Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Monika Tuerk: Ambassador of Great Ideas

Monika Tuerk: Bringing innovation across the sea

What do you do with a law degree and a lot of  energy when you are the wife of an ambassador?
Monika Tuerk figured it out: Soak up the best ideas from the country you are in --  then make those ideas happen at home. And vice versa.
From 1993 to 1999, her husband, Helmut Tuerk, was Austria's Ambassador to the United States. Monika was fascinated by the way hospice care had taken off here.  She made it a point, as she and her husband traveled around the United States, to visit various hospice programs. She was moved by what she saw. There was nothing like that in Austria, she said. So when an American couple who were entrenched in the  hospice movement here visited Vienna, she made sure they met with with influential Austrians and got the idea rolling there.
"I tried to encourage people and it has really found good soil in Austria," she told me.  "We have good hospice care now, both in places where people can go to live but also mobile hospice. And in the last two years we've opened children's hospice. I just spread the idea."
She was equally enthusiastic about bringing to America the SOS Children's Villages program, which was started in Vienna after World War II and is now, according to their website, in 133 countries, including the United States. The idea is to give children who have been orphaned, neglected or abandoned a loving home  and an "SOS mother" to care for them. About 7 to 10 children live in each home, attending  public school and being part of their community, she said, and visiting with their parents, if they have them and choose to do so.  The SOS Village is there for them to age 18, with additional supports, or the chance to move back after that. "It really works well," she said.
Now, on its international website, SOS says it's in war-torn countries such as Syria, trying to help children who have been orphaned there.
But in the United States, the program had difficulty launching, despite interest in several states,  because of the complexities of foster care laws, Monika said. Fast-forward to today: the legal challenges haven't stopped the organization from making its mark in the United States. In Illinois and Florida, SOS is now working to provide vulnerable children with stable homes, education and quality healthcare to help them thrive.
Some would see Monika's career as one of having to compromise her own ambitions as she followed her husband to posts around the world. (Most recently, Helmut has served as a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas in Hamburg, Germany.) During one stretch, in Vienna, she found work as a lawyer but her boss, she said, would pass off to her all the unpleasant cases he didn't want to deal with. During another stint, she plunged into a medical writing job, knowing little about science -- or writing, for that matter.
"I was afraid and nervous but I just did it and I succeeded with it," she said.
Helmut Tuerk will step down from his Law of the Sea judgeship next spring and the couple will then look to new challenges.  For sure, though, Monika  --like a Johnny Appleseed of ideas -- will be spreading wisdom.  Unretiring.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lewis Katz: A Mensch in Ways I Never Knew

PA Gov. Tom Corbett comforts Ed Rendell
Lewis Katz
"Altogether too rarely in life, someone lives and just exudes, pouring out of every pore in their skin, such good will and energy and joy that they create this magnetic field that draws all the rest of us in. And while we're in it, we walk a little more erect and we feel a little more energy and we feel elevated because we're in this magnetic field."

That's what Bill Clinton said today at a memorial service for a man who had had yards of press in the Philadelphia Inquirer before his death -- and yet I had no inkling who he really was.
How is it that when it's too late we learn the true measure of a person?
Lewis Katz had been described as a wealthy philanthropist who had made his money in billboards and parking garages. Little more was said about him, even as he succeeded in taking full control of the paper last week after a contentious auction with other owners.

His memorial service today was extraordinary. Perhaps the most moving I have ever witnessed as one person after the other stood up to tell of his humble generosity, his determination to do something for others every single day, his impish humor and sense of fun, and his ability to draw in so many people who considered him a "friend" -- from the waiters he would tip $100 bills or take annually on gambling weekends in the Bahamas, to the likes of Bill Clinton, Ed Rendell, Ron Corbett, Ed Snider, Bill Cosby,  Cory Booker, and Doris Kearns Goodwin -- all of whom spoke teary-eyed about him yesterday.
I cried listening to their stories, and laughed too, as they talked about his antics,  such as the time he made a bet that he could tell Pres. Carter a dirty joke at a reception. After he bent down and whispered

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Daughter Marries; Long Live the Queen

Transitions… I feel as if I'm moving through a new one I hadn't considered before.
Last week, my "baby" --the youngest of my three daughters -- got married, following in her sisters' footsteps. It was a moment we had long anticipated, encouraged, hoped for, and-- finally-- celebrated.

Yay!  And yet….

While I might have been kidding myself to think that I was her confidante and adviser-in-all-things-about-life, I now suddenly realize that she has moved on to someone who can do it better and longer. If, God willing, the course of life proceeds as it should, he will be there for her when I am not.

It is a joyful, yet sobering passage. It's one thing to "retire" from a longtime career and plunge into the "next great thing," with expectations of many years of fulfillment ahead. It's another to warily eye the future and know that those years are becoming fewer. 

As my mother used to say, “You laugh with one eye and cry with the other.”

There’s a tradition, I’m told, of crowning the mother when her last child is married. Does it celebrate the ascendance, finally, to a place of governance and wisdom? Or does it mark some brilliance in the accomplishment of marrying off all the daughters?  Or is it more like that old TV show, “Queen for a Day,” where typically the woman who was crowned and showered with prizes was living a hard-luck life. (Now, realize, that I love my daughters, but raising them has not come totally free of angst and worry.) Here’s another old saying: “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.” I’ve had a few(fortunately, very few) sad days.

At the moment, though, with the newlyweds on their honeymoon, and the other daughters deep into their marriages, careers and  children of their own, I am free to walk my kingdom – or queendom – in whatever direction I wish to go, for as long as I am able.  The umbilical cord is cut.

Well, knowing me, I should qualify that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Polio: A Journalist's Frustration; The World's Failure

Polio leaves victims as beggars. Photo by Peter Tobia
As a journalism student, I once heard a former newspaper editor talk about his frustration that after many years of exposes, hammering at corruption and social ills, the same problems continued. And so, when that "been there, done that" feeling swept over me.  I knew it was time for me to leave daily journalism as well.
The issue of eradicating polio is one of those that I helped to champion. The world thought it was near the brink of success back in 1999.  That didn't happen but -- good news -- as I reported recently in writing about former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusade to do the right thing -- the United Nations declared polio vanquished in India just in March.
Now, though, we are back to the past. Today, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency around polio. Fifteen years after India was thought to be the last holdout of the virus, polio  is now found in 10 countries. Pakistan, where health workers doing rural vaccinations have been murdered, is a particular hotspot. Of the 74 cases of polio reported globally so far this year, 59 have been in Pakistan. Syria and Cameroon are also high on the list. A total of 417 cases were reported overall last year.
Lest we forget what polio looks like and the horrendous toll it takes, here are photos taken by Peter Tobia, when he worked with Huntly Collins on a series I edited for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The project took them to India to document efforts to finally wipe the scourge from the planet. Maybe some day….

By the way, Huntly reflected on her own transition on leaving the Inquirer here.

And you can read the polio series she wrote here: 


Sunday, May 4, 2014

It's About Creating Memories

Would it be worth driving 4 1/2 hours for "Grandparents Day" at our granddaughter's school?  Last year, our daughter told us not to make the journey, thinking that the event would be no big deal. But Talia, then a first grader, was disappointed when we didn't show up. So last Friday, we made the trek, getting up at dawn to arrive in time.
The day underscored the impact that a "special elder" or grandparent can have on a child. Something I hadn't thought much about. (Perhaps selfishly, I'd thought about it the other way around-- the joy I got out of a grandchild.)
The kids had all written essays and drawn pictures, reflecting on why their grandparents were important to them. The school's principal summarized for us the themes that had emerged:
Memories are etched in the the children's minds of plaees and activities spent with 'special elders' -- "being in the kitchen with grandma when we bake cookies;" "the stream where I go fishing with grandpa;" "playing cards with Poppop in the dining room." And then there are the trips -- whether to exotic locations or just to the city.
Things like that.
But most important, the principal said, were  the stories that grandparents tell -- the family narrative. Coming to America. Surviving hard times. Giving children the sense of where they came from and the challenges that their ancestors faced and surmounted.
"Research shows," he said, that children who have a family narrative do better than children who don't."
A former student at this school was so touched by Grandparents Day, that when she grew up, she gave the school a sizable gift to support the day, with lunch, refreshments, but most importantly, an artist in residence, who works with the children on poetry and dance for a performance.
The theme last Friday was "migration." Butterflies may have been what the children depicted in clever choreography and costumes. But the "special elders" knew that a migration of generations was in progress.
While each of us grandparents had received the gift of an enduring memory of this day, we are creating for our grandchildren memories that will endure long after us.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

(Un) Mayor Mike's Millionaire Mission

Michael Bloomberg: committed to change
Mike Bloomberg may no longer be mayor of New York City, but his influence is only growing. Yesterday he threw his abundant political and financial capital into one of his greatest concerns –  gun violence in this country.
At 72, he is fueling a ground war to save lives, turning – as conservative groups have done on all kinds of issues – to local and state initiatives, rather than national ones, to promote his cause. Namely, background checks for gun buyers.
“Thirty-one thousand Americans either get murdered or commit suicide with illegal guns,” he said, in making his announcement.
Bloomberg donated $50 million to this cause, through a new non-profit “Everytown for Gun Safety.”
That's more than double the $20 million that the pro-gun rights NRA spent in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
If money can buy elections, perhaps Bloomberg can make inroads into one of the nation’s most contentious, costly, and catastrophic issues.  He hopes to attract more members than the 5 million claimed by the NRA. You can sign up at the site:
That's just a fraction of what Bloomberg is trying to do. 
Check out, and you can see that the unretiring Mayor Mike is putting the muscle of his millions – actually billions – behind issues deeply rooted in his past and psyche.
As he puts it in the section of his website labeled “philanthropy”:

"Mike Bloomberg has always believed in the power of philanthropy to change people's lives for the better. His commitment to giving back -- as a way to improve lives and catalyze societal change -- grew out of the values he learned from his parents and from his experience as an Eagle Scout. Mike Bloomberg has pledged to give away the majority of his wealth to charitable causes he believes in."

How much is that? He’s worth about $31 billion, according to Forbes. So far he’s given away about $3.25 billion.
Recently, in the annual letter of his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, he focused on preventable problems.  "We don't shy away from controversy if we can make a difference." 
In the global arena, the foundation is giving $10 million to prevent drownings in Bangladesh, where 12,000 children a year die falling into shallow pools, often unsupervised. The money will go to funding playpens for 80,000 children ages 1-4.
In January, the foundation made a five-year, $53 million grant to improve fishing practices in Brazil, Chile and the Philippines, thereby boosting the ocean’s health and promoting the supply of fish.
It’s giving $12 million to support medical clinics and midwives in Tanzania to reduce maternal deaths –among the highest in the world – and the resulting catastrophic implications for surviving children.
He’s also joining other foundations and companies funding an initiative of President Obama --  My Brother's Keeper, which supports young minority men.
Other areas targeted by Bloomberg:
--Eradicating polio: $100 million through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, in partnership with the Gates Foundation.   
--Reducing carbon emissions with Sierra Club and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, made up of the world's largest cities seeking ways to reduce global warming;
-- Countering obesity in Mexico, which has one of the highest rates in the world --through support of new junk food taxes in Mexico;
--Cutting tobacco use in low-and middle-income countries --$600 million since 2007, through initiatives to raise taxes, increase warnings, and create smoke-free place;
--Promoting better educational practices, through fellowships for educators and by supporting local candidates, for instance in Louisiana, who endorse reforms.

The efforts go on and on. (The website is like a Russian matryoshka doll, with layers upon layers of initiatives for each topic.)

Yay, Mayor Mike! Never, never retire.

A PS on polio: Last month, the World Health Organization declared polio finally eradicated in India, which had been a major reservoir of the disease. Back in 1999, in a series I edited, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Huntly Collins reported on efforts to eradicate polio in India, a moment in time when we and the WHO thought the disease was about to vanish from the planet, though that goal has been thwarted in war-torn regions. Sadly, the fabulous photos by Peter Tobia are no longer on the Inquirer website, though you can see some here.
Huntly's series in words:


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Snatching Grandchildren -- One at a Time

When my husband and I had young children and were desperate for a break, we could never turn to my parents to babysit.  True, they lived two hours away so it wasn't as if they could just pop on over. But that was about their only excuse.  They had the time and the energy. But babysitting was not their thing.
Much as we yearned for their help from time to time, in one major way,  they made up for it.  When each of their grandchildren turned 10, they took them on a ski trip for a week. The child  would miss a week of school, since their spring break  never landed in  mid march, when the snow was still good and the weather mild.  That's when my parents liked to ski.
More important than the good table manners they learned, more important than the excitement of seeing new places,. More important than nailing ski techniques that would endure a lifetime,  the experience created an indelible bond between each child and Grandma Connie and Grandpa George.
And so, my husband and I decided we would keep the tradition.

We are in the midst  of a ski week with our eldest grandchild, even sharing a hotel room with little privacy. And it is everything we had imagined: a curious, exuberant child, enjoying adventure and happy to be sharing it with us.
Missing is the parental dynamic, one reason George and Connie took the grandchildren -- without us, the parents.
Add in the absence of sibling rivalry -- because there is no sibling there --and you have the makings of a really wonderful vacation.  He wants an extra dessert? Fine with us.  Doesn't want to write in a journal -- his homework --  Oh, well!  We can bend rules in ways that parents can't.
Also, we can foster independence. He's not tied to our umbilical cord. So he's got his own room key.  And if he doesn't eat much breakfast, that will be his problem, not ours.
Such are the joys of grandparenting!  My parents had it all worked out.
A week, of course, will be enough.

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Wings of Worry

I find myself thinking almost constantly about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. How is it that, in this age when every email can be read, we cannot find a plane with some 250 people aboard?
How is it that there are parts of the world with almost no people, not to mention no radar?
I think of the Chinese artists who were aboard, particularly those six who in the last hours got their flight switched so they could travel to Shanghai rather than Beijing. Why did they get to survive? Do they have survivor's guilt?
And what has happened to their colleagues? 
What of the woman, interviewed by the Wall St. Journal, who called her partner to-be in Malaysia and reminded him that his flight was that night and he should rush to catch it. He was flying to Beijing to help her move to Kuala Lumpur to be with him. Her grief and worry and self-questioning is unimaginable. And the belated honeymooners, just getting over the wife's miscarriage and so looking forward to a break?
Was there a struggle aboard, akin to the 2001 United Airlines flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania?
Or was everyone sleeping as the plane kept flying, flying. Did someone notice that the sunrise wasn't in the right direction? Or that the plane was taking longer than it should have?
Such questions have tormented those who speculate on the fate of  Amelia Earhart. But she was a solo flyer, responsible for just herself
If a pilot, in this case, was responsible, how could he take so many others with him? What was he thinking?
Most of us have the luxury of time to plan for our departures from this planet and our loved ones -- the time to write wills, label our possessions for this child or grandchild, write the "provenance" so they can be smart when they go on Antiques Roadshow, write our stories, say goodbye,
My mother even Xeroxed all her jewelry, circling each item and noting who should get what. There were no fights. And we appreciated her prescience.
But do most of us do so? Or are we perpetually convinced that the time is not now.
I pray that some crazed email will emerge, announcing a ransom for survivors on a remote island.  
So that I don't have to worry about those close to me. Or about myself.