it was just a play with music.
As it turned out, we had the largest subscriber turnout ever for an individual production – even more than "Relativity," which starred Richard Dreyfuss (in 2016). "Relativity" probably had the most single ticket sales, but they were neck and neck. They were both really successful productions for different reasons.  And now my audience trusts that there are musicals that fit our mission at TheaterWorks.
I would rather fail because of my choices than because I followed someone else’s lead.
The Lesson: 
A lesson I have learned over and over again is to trust your instincts. Sometimes advice, however well-intentioned, can be very limiting, especially fear-based advice. There have been times where I’ve made a choice because it felt a little safer and secure and it ended up actually being just the opposite. I’ve learned to be braver and trust my gut and believe in a project—and to trust our audience.
Ultimately, as an artistic leader you chose to lead.  And not everything pays off, but I would rather fail because of my choices than because I followed someone else’s lead.
Also, one of the things I think you learn as a leader is to make sure you get all the information and that you hear everyone’s side of the story before you take a risk or make a judgment. There are a lot of reactions around you—emotions around you. There are those times when I’ve had a reactive response, and usually that lacks a complete global view of what has happened. Now I try to always take a breath and talk to everyone involved and try to hear what the different perspectives are so I can make a really smart, informed decision. My decision doesn’t always please everybody, but at least it’s informed. 
Follow TheaterWorks on Twitter at @TheaterWorksCT.
Photo courtesy of TheaterWorks.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Crain"s Business Letter's "If I Knew Then. . ." interview with Mariella Perna

Reprinted from

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mariella Perna

Seamless operation contributes to Mariella Creations being voted the top bridal shop in Hartford Magazine’s Readers Poll for the last fifteen years. Antonio and Antoinetta Garofalo, original owners of the 45-year-old family business, have stayed active in the bridal and formal wear boutique their daughter Mariella Perna now runs.

The Mistake: When my parents opened Mariella Creations (named after me when I was nine) … a bride’s search for the perfect gown started when she first entered our store. She usually brought along her mother, a girlfriend and a few magazine tears from the latest Brides magazine. The first thing I or another saleslady would do would be to walk the customer through all our closets.  If, let’s say, there were 500 dresses, we would start by letting them see every one. The customer would have been familiar with only a few high-profile designers like Priscilla of Boston and Vera Wang.
That all changed when the Internet became popular.  Brides searched the net to see styles of gowns before they went to a bridal store. Today’s bride comes into our store, her smartphone in hand, ready to call up her Pinterest wedding board and favorite dress picks. Some follow designers daily on Twitter feeds. These women not only have an idea about the style of the gown they are interested in; they have the serial numbers for several on hand when they first meet us.
Since I became president of Mariella Creations, I’ve always made customer service our top priority. One of the key services I’ve prided myself in was my and my salesgirls’ knowledge of our inventory. We would want to show the bride gowns X, Y and Z. But this better-informed customer would specifically ask to only see A! Sometimes we overwhelmed a customer with everything we knew, which could lead to confusion in the dressing room.
Eventually I had an “aha” moment!  If today’s bride came to us so much better informed than in the past, she did not have to see everything! Now, instead of first escorting a bride through the closets, we first show what a customer asks for. We ask her about the theme of her wedding and styles she likes. If the bride has a straight-fitted dress in mind and, after trying the style on, sees it doesn’t look so good on her, we will then make suggestions for other styles. 
I also realized we had to bring in more of the designers our customers saw online in place of our Vera Wang line, which was selling less and less.  We had taken Vera Wang into the store in the 1990s when it was fairly new and every bride wanted to wear a Vera Wang dress.  But as time went by her designs became either more expensive or a little more difficult to wear, as she catered mostly to a very tall, slender body type.
Our customers would ask for different lines by name. Remember – they were going on designer websites. “Oh do you carry Lazaro . . . Jim Hjelm. . . Pronovias?” When we heard a company asked for over and over again, we’d take a look at it and bring it in. It wasn’t difficult to let go of Vera Wang. We couldn’t keep selling dresses that just end up on the sale rack.
Sometimes we overwhelmed a customer with everything we knew.
The Lesson:
The bridal gown may be a tradition, but the business of selling the iconic garment is by no means set in stone. Thanks to the internet the bridal customer today knows more about what she wants as an individual and as a trendsetter. When social media began to connect her to all things bridal – round the clock – we at Mariella Creations had to reassess how it affected two of our priorities  – our inventory and, even more important, our relationship with this more knowledgeable customer. By listening more carefully to our brides we learned to serve them better.
Follow Mariella Creations on Twitter at @BuyBridal.
Pictured: Mariella Perna, left, with her daughter on her daughter's wedding day.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Marjorie?

The roundabout road that led me to start digging deep at the Woody Guthrie Archives began well over forty years before the site opened. Yet it wasn’t the iconic folk singer’s legacy (nor that of his well-known son Arlo) that I focused on. Instead, I sought insight into Marjorie–Woody’s second wife–the lesser-known yet arguably most influential Guthrie of them all.

Through my early teaching years in the mid-’70s, I had read about Marjorie’s grassroots effort to educate and support families affected by Huntington’s disease, which debilitated Woody for well over ten years before his death in 1967. Her call to action inspired the students in my high school folk club to arrange a bake sale to raise money for the cause.

After we made the contribution, the students and I were thrilled to receive her personal reply, in which she reminded us that her project was “important not just to the ‘family’ [sic] but to the public.” 

Lo and behold, about a week after receiving Marjorie’s thank you note, another letter arrived. She wrote, “with all the young people passing through your hands . . . hope you would let them know that their names are welcome to our mailing list. . . even if they can’t make a contribution! I feel certain . . . that when people know what we are doing . . . . they will want to help when they can!”

She explained, “a larger list might give me the opportunity to look for federal and foundation grant support!” (eventually, the organization became the pioneering Huntington Disease Society of America). She closed, saying “ . . . and if you should visit New York would love to say hello in person. You have made MY day!”

Intrigued by the woman and the cause, I vowed to keep up with her projects. Maybe take her up on her offer to visit the CCHD office in New York . . . sometime . . . after I married, I thought, busy in the midst of wedding plans and teaching. In 1983, I read about Marjorie’s death from cancer at age sixty-five. I had missed my chance to meet her, but her sense of service stuck with me; I was a thirty-something “flower-child” still grounded in the idealism of the sixties that had motivated me to canvas the streets of Hartford in support of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, strike in protest after Kent State in 1970, and organize Hartford’s first twenty-five-mile March Against Hunger in 1971.

Shortly after Marjorie’s death, I read Joe Klein’s biography Woody Guthrie: A Life. With a mention of Marjorie here and there, it reacquainted me with her as Woody’s second wife and mother to four of his children (their first died in a tragic accident at age four). I learned that she had danced with the renowned Martha Graham in the forties and fifties. I was struck by how, even after their divorce, she managed his health care from hospital to hospital, for over fifteen years. Marjorie accomplished all this while raising their three children and working full time as a dance teacher at her own studio in Brooklyn, New York.

I spent the next dozen or so years raising my children, teaching part-time, and then I returned to full-time teaching in 1996. This left little time for reflection on myself, much less Marjorie. Until in 1998, the clock seemed to stop; my husband died suddenly. Overnight, I had become a single mom, and in the inexplicable way a mind works, thoughts about Marjorie raising her three children during Woody’s long convalescence and after his death regularly surfaced in my stream of consciousness.

Working full-time while raising two grieving children through adolescence consumed my every minute and, in a convoluted way, prevented grief from consuming me. I finally got to read Ramblin’ Man, Ed Cray’s 2004 biography of Woody. A single chapter focused on Marjorie. It was not enough to fully flesh out Klein’s sketch of her but enough to reignite my curiosity to find out more–if I only had the time.

While getting my MFA at Western Connecticut State University, I began working on an enrichment project on American folk music. More information about Marjorie’s dance career came to light. However, the work on my final thesis–a memoir of loss and recovery about my family’s tragic loss–took precedence. A year after my memoir was published
, I longed for another serious writing project. In a typical one-click-leads-to-another Internet search, I discovered that an official Woody Guthrie Archive was opening in the spring of 2013 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This piqued my interest, since I had already exhausted every secondary source about the Guthries I could get my hands on, in print and online. 

Around this time, a close friend asked, “What do you want to write?”

I blurted, “I really want to write a biography about Marjorie Guthrie,” realizing it to be true.

With an official archive now accessible, was this now possible? Yes and no.
Although a full listing of the archive’s collections is available online, the actual sources are not. This meant I would have to travel to Tulsa, 1,500 miles away–an expensive proposition.

The Woody Guthrie Center website also offered information about an annual fellowship to support research at the Tulsa site. I applied, and eight weeks later, received notice I had not been awarded the fellowship. Once I put aside my initial disappointment, the sentence that welcomed me to continue my research at the archives resonated. Why not? I thought and started a “Tulsa or Bust” fund. A year later, I spent a week in Tulsa sorting through correspondences, news articles, and tapes of interviews.

To say I was overwhelmed by this 2015 trip would be understatement. Even with the guidance of Kate Blalack, the helpful archivist at the center, I had no idea how time-consuming it would be to read deteriorating papers or how exacting this work would be.

Kate greeted me warmly as we sat down for my preliminary interview. As we talked, Kate agreed that Marjorie had been overlooked in the Guthrie legacy, especially since it was Marjorie who first began collecting what fills the archives today and it was Marjorie who did groundbreaking work for the Huntington’s Disease Foundation.

The next day, I began digging. Kate supplied me with automatic pencils (no ink was allowed near the documents), a yellow legal pad, a flat tool to turn pages (to keep the oils from my washed hands from compromising the papers), and a magnifying glass. I started with
 the first box of the Woody Guthrie Correspondence Collection, some of which contained letters Woody sent to Marjorie during his Merchant Marines days and Marjorie’s first pregnancy. He wrote to her daily, sometimes hourly, professing his love and discussing his politics. Although Woody’s letters alluded to her replies, Marjorie’s letters did not appear in this collection (or any other onsite). I wondered why as I tried to figure out as much as I could about their two-way interactions, using only his letters.

I expected to get through boxes and boxes of artifacts during my week at the Woody Guthrie Center. Instead, I tackled only one box. During the week, my pencil-written notes were secured in my locker overnight until my last visit, at which time my week’s worth of notes was photo-copied for the archive records. And even with my bounty of information, I would still have to apply for permission to use the material in published writing. Severe standards, one might say, until realizing archives offer full disclosures of families’ lives, lives whose histories are a privilege to share.

I left Tulsa physically and mentally exhausted yet oddly committed to do that again sometime. I can only liken it to the rigors runners put themselves through–voluntarily–when they take on a marathon and–
a day or two later–start to plan their next twenty-six-mile run. My archival research was a mental marathon, and I was already looking toward repeating the long-distance event.

I applied once again for the grant money in the spring of 2016, with a much more focused letter of application and a complete book proposal. This time, I was named a 2016 recipient of the eleventh Annual Broadcast Music Incorporated Woody Guthrie Fellowship. My second week in Tulsa this past summer proved much more productive. I found myself more focused, taking time to be moved by correspondences and even documents: the marriage certificate, the divorce certificate, the hospital admissions and doctors’ reports, Woody’s death certificate–a whole quarter of a century of a married couple’s life together assembled in a single box of brittle papers.

I had read about Woody’s physical deterioration from Huntington’s Disease in the Klein and Cray biographies. Even during their subsequent marriages, Marjorie would bring Woody home from a distant hospital for weekend visits. When he could no longer make the trip, she traveled with the children to his bedside. She drew cards for him stating “YES,” “NO,” and “?” to help him communicate when he could no longer speak. The official hospital reports I found revealed, in clinical detail, the steady progression of his disease with which Marjorie had to cope. She documented everything, from his “random uncontrollable jerks” in April of 1961 to his “severely deteriorated state,” which rendered him bedbound at the New York State Hospital, unable to a communicate with anything other than “high-pitched groans” in June of 1966. In addition, an official doctor’s report documented the heartbreaking perception that “He seems to perceive and suffer from his own helplessness.” Information like this caused me to leave my second trip to Tulsa not only physically and mentally exhausted but also emotionally exhausted.

Through both visits to the archives, I became a connection-maker as well as a note-taker; I became more and more conversant about all things Marjorie. Kate and I would find and discuss photographs of what appeared to be Marjorie’s fragile beauty onstage, though she bore her rigorous dance regimens with remarkable strength. I passed on information to Kate and introduced her to sources the archives did not contain, such as Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, in which he chronicles his seventies’ mission to rescue over one million Yiddish books from extinction with Marjorie’s help. Kate and I shared frustration over the absence of letters penned by Marjorie. However, I located her letters to folklorist Richard Reuss in a collection at the Indiana University. We are in the process of trying to attain copies. And a new conversation started when Kate arranged for me to interview folklorist Guy Logsdon and his wife Phyllis, friends of Marjorie, who assisted her when she traveled to Oklahoma to connect with families of Huntington’s victims. This interview is now available at the archives.

I can’t help thinking back to Marjorie’s 1975 letter reminding me that her activism was “important not just to the ‘family’ but to the public.” Forty years later I would begin to discover, through my research at the archive, the full purport of these words on other aspects of Marjorie’s life as well: her dance career, her political and creative influence on Woody, and her efforts to secure his legacy. There are more researching and conversing ahead: another trip to Tulsa with the remaining grant money, more digging at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts, and visits with students and colleagues who were fortunate enough to have Marjorie involved in their lives and their projects. As with the marathon runner, the road goes on and on and on. There is no turning back now, just a bit more sure-footedness on the journey ahead.

Special thanks to the BMI Woody Guthrie Fellowship Program, Woody Guthrie Publications, and the Woody Guthrie Center for supporting the research and development of this article.