Homage to Gwen L. Morgan, 90, who died peacefully at home in Lincoln, MA, on September 4, after decades of innovative life-changing contributions to the early childhood field.
Angels. My Mother loved angels. So, when I traveled afar or down the street to my local Home Goods store, my eyes scanned for the loveliest angel to take home to my Mother.
My Mother died on July 4th sixteen summers ago. But even today, when my eye spots an angel, my heart whispers: “Your Mom would love that.”
If you have reached for your phone, ready to text or call someone you love who is no longer on earth, you know this feeling of incompletion: The ache of loss, of something important forever unfinished. We humans need connection; missed connections hurt.
I can’t tell when these moments of yearning will come. Sixteen years ago, I ran from their sadness. Today, I am stronger in my vulnerability. I am more willing to stop and to wait and to breathe until the memory that wants to come to me unfurls. And there in the light is my mother: healthy, smiling, happy even, spinning her once agile body into a cartwheel each spring just for me. In these moments, angels gather for us both.
This summer in West Dummerston, Vermont, my colleague and friend, Kay Albrecht, and I sat and reminisced, feet up, savoring bowls of lush fresh raspberries splashed with Vermont cream and Vermont maple syrup. Such an unusually easy day this was for two recovering workaholics: swimming in the crystalline West River, picking raspberries at Whetstone Farm in Marlboro, marveling at cheese being crafted by hand at the Grafton Cheese factory, laughing our way through Chinese Checkers.
With Brahms’ mellow Opus 26 dancing us toward the sunset, Kay told me of her mother’s time in Seattle during World War II, working at a child care program for shipyard families involved in the war effort. I dropped my spoon: “Kay! Your Mom worked at a Kaiser Center? With 24/7 care? Where children’s bathtubs were high enough so teachers wouldn’t hurt their backs?” “She did”, Kay smiled. “My Mom did”.
And that’s when I knew I had to tell Gwen. “Gwen would love this!”
Gwen Morgan discovered the brilliance and brevity and the near-perfection of the Kaiser Centers. She loaded students’ notebooks with mimeographed histories of Kaiser’s model environments. Kaiser Centers defined “family-friendliness” for Gwen. With doctors and nurses on staff, healthy nutrition, replacement shoelaces, haircuts, immunizations, innovative curriculum and sick care, meals-to-go, children were safe and free to learn. For staff, complementary ideals were practiced: the best teachers were sought out, well-paid and highly respected. Problems were identified and resolved with urgency through collaborative team meetings. Everyone’s input mattered.
The War had to be won; shipbuilding parents needed to know their children were well and happily learning. First rate early childhood education was as essential to the nation’s well-being as it is in this moment.
Gwen challenged her students, mostly childcare directors, who studied at Wheelock College’s Summer Seminars in the heat of July with questions like:
- Can we provide the same quality care and education today as Kaiser did at wartime?
- How do we solve the “trilemma” of depending on tuition for our livelihood, especially in difficult economic times for families?
Students sat rapt. I joined them, even though I was Gwen’s co-instructor. We were all learning, fascinated, and inspired. We called Gwen early childhood’s “national treasure” because she raised and worked to resolve long-avoided seemingly insurmountable deeper issues.
Gwen noticed what mattered to our profession. She noticed and she acted. And when she acted, she made a difference.
If you didn’t know Gwen, or if you did, please take this moment to read Ellen Galinsky’s Huffington Post blog about Gwen’s passing. You too will marvel at the innovations Gwen envisioned and made real:
- Research and Referral agencies that help parents find just the right child care for their children? Thank Gwen for that.
- Not just compilation but incisive assessments of each state’s licensing standards for quality. Gwen did that.
Thank Gwen too for persuading the American Business Collaborative (ABC) to fund leadership courses for directors across the country. Courses like the Human Side of Management and Family Friendly Programs, Managing Infant Toddler Programs and Legal and Financial Issues.
Gwen and her Wheelock team (led by the gifted Andi Genser) at the Institute for Career Development insisted that early childhood leaders deserved the best of everything: theory, practice, policy, trends, analysis of underlying and overarching issues, instructors and above all, the chance to meet and support and learn from one another.
Gwen and team also saw to it that the ABC funded each of these graduate courses (or undergraduate if the student needed), to be conducted at a hotel or resort or retreat center designed to help each director feel honored. Because, Gwen said, directors deserve to be honored, pampered and respected. Above all, respected. Directors needed to be away from their everyday demanding schedules; so, these courses included overnights and meals served in appreciative surroundings.
Teams of instructors were trained and sent forth in the fireworks from Gwen’s academic canon including Judy Bencivengo, Luis Hernandez, Sue Twombly, Lui Reyes, Kate Lafayette, Margaret Leitch Copeland, Bess Emmanual, Barbara Bagwell, Lori Harris, Patty Hnatiuck, Marta Rosa, and me.
Off I went to Phoenix, Park City, UT, the Poconos, Princeton, NJ, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa, Fort Worth, Austin, TX, Washington, DC, Lexington, KY, and Oklahoma City to teach the Human Side of Management. And to learn by listening deeply to each director’s sharing. We had five days to co-create a cohesive learning community. Those directors and that community would be charged to make a difference individually and together. Our five days together was just a beginning.
In Huntington, WV, thanks to collaboration with Norma Gray, Gwen’s visionary colleague, our Human Side of Management course gathered directors from the far reaches of that state for the first time. Suzi Brodoff, Helen Post-Brown, Marsha Dawson, Judi Olson caught fire and formed “Directors on a Mission” (DOM) to persuade the legislature to improve funding and raise standards for young children. DOM prevailed. Children were honored. Teachers were honored. Determined directors established the West Virginia Leadership Academy which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2016. Directors report that this Academy, based in Gwen’s vision, has been “life changing”.
I too caught fire and began to write articles combining what I knew about academic management and law with the genius ideas and experiences of the directors I met. It’s no accident that my first published article was “SUPERDIRECTOR: All things to all people but one (yourself!)”, followed by “Gossip-free zones: Problem solving to replace power struggles”. My first book Leading on Purpose: Emotionally Intelligent Early Childhood Administration (McGraw-Hill, 2008) and second, Managing Legal Risks in Early Childhood Programs (Teachers College Press, 2012) all were based in the heartfelt experiences of our students.
Gwen said no textbook already written could embrace the concepts of her expansive curriculum. So, I did my best to write that text. Happily, What You Need to Lead: Emotional Intelligence in Practice (NAEYC, 2012) is a best-seller. Gwen smiled.
We called Gwen a “national treasure”. Gwen also was one tough cookie, brilliant and prickly at the same time. Gwen and I disagreed often and passionately and remained close. When Wheelock’s air conditioning malfunctioned, I extended our afternoon class so we could dismiss the evening class when the building would be sweltering. Out of the elevator and into the classroom like Clark Kent with glasses, Gwen resolutely announced the evening class would be held. We could not alter the set schedule. We soldiered on and in fact, sang and maybe even danced that evening to keep our sense of humor with fans blasting.
And that is what Gwen would want of us today: to soldier on regardless. She reminded us to support each other and to include everyone regardless.
And to remember that the human side of management is what prevails: dignity, grace, originality, courage and humor. Gwen embodied these all in her sparrow-like body, with flowing shirts and bohemian tops, too-large glasses and fluid laughter. When Gwen laughed, the world was full of hope.
My fingers reach to email this to Gwen with a simple click or two of the keys.
I’d like to call to tell Gwen about “our students’” many successes: Mary Cecchinato’s celebrating her 33rd anniversary as endlessly compassionate director in Connecticut, Liz Kendall’s creative initiatives in New Jersey, Gail Wilson’s championing of City Year in South Carolina.
But there it is again: the yearning for what is no more. Gwen has passed. Her Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, September 19th at the First Parish church, in Lincoln, MA. When Gwen’s beloved husband, Henry, died in 2001, I was one of many people who spoke. With quavering voice, I said: “I only knew Henry because of Gwen and I love Gwen.”
In time, as memories of Gwen return, as memories of my mother return, I trust Gwen and I will again challenge one another, inspire one another, and laugh at our quirky selves together. Angels are welcome to join us.
I will miss you less then, Gwen Morgan, when more than your passing, I will remember the gifts you left for generations of children and families and the directors who care for them all.