I meet amazing people to write about for this blog in the most unlikely places. The funny thing is, heroes think they’re normal. Nothing special. Talking people into letting me tell their stories often takes a bit of convincing that others can benefit from their experiences, particularly the life choices that empowered them to become the successes they are today.
For example, Pauline Kinneman, one of my favorite new running buddies in Central Oregon,
doesn’t think she’s special at all, but she’s a total bad ass. Due to her peer pressure, I’m training for the Bend Marathon, my first marathon ever, on Sunday, April 24. What kind of crazy people run 26.2 miles, for cryin’ out loud? Apparently, people like me who admire and respect someone like Pauline, a 62-year-old who has won several medals in half and full marathons, a woman nine years my senior who kicks my butt on the roads and trails. She’s also the mother of three amazing adults: Sean Michael Gion, age 32, father, husband, software sales executive; Lauren Elizabeth Frances, M.D., age 30, and Katherine Rose Sylvia, age 26, wife, writer for Human Resources at Columbia University.
A former manager for a Barnes & Noble in Seattle, customer relations officer for Washington Energy, disc jockey back in the day, retail sales person, and model for Frederick and Nelson as a teenager, Pauline now spends much of her time running with her FootZone friends talking, joking, and offering humble encouragement. When she isn’t running, she hits the ski slopes, braves rocky trails on her mountain bike, and takes 200+ mile trips on her road bike with her husband, Michael, of 37 years.
You might guess, with a such a glowing track record (pun intended), she came from a stable, educated family.
You would be wrong.
Pauline’s father, John Kelty, was illiterate. John ran away from home and enlisted in the army in his teens. As a sergeant in World War II, he was one of the last Muleskinners who saved women and children in the Swiss Alps, and he had a fabulous singing voice.
But he could never quiet his inner demons.
Pauline’s mother, Sylvia Baker, a professional tennis player who competed at the U.S. Open, met John, a soldier 12 years her senior, guarding the tennis courts in Japan where she’d been asked to play in a “Friendlies” match with the Emperor. A whirlwind romance would have the two married several months later.
And her mother would discover her new husband was a mean drunk.
Still, Pauline’s oldest brother Frank came along, Geoffrey followed two years later, and Pauline Sylvia Kelty, named after her English grandmother, arrived a couple years after Geoff. Her mother continued to play tennis, and her dad worked for Boeing as a plumber. They lived in a two-bedroom house in Seattle where little Pauly slept in a crib in the same room with her brothers until she was five years old.
Meanwhile, her alcoholic father had become physically abusive.
By the time Pauly turned six, her parents had split up. Her dad didn’t pay child support, so the family practically starved while her mom struggled to pay the bills on the meager sponsorship from Boeing to play in tennis tournaments and her secretary’s salary.
Pauly didn’t go to preschool or kindergarten. She stayed home with her stuffed animals while her mom went to work and her brothers went to school. When she got hungry, she’d knock at neighbors’ doors, asking for something to eat. In the afternoons, she walked several blocks by herself and waited for her brothers to be let out of class for the day.
Yet when her mom had a tennis match scheduled, Pauly and her brothers bathed and dressed in clean white shirts and behaved as model children, seen and not heard. At the swanky tennis clubs, servers brought them food and drinks while their mother battled for another tennis trophy.
“People waited on us,” says Pauline. “We were little princes and a princess – until we went home to our hovel.”
Win or lose, Sylvia would take the kids back to their little house to carefully stow their pressed shirts and slacks for the next match. On days when Sylvia didn’t have a match scheduled, she and Pauly would go to the track at the local public high school, where Pauly would watch her mom hit tennis balls against a wall and run laps to stay in shape.
“I’d go to sleep at the side of the track listening to the rhythm of her feet,” Pauline remembers. “[The sound] was comforting.”
In addition to the difficulties of day-to-day living, the family lived in terror knowing her father could appear at any time, wasted and ready to bully them.
“We’d hold our breath hoping Dad wouldn’t show up drunk and violent,” Pauline confides. “Sometimes we had to leave to get away from him, which was fun because the no-tell-motel would have a pool, [but other times] the police would have to come and take him away.”
Single motherhood, a struggling tennis career, and an abusive ex-husband ground Sylvia into deep depression, so she tried to lift her spirits by dating. If Pauly and her brothers came home to hear music playing, they knew to stay out of the house. If the music still played after her date left, they knew their mother’s dark mood would isolate her for the rest of the evening. After such nights, ten-year-old Pauly would coax her mother out of bed, assemble an outfit, and help dress her for work in the morning.
“School was awful,” Pauline admits. “I was always sleepy, and I was super thin because I ate terribly.”
At age 11, Pauly found her mother running around the house with a handful of pills threatening to kill herself. Not knowing what else to do, she called the police. When the cops arrived, she and her brothers hid, and Sylvia told the police there had been a misunderstanding. After the police left, the kids crawled out of their hiding places, and Pauly tucked her mom into bed.
The following morning, Pauly ran late for school, so she awakened her mother, set out Sylvia’s clothes for work, and left the house. That day, Pauly got into trouble with her teacher for falling asleep in class, so she decided to go home for a nap. A priest intercepted her and broke the news that her mom was in the hospital. In a daze, Pauly walked home from school. When she wandered into the bathroom, she found bright red blood splattered on the walls, in the bathtub, and smeared on the floor.
“I can still see it in my mind if I’m not careful,” Pauline confesses. “It was horrible.”
Worse, Frank and Geoff blamed their little sister for their mother’s suicide attempt, saying that calling the police the night before had pushed her over the edge.
Sylvia was taken to the psych ward at the hospital. At first, people from their church took in the kids, but as days turned to weeks, Pauly and her brothers became wards of the state of Washington. Fifteen-year-old Frank went to live in an orphanage, Geoff spent time at the Griffin Home for Boys, and Pauly lived with the Lazaras family in foster care. The Lazarases had a rifle range in their basement, and they taught Pauly how to shoot. They also generously shared their horses and took her on trail rides. After two weeks, Betty Rae and Bud Gross, the Lazaras’s next-door-neighbors, asked Pauly to live with them.
When Sylvia got out of the hospital, she tried to get her children back, but the neighbors testified that she was an unfit mother, so the state wouldn’t allow Pauly and her brothers to go home. Pauly felt guilty to be relieved because, though the bathroom had been cleaned, whenever she visited the house for her mom’s visitation, vivid flashbacks made her heart race, and she’d have to walk outside.
Her mother felt there was little to live for without her children. Sylvia began to drink heavily and take amphetamines to control her weight, all while playing punishing amounts of tennis. Within months, Sylvia collapsed on the tennis court. Geoffrey, now 14, left the boys’ home to take care of her.
Just before Pauly’s 12th birthday in November, her mother died of liver cancer – and Geoffrey suffered a psychotic break.
“[Geoffrey] was never the same after Mom died,” Pauline concedes. “I think part of it had to do with him having to go to the same psych ward as our mother to recover.”
Pauline remembers her mother treating everyone with kindness. “[Mom] would say, ‘You never know what is going on with people. There is always someone who has had more pain [than we have].’”
Beverly and Vivian, Sylvia’s older sisters from California, came to Washington to attend the funeral. Pauly danced and skipped, excited to see her aunts for the first time, hoping these new-found family members would become part of her and her brothers’ lives. But Aunts Vivian and Beverly left shortly after the memorial service. Pauly didn’t know if she’d ever hear from them again.
A few weeks after the funeral, Aunt Beverly called and explained Frank and Geoff were too old, but 12-year-old Pauly could come to live with her family in California. Pauly’s first time on an airplane, she flew by herself to live with an aunt she scarcely knew as well as an uncle and four cousins she’d never met. Pauly kept up with her aunt’s strict schedule of activities and mealtimes, but she was in pain over the loss of her mother. In her grief, she escaped by burying her nose in books every chance she got.
Two weeks after Pauly arrived, Aunt Beverly sat her down on the bed and said: “This isn’t working out.”
Sylvia’s oldest sister, Aunt Vivian, came to the rescue and offered Pauly a home. Aunt Vivian had a pool, and she set out the funny papers for Pauly to read at the breakfast table. With lots of swimming and reading and easy conversation, her inner-turmoil subsided. Life began to settle into a secure rhythm – until four weeks later when Aunt Vivian said she’d already raised her children and wasn’t prepared to bring up another child.
Pauly was sent back to Washington. She lived in two foster homes before Betty Rae and Bud Gross got licensed to be foster parents and invited her to come live with them again. She was almost 13. For the next four years, Pauly lived with them, but tensions grew in their home after the Gross’s son enlisted in the army and left to fight in Vietnam.
In those years, Pauly’s self-esteem steadily declined. Few of her peers knew she was a foster kid. Most
people thought of her as the “nice little girl who worked in the school library.”
Then in tenth grade, Philip Quinn, Pauly’s English teacher at Franklin High School, began to tutor her in the library with a group of other struggling kids to help them catch up in their classes. More important, he told Pauly she was smart, praising her for academic and emotional progress. Slowly, her self-image improved.
In her senior year, one fateful afternoon, she got into a shouting match with Betty Rae, and Pauly ran away. Literally. Being on the cross-country team at Franklin High, she ran miles and miles.
Eventually she bumped into a girl from school. Although little more than an acquaintance, the girl took Pauly home, and the girl’s parents let Pauly spend the night. The next day, Pauly went to see the guidance counselor. When Mr. Quinn found out what had happened, he called his pregnant wife, and the couple agreed to take Pauly in for a while. Christopher, the Quinn’s two-and-a-half-year-old son thought his daddy brought Pauly home especially for him as the two of them hit it off the moment she walked into the tiny, two-bedroom house.
Pauly finished her senior year of high school with the Quinn family, and Philip helped her get into the University of Puget Sound. She earned a degree in psychology, met Michael Kinneman through a mutual friend, and began her journey as a successful adult.
To this day, Pauline and the Quinns keep in touch, celebrating accomplishments, sharing in sorrows, or merely catching up. Betty Rae and Pauline have long since made amends, and the Gross family, too, remain precious friends. Sadly, Pauline’s brother Geoffrey died at age 44 struggling with addiction, but Frank lives in Alaska and is the mayor in the small town where he lives with his wife. Frank and Pauline have done their best to heal from the past. They talk on the phone and visit each other whenever possible.
Soon Pauline will hang out with her daughter, Katharine Rose, and her son-in-law, Tyler Bischop when she travels east to run in the New York Marathon on November 6. My guess is that she’ll get another medal, but whether she places in her age group or not, Pauline is a hero in my book.
Pauline, thanks for allowing me to share your story as a notable bad ass on Tenacity to Triumph.
Readers, we’d love to “hear” your comments. Hopefully, Pauline’s story struck a chord to give you that extra something you need to get through your personal challenges.
If you have a story of grit and determination to share, leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll make that happen.
Here’s to bad asses everywhere!