Turning Point: The Trip to Montana
I worked at NW Regional Education Laboratory (“The Lab”) twice—from 1969-1972, and post-graduate-school from 1976-1983. The first stint was especially significant, because it was coincident with being a single divorced mother, the rise of the women’s movement, and my career taking off like a rocket. Personal/classroom computers had not yet been introduced, but our program was preparing teachers to use technology in the classroom, and training them on time-shared computer terminals provided by the county Educational Service District (ESD).
By the second stint, the personal computer revolution was just getting under way, and my career took several new turns.
But this chapter is about what happened in 1972, a lot of men acting like jerks, but in the process changing my life in a very important way. The incident was a clarifying moment, a turning point, and highly motivating. It was exactly the kick in the pants I needed to take a risk I had been afraid to take until that moment. I turned volcanic rage into action. Had I not, it would have burned me alive.
~ ~ ~
It was the spring of 1972. I was 32 years old, still a Program Director, but my program grant was running out, and I either had to write a new grant, or expand my options. Find a new job elsewhere, or apply for something different within the Lab.
The Lab, like all the regional labs, operated on basic grants from the National Institute for Education (NIE) to cover basic staff and administrative functions. But everyday funding came from contracts with school districts, which defined and funded much of the work we did. The CEO, Larry, the Associate Director, Bob, and the Division Directors worked with school districts in the region to pinpoint areas where the practical applications of educational research could help to solve problems in their districts—from cost cutting to new teaching strategies to school bus scheduling to cafeteria issues to teacher training to planning and evaluation. In particular, we worked with smaller, rural districts to analyze and solve problems unique to their size and remoteness.
I was still writing computer-related curriculum and training teachers and making trips to conferences and conventions, speeches, demonstrations. On and off airplanes, eating crackers and cheese in the United Airlines Red Carpet Room. Meeting interesting people all over the country, colleagues, peers, always men, talking shop. Bored sometimes, restless sometimes. Constantly writing contracts to work with various school districts on educational technology planning and use and teacher training. But my basic grant, the one that funded the entire Computer Instruction Program as its base, would soon run out and I would need to write a new grant for continued NIE funding.
At home, Barb was a big help—until she graduated that spring and moved out on her own. Mike was 12, and got up every day at 5 a.m. to walk his paper route. Even when he was sick, he never woke me up to drive him—a fact about which I feel sad to this day. Mike, however, is proud of how responsible he has always been. Kelley was 11, a rebel who refused to wear anything but striped bib overalls and T-shirts to school. Laurie was 10, a poet and cat-lover, still very young, still needed her Mama. They all still needed their Mama, never really got enough. The torn-apart feeling of the mother who works, who has a career, who wants to be a full-time Mom but has no choice (and not even the desire) stayed with me every day. There were days when I went to work crying over some heartache of one of my kids, and was deeply distracted all day. Once, Warren asked me why I’d been crying, and I made the mistake of telling him I was worried about one of my daughters, who seemed to be feeling lost and alone. “That’s what you get when you decide not to be a real Mom who stays home and raises her kids, like my wife does. There are trade-offs.” Lecture over, he moved on.
We had recently moved into a different neighborhood after a fire of suspicious origin (turned out to be a neighborhood kid with a vendetta—I had refused to let him dismantle his junker car in my driveway). In the new neighborhood, my kids had to attend a new school, one overpopulated with the children of physicians and attorneys, all of whom had stay-at-home Moms, and pockets full of pretty capsules and pills they traded with other kids at school and after school. The PTA meetings reeked with the odor of whiskey, as the well-lubricated physicians and attorneys nodded off during the meeting. Mike, Kelley, and Laurie were latchkey kids now, and had chores to do after school, so the pill-trading never caught on with them.
My kids had adjusted to the move to Portland, and were accustomed to seeing me come and go. They seemed comfortable with my schedule. I dated some, particularly on weekends when they were with their Dad. I had a semi-steady boyfriend, steadier for me than for him as it turned out, but marriage was out of the question. I had just begun to realize I could handle anything that came up without needing a partner to “take care of it for me.” A good friend diplomatically questioned my confidence, told me that perhaps I shouldn’t write a book just yet about how to cope as a single mother, and certainly not on the basis of successfully mastering how to change a washer in the bathtub faucet.
I was approaching a major turning point, both personally and professionally, but wasn’t yet aware of it. Life seemed good, and manageable, and I could continue as I was with no major setbacks or challenges.
At that crucial moment, in 1972, CEO Larry’s Executive Secretary Tamara asked Sharon to tell me to drop by his office. It was not a request. It was a command. That meant, “Now.”
We sat at the round table in his spacious corner office with the view of Mt. Hood, and Tamara brought us coffee.
“I’ve got an exciting new job for you, if you’re willing to take it,” Larry said.
“Do I need a new job?”
“Well, as you know, the Computer Instruction Program’s current NIE grant is running out, and of course you can get that refunded. We’ll always try to find a place for you here as long as there’s funding. But this is an incredible opportunity, just made for you.”
“Made for you” meant something else, but I wasn’t sure yet what that was. Possibly, “No one else will take this incredible opportunity.” Larry had not been known for offering me the plum opportunities. Those were reserved for the good old boys. Especially the good old boys with PhDs.
I flashed back to an earlier conversation with Larry. I had applied for a position as a Division Director, a move up. His words came back to me clearly, along with the faux expression of disappointment he had managed to conjure up. “I’m so sorry, Judy, but you’re just not going to be able to move up in this organization.”
And then I had remembered Rex’s earlier warning: “You’ll never go anywhere at the Lab. People think you’re too uppity. You’re trouble.”
“Why not?” I had asked Larry about the Division job.
“Unfortunately, you don’t have a PhD. You need a PhD for any of the higher level jobs.” I knew that wasn’t true, because one of the Division Directors didn’t even have a Masters’ degree. But the rules for me and the rules for the guys were not the same.
So that was the way they would slam the doors shut. “Finding a place for me” meant gradually diminishing my position and responsibilities until I got fed up and left. I’d seen it happen to others, and planned to be way ahead of such an eventuality for myself. Somehow.
Larry went on. “…so I thought you might be interested in this exciting opportunity that’s just come up.”
“In Alaska?” I asked.
“Not this time, but you’re getting close.” He leaned forward. “It’s in northern Montana, and it’s at least a three-year project.”
“Montana.” My mind raced through images and possibilities. Mountains, plains, snow. My children were just entering adolescence. How would they adjust to another move, this one to a place remote and cold, and perhaps relatively uninhabited?
“What’s the job? And where in Montana is it?”
We called Larry the “Bear Killer,” the one who brought home the contracts. In a law office he’d have been called “The Rainmaker.” Many of our most interesting and lucrative contracts came from Alaska. Larry killed the “Bears,” dragged them home to the Lab, and we skinned them and carved them up.
He stood and leaned his hands on the table, facing me. Larry was an animated kind of guy, small, with a brisk stride and thinning white hair carefully barbered and neatly combed over his pink scalp. I’d never seen him fatigued, never seen his tie loosened, never seen him with his jacket off. “Bear killing” was his hobby. He really wanted me to skin this bear for him, now that he’d hauled it home. Just for me!
“You’d be director of a training facility in Glasgow, Montana,” Larry said.
I felt my face flush with…what? Interest? Excitement? Director! Of a training facility!
But, in Montana.
“What kind of training facility?”
“An Air Force base that’s slated to close. The state wants to turn the base into a residential facility to train young people, vocational and academic. GED, English proficiency, probably a one or two-year program to get kids ready to get jobs and have a future. Disadvantaged kids. Native American kids, probably.”
I pictured myself in a corner office with windows, from which I could see my whole domain, barracks, classrooms, mess halls… An entire Air Force base.
Slated to close.
“Wait, let me get this straight. The training facility isn’t there yet? It’s still an Air Force base?”
“Well, yes, you’d have three years to do the planning for the transition. It’s mostly planning, at this stage.”
Oh. Maybe this was how they dealt with a troublemaking woman. Send me off to another state, bury me in endless meetings with fractious people—I knew Montana people. The ones I had known in my work were a lot like Alaskans—independent, opinionated, redneck…okay, a lot like me. Except for the redneck part. And then, after the three-year planning phase was complete, they would find one of the guys to be the “real” director of the actual facility. Unless I competed aggressively for the chance to apply.
“Larry, I have three kids to support. I can’t afford to take a flyer. Would this be a permanent job?”
He stood and walked to the window, gazing out at Mt. Hood.
“As permanent as any of the contracts we work on here.” Which meant, No. This would be a big departure from my field of computers in instruction.
He turned from the window. “Why don’t we just fly on up there and meet with the people working on this? Then we’ll all have a better idea of what’s at stake. You don’t have to decide right away.”
Later, I realized I should have asked more questions. Like, “Who are these ‘people who’re working on this’?” and “What’s their role in decision making?” and “Do they know you offered me the job as Director? Is it okay with them?” Instead, I made a fair number of unsupported assumptions. Why I didn’t ask those questions was an indicator of my naiveté, my laziness, perhaps, and my lack of experience in careful planning of my own future. Instead, I jumped ahead to seeing the job as an exciting opportunity to expand my experience and skills, and to use the management skills I already had.
Beneath that was pure fright. Why on earth would I even consider such a risky situation, for myself or for my kids?
My pattern in the past, however, had always been to run through any door which opened before me, and to quickly learn whatever I needed to learn to handle whatever was on the other side. So far, I had been successful, because I was always plowing new ground, so no one else knew any more than I did about how to handle the challenges.
“Good idea,” I said, jumping ahead. “I’d like to hear a whole lot more about it. I have a lot of questions. For starters, where exactly is Glasgow?”
Larry turned to the large wall map covering the end wall of his office. The map showed the region NWREL served: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands. He reached to the top of the map and pointed to the upper right hand corner of Montana, where North Dakota meets Canada. “Right about there.” There wasn’t even a dot on the map where he was pointing.
“Looks pretty far north to me,” I said. “Ever been there?”
“Actually, no. The closest I’ve been is Great Falls. Helena, of course, and Kalispell. Great fly fishing near Kalispell, on the Flathead River. But that’s on the west side of the state.”
I wouldn’t be going for the fly fishing. Skiing, possibly. My kids liked to ski, and so did I.
Over cribbage the next morning, I asked Archie if he’d ever been to Glasgow, Montana.
He dragged on his cigarette. “Been close. Malta. Larry sent me to do a little media feasibility study for the school district there.”
“What’s it like?”
He blew out a stream of smoke. “Pretty remote. Grass comes up dead.”
He stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray he always kept nearby. “Why? You got a contract up there?”
Remote. Dead. And I was considering taking three children there to live. My doubts expanded. This would be the biggest risk I had ever taken, with no job security beyond three years. My family and friends would be far away, and we would likely be snowbound a good share of the year. What would be my support system? Would I be completely on my own? Did Glasgow have a grocery store? A school? If I worked on the base would I have PX privileges?
~ ~ ~
Larry and I flew to Butte for the meeting with the people working on the project. Butte is in the opposite corner of the state from Glasgow, the southwest. It was spring, 1972, so the weather in northern Montana might have been a factor in choosing a meeting site. In Glasgow, there would still be three inches of snow, at least. And blizzards. In Butte, there were still spots of snow, and the temperature was in the low 50’s, with a wind chill factor much lower than that.
A third person, from the Lab Evaluation Division, would follow later that same day. Dr. Fred Hammond.
On the flight to Butte, Larry explained that the people working on this were Montana power brokers, mining moguls, entrepreneurs from the copper mining years in Butte. They had seen an opportunity to capitalize on the availability of an abandoned Air Force base with all facilities intact to provide a badly-needed service for isolated and disadvantaged Montana youth by proposing Glasgow as a Job Corps site, and perhaps make some money doing it. They had asked Larry to come and talk about a possible contract with NWREL to carry out the planning and development of the site as a training facility. The next step would be to hire a director.
And that’s where I came in. Was I qualified? No, probably not, at least not in terms of prior experience in Job Corps startup. But no less so than any Lab personnel who might have been considered. Job Corps was an entirely new concept across the country. I was a fast learner, and had a lot of successful experience with project planning and startup.
Driving into Butte from the airport, the most riveting feature of the town was the Berkeley Pit to the northwest, a vast open-pit copper mine as large as the town itself, its sloping sides terraced. Anaconda mining company’s Berkeley copper mine was rapidly turning the town of Butte into a toxic cleanup site.
The town itself was like the movie set for a Western, the buildings of brick or stone punctuated by fourteen-foot tall black steel headframes, the scaffold-like structures that lowered miners into the terraced pit, and brought rock back up. The ugly A-shaped headframes towered over most buildings in Butte.
We registered at the Finlen Hotel, a historic, massive building in the center of town. Tamara had made the reservations for both of us.
“We have reservations,” Larry told the desk clerk. “I’m Dr. Spears.”
“And I’m Ms. Edwards,” I said.
“Oh yes,” the desk clerk said, pulling out registration cards. We have a lovely room for you, a nice double, room 221.”
Larry’s face was as pink as his scalp. I was slow to catch on.
“There’s a misunderstanding,” Larry said. “We’re not together. We each need our own room.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Spears, of course. We’ll put Ms. Edwards in room…223.” Her eyes flicked to me, then back to Larry. “They’re adjoining rooms.”
Tamara had made these reservations, and apparently she had made assumptions. Or the staff at the hotel, where Larry often stayed had made their own assumptions based on past experience with Lab travelers.
~ ~ ~
The meeting with the Butte committee began an hour after we checked into the hotel. The long table that filled the conference room barely held the ten hard-bitten men gathered around it.. These were men who worked out in the weather, perhaps in the mines, though not as miners. They talked with their fists, not hands, and wore elaborate cowboy boots, big silver belt buckles, plaid shirts, Stetsons.
I was used to being the only female in the room at important meetings, and frequently I chaired the meetings. But in this room, the overbearing maleness of the atmosphere was as thick and heavy as their cigar smoke. Antlers of some large animals were displayed prominently on every dark-wood wall. Heavy crystal ashtrays at every seat, including mine. The room stank of old cigar smoke, and these men were doing their share to add a new layer, chewing their fat cigars or letting them smolder in their ashtrays.
For the first time in my career, I felt completely intimidated. I felt small and insignificant, even inadequate.
The Chairman sat at the end of the table telling racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes.
“What’s the difference between a lesbian and a whale? Fifty pounds and a flannel shirt.”
“How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None. Let the bitch do the dishes in the dark.”
“How do you turn a fox into an elephant? Marry it.”
“What’s the difference between a picnic table and an Indian? The picnic table can support a family.”
“What’s an empty beer can by the side of the road? An Indian artifact.”
Hearty chuckles all around. And these men were planning a project to give Native Americans training opportunities.
The Chairman was a smallish man, like Larry, though with thick, dark hair. But he tried to compensate for his size by being loud, crude and pompous, laughing loudly at his own jokes and slapping the other men on the back.
He opened the meeting by introducing and welcoming Dr. Larry Spears from NWREL. He mentioned he had been fly fishing with Larry. He didn’t mention me. In fact, he didn’t appear to notice me. I felt myself becoming invisible, like the Cheshire cat vanishing slowly into the tree leaves, beginning with the tail, until nothing remained but the grin. In my case, not even the grin.
Larry introduced Dr. Hammond, also from the Lab, and explained he was there to set up an evaluation plan for the project. I had never understood how Dr. Hammond acquired a doctorate—my few interactions with him had indicated his greatest strength was juvenile practical jokes. I had never heard a serious word out of his mouth.
Larry hadn’t been able to look at me since the fiasco at the front desk. Now he waved a hand in my direction and said, “This is Judy.”
I was thinking, Larry is an idiot. Completely clueless.
I waited for the last name. It apparently wasn’t needed in this room, with these men. I cleared my throat and sat up straight. “It’s Judy Edwards.”
The meeting continued as if I hadn’t spoken. I took notes on a yellow legal pad, aware that I was the only person in the room taking notes, and that I probably looked secretarial. But I wanted to remember the details being discussed. Occasionally I asked a question, to clarify what was said. Once in awhile, someone answered my question, in an offhand manner. More often, it was as if I hadn’t spoken.
The project clearly was very early in the planning stage. The men took turns talking about the need, the location, the Feds, the base, the possibilities for conversion. They seemed to know very little about the Job Corps, or what might be required to set up a Job Corps site. Finally the men got around to discussing the project Director.
“Mr. Crude” looked at Larry. “We’ve asked Dr. Spears to find us a Director for this phase of the project, so we can get this thing going.”
Larry squirmed a bit in his chair. It started to dawn on me. He had not told these people why I was there.
“I…uh…that’s why I brought Judy. She’ll be the Project Director.”
The room was still except for a couple of indrawn breaths.
Mr. Crude set his cigar in his large ashtray and stood up. He leaned forward, his palms on the table and his thick black brows pulled together in a fierce glare. “What? You brought us a girl?” His leathery face was dark. “We don’t need a goddamned secretary, we need a Director!”
Here’s where I expected Larry to step in, to explain in detail my qualifications and his reasons for choosing me for this responsible position.
I let the awkward silence drop around me like a cloak, felt the hurt and humiliation quickly turn to fury. Hot lava boiled up inside me, and I wanted, badly, to hurl it into the room in a torrent of bubbling, seething rage. After a few moments of silence I stood and dropped my yellow legal pad into my briefcase. I turned to Larry. “I need to see you in the hallway.”
Every eye in the room was on us. He stood up and followed me out the door.
“I’m sorry,” he said after closing the door to the conference room. “I had no idea they’d treat you that way!”
My voice was low and measured, and did not conceal my rage. “How else would they have treated me? You…didn’t…even…tell them…why…I …was…there. You would never have treated a male colleague that way. You’d have introduced him at the very beginning of the meeting, with a grand flourish. Like you did Fred!”
He hung his head, a gesture I had never imagined possible for Larry.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I could see the beginning of his long, slow learning curve. He realized I had had no chance—he had doomed me with his introduction, or rather, his lack of introduction.
I got the whole picture, now. The light had come on. Every man in that room had assumed I was Larry’s secretary/traveling concubine. In their view, I had only been in the room to take notes, so Larry could justify having me along. It was a pattern they no doubt indulged in, themselves.
“Give me the car keys, I’m leaving.”
“You can find your own damn way to the airport! Your Chairman friend will be thrilled to drop you off.”
He said no more, just fished in his pocket and dropped the rental car key into my outstretched palm.
~ ~ ~
Now, years later, I can see on the map of Butte that the drive to the airport couldn’t have been more than five or ten miles. But I remember it as a long drive through barren wasteland. I seethed with anger and resolve, and had a conversation with myself.
If he could have introduced me as Dr. Edwards things would have gone differently. I’m going to get a PhD and come back and shove it up their Neanderthal noses.
You can’t go to graduate school, you have three kids to support!
I don’t give a damn—I’ll do consulting, I know I can make a living, we’ll do without if we have to! I’ll apply for a fellowship, a scholarship, whatever they call those things. We’ll move to wherever we need to go, wherever I can get accepted into a PhD program.
There was one Division Director and one Program Director, besides me, working at the Lab without a PhD. But in their cases, it didn’t seem to matter. They were men. No one introduced them by their first names only. They were still, often, introduced as “Dr.” in meetings. No one corrected them.
Sexist pigs. How could I ever have considered working with people like that anyway?
Because I needed a job. I had a family to support. And I knew there was nowhere to work that would be significantly different than the place where I worked.
Why had I allowed this debacle to happen? I had seen what was going on. Once again, I had missed a chance to take a huge risk, to “rock the boat” in the meeting. The stakes were too high for me. I needed the job.
In the end, Larry didn’t change—the impact of this event on him turned out to be negligible in terms of his future behavior as CEO. Briefly a bit embarrassing for him, perhaps, but not life changing. For me, the impact was a major turning point.
~ ~ ~
I don’t remember changing my flight or getting on the airplane, but I do remember the flight home. I spent the whole flight making notes on my yellow legal pad, developing a plan for getting a PhD.
Within a few weeks I had applied to take the Graduate Record Exam, had applied for a fellowship, and had filled out applications to three universities for graduate school. I secretly wanted to major in Law, but, also secretly, didn’t think I was smart enough.
I was awarded a prestigious fellowship to the University of Iowa School of Education, to major in Psychology of Instruction, with a dual advisor in Psychology, to start that Fall.
It had been clear for some time that I needed to go to graduate school, needed an advanced degree. It took an incident like this to provide the impetus for me to take action.
And I was in no way through with Larry and the good old boy network at the Lab. But I told no one at the Lab my real plan.
I was going to come back to the Lab with a PhD and kick their asses.