This month marks fourteen years since my plans for earning my doctorate were all but assured by a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. It was a one-year fellowship, only $15,000, but it meant that I didn’t have to teach for a year, that I didn’t have to do grunt work for my advisor Joe Trotter, and that I wasn’t beholden to the history department at Carnegie Mellon for much of anything. It was a great triumph in my little world of graduate school. But of all the things that resulted from that award, one thing that I didn’t count on was another mentor and friend. Without a doubt, Catherine Lacey has had the longest lasting impact on my career and on my thinking, in and out of academia.
Catherine was the Senior Program Officer and Director of the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program when I applied for it in the fall of ’94. She had taken over the program in ’93, with the apparent charge of making the program more inclusive and more dynamic for its participants. I’m not sure what the foundation’s dissertation fellowship program was like before. All I know is that Catherine’s seven-year-long tenure running it was one in which she practiced compassion, humility, optimism, and quiet leadership. She never sounded like an academician in directing the work, although she was a bit philosophical at times. She never sounded like a bureaucrat or a senior foundation officer who practiced the power of “No,” even though that was certainly a major part of her job. Almost from my first conversation with Catherine, I realized that she was different from anyone I’d met with an academic background or in the foundation world.
Her background was as a Catholic nun who at one point was a Catholic school teacher, at least through the late ’70s, if I remember correctly. At some point she decided to go back to school, to eventually earn a doctorate in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Even though she was no longer a practicing nun (whatever I mean by that, I’m not entirely sure), I’m sure that this training and philosophical approach to life and work helped her a lot in her position at the Spencer Foundation. Maybe it was also the fact that she grew up in the Midwest, North or South Dakota I believe. Whatever the case, I think that this combination of experiences made her a more flexible and generous person than most of the foundation program officers and academic bureaucrats I’d met before and have come to know since.
The first time I ever heard from Catherine was right after a two-month research stay in Washington, DC and visit home in Mount Vernon, New York. I’d just come off of weeks in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Moorland-Spingarn Research collection at Howard University, the Sumner School Archives for DC Public Schools, and several other places doing research on my dissertation topic, multiculturalism in philosophy and practiced among Black Washingtonians. It was the end of March ’95, and it had been five months since I’d submitted my application packet for the Spencer fellowship. When I went to my Carnegie Mellon mailbox in the history department, there it was. A standard #10 envelope with only a one-page letter inside, which I knew because of the envelope’s thinness. I knew it was a rejection letter. Except that it wasn’t, at least not entirely. It had a handwritten note at the bottom of it from Catherine, asking me to give her a call as soon as I received the note.
So I did. Catherine did most of the talking, asking me about my research stay in DC, about my definition of multiculturalism and how it had or hadn’t changed because of my research. Then she talked to me about the selection committee. Apparently out of eight committee members, six voted in favor of awarding me the fellowship, one against, and with one in absentia. The sticking point was how I defined multiculturalism in my research proposal, putting me on the fence between award and no award. Although I would learn later that there were some academic and cultural politics involved in the two non-Yes votes, at the time Catherine told me that she would do everything she could to see if she could still fund my work. “I’m not making any promises,” she said before we got off the phone.
I didn’t know what to make of the call, other than the fact that Catherine cared about funding my work. That it wasn’t everyday that someone with her responsibilities called a student who had technically been rejected was also something I took away from that call. Two weeks passed. On Friday, April 14 of ’95, I got a call at home, right after 9:30 am. I assumed it was my mother or one of my friends. I hadn’t even taken the time to spit and rinse my toothpaste when I answered the phone. After the pleasantries, Catherine excitedly blurted out the good news. And I swallowed my toothpaste in response before asking how and saying thanks.
It turned out that Catherine thought that in addition to the 29 awards that were granted fellowships by the committee, that there were four others (including me) who should also receive the fellowship. Catherine had spent the previous two weeks asking the foundation for additional monies for the other four of us, and found that at least two of the original 29 awardees had accepted other fellowships. As a result, she could then give out four additional fellowships as part of her discretion as the director of the program. I was happy, to say the least about the award. But I was even happier that someone would fight for me and others the way Catherine did.
As a Spencer fellow, I learned a lot from my “fellow Fellows,” as I constantly called our group. That I wasn’t the only one whose advisor was acting as a roadblock toward our degree and career aspirations. That our colleagues on our campuses stared us all down with daggers in their eyes after learning about our awards. That hours upon hours of lonely research and intense writing and editing didn’t make any of our significant others or spouses particularly happy. Still, I learned as much from Catherine as I did from my fellow Fellows. About balance between life and work. About the realization that academia wasn’t our only career option, even as much as we thought it was at the time. That it was all right to feel ambivalent about pursuing an academic career.
This last one was of great importance to me, because my worries about becoming a publish-or-perish professor had always been there. I wanted to do something useful with my degree and life, something to benefit others, something that would allow me to help people who grew up like me, poor, possibly abused, and with the world thinking that I’d sooner go to jail than graduate high school. The one thing that Catherine’s work revealed to me was that it was possible to have a job and career that you could fall in love with, that helps others, and that enabled you to prosper financial. Her job allowed her to do all three, and very well at that.
It was that realization that enabled me to stumble my way into the nonprofit world, doing work on everything from community computer labs and civic education to a social justice fellowship program and education reform work on college access and success. Even after my fellowship ended in June ’96, I kept in contact with Catherine, attended Spencer gatherings and asked for advice. I even took my wife with me on a business trip to Chicago once to, among other things, have her meet Catherine at the Spencer offices in the John Hancock Building. I haven’t had quite the same luck of finding work that is as fulfilling as Catherine’s work was with Spencer. But I haven’t given up trying, and hope that what I have done and am doing does actually help others.
I haven’t talked to Catherine since the end of ’04. Not for lack of trying, though. Catherine decided after two years as a high-level administrator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education that it was time for her to retire, to move back to the Dakotas, to live in seclusion, I guess. She didn’t particularly like Philly, or the grinding work that is almost pure administration. She missed Spencer, Chicago, and all of the people that she had met over the years. I think that the Bush years and 9/11 depressed her greatly
I miss Catherine. I miss asking her advice on everything from my job to whether I should turn Boy At The Window into a fiction novel instead of keeping it a memoir with narrative nonfiction elements (I know, that’s redundant) or even continue to pursue finding an agent. I miss sending her pictures of Noah or talking to her about her days at Spencer. Most of all, I miss telling her how much her friendship and unofficial mentoring have meant to me over the years. To Catherine, and really, all of my friends, many, many thanks.