Monday, October 07, 2002

Life-changing moments described

From rejecting a job offer to staging a risky protest, Tristaters recall the defining events that shaped their futures

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everyone has them: good or bad moments that shape the soul and change the course of your life. Author and talk-show host Phillip McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, encourages examining and celebrating the events in our lives that make us what and who we are.

        The Enquirer asked several successful Tristaters to describe their defining moments.

        Ken Durgans: Stood up for himself

Ken Durgans
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        The room Ken Durgans stood in was crowded and charged with tension. A minority affairs officer at the University of Notre Dame in 1991, he found himself pulled into a war of wills between protesting students and an administration that wouldn't budge.

        “I had been working there for four years,” says Dr. Durgans, now Xavier University's executive director for diversity development. “As our program developed, we recruited more minority students. Eventually, (the students) petitioned for improvements in the school. They did it right and followed the chain of command,” eventually initiating a sit-in when his boss, the vice president of student affairs, refused to see them. The sit-in ended when a public meeting was held and the students met with school officials, including Dr. Durgans and his boss.

        “As she was addressing the packed room,” says Dr. Durgans, “she suddenly told the group that it was my fault the way things had gotten, when that wasn't the case at all.”

        He had to decide whether to keep silent and on the side of the administration or retain his integrity and possibly lose his job by contradicting his boss in public.

        “I made the decision to stand up for my principles,” he says, “so I stood up and contradicted her. People are quick to criticize other people who make unpopular stands when they themselves have not gone through the fire. At that time, I had a wife and three kids so I had a lot to lose by speaking up. But I had a lot more to lose by not standing up. Doing that gave my professional life a sense of security.”

        Although he didn't lose his job that day, his contract with the university was not renewed at the end of the year.

        “I learned that I'm not defined by my job,” he says. “That experience gave me a sense of peace that changed my life.”

        Racelle Weiman: Petition and a passion

        As a wide-eyed freshman at UCLA in 1975, Racelle Weiman was eager to begin her studies. She was particularly interested in learning more about the Holocaust. She soon discovered there wasn't a major, there wasn't an actual curriculum that dealt with Holocaust studies.

        “I couldn't understand it,” says Dr. Weiman, now director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Why aren't they talking about the Holocaust or slavery? I was already reading a lot about it but that's what I wanted to study. The people at the school said, "Why do you want to learn about that? Maybe there might be something in a German history class.' So I went from department to department and finally found a class on Holocaust literature, although it was taught by someone from the outside.”

        Her frustration eventually led her to start a petition drive to have the curriculum added. Today, the petition hangs in her office at Hebrew Union College. Although her protests in the 1970s went unheard, UCLA currently has an endowed chair in Holocaust Studies. And Greater Cincinnati has a woman who turned her defining moment into a passion for education.

        “That experience definitely made me decide to teach about the Holocaust,” says Dr. Weiman. “I tried to walk away from teaching a few times . . . I came back because I asked myself, "If I don't teach it, who will?' ”

        Jean Donohue: Stubborn about structure

        Artists are known for being free spirits, constantly pulling against the reins of convention. Jean Donohue, founding member of nonprofit arts organization Media Working Group in Covington, has the heart of an artist. Her defining moment came when she faced an opportunity some people would have jumped to take.

        “When I was 21,” says Ms. Donohue, “I had taken a temporary job, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I came from a working-class background and had been married and divorced at an early age.

        “The temporary job was at a company called Tube Turns in Louisville. My job was to file order forms and other information. I was a pretty good filer, too. I had been working there for three or four days and my employers came to me on a Friday and said "We'd like to hire you permanently.'

        “I remember feeling flattered they asked me to stay,” she says, “and they left me to ponder what my answer would be. While I was thinking, I happened to look up and suddenly realized I was standing in a warehouse filled to the ceiling with filing cabinets.”

        When she realized all those filing cabinets would be there every day, just waiting for her to fill, “I just looked around and said, "This is not my life.' That was on a Friday. On Monday, I just didn't show up for work and, ever since then, I have never worked in a structured environment. I decided I wanted to be the creator of organization, not be a part of one.”

        Does she consider herself a free spirit?

        “No,” she says. “I'm just stubborn.”

        Jack Chin: Constructive criticim led to turnaround

        Gabriel “Jack” Chin, University of Cincinnati College of Law professor, has written several course books on immigration and civil rights. He also leads a cadre of UC students on a national quest to rid state law books of discriminatory barriers for Asian-Americans and other minorities.

        With this full schedule, it would seem his defining moments would be tied to one of his many successes. It's actually tied to his near-failure as a young student.

        “Perhaps the most significant defining moments in my life have come in the form of honest, even harsh, criticism from teachers who thought I could do better,” remembers Mr. Chin.

        Calling himself an “indifferent student” in high school in Madison, CT, Mr. Chin had horrible grades his freshman year. Fortunately, one of his teachers and other adults saw his potential and began to mentor him.

        “My Latin teacher took me aside,” he says, “and told me I was blowing an incredible chance to open up opportunities for myself through education. A friend of the family, who was a professor, pointed out that it did not take that much more work to get good grades instead of poor ones. After that, I applied myself and got scholarships to Wesleyan, Michigan and Yale.

        Another defining moment may come next month when Oregon voters decide whether to rescind discriminatory language from the state constitution. Voters in New Mexico will also consider this fall whether to remove an “alien land statute” from that state's constitution barring Asian immigrants from owning property.

        Both ballot-driven decisions came as a result of Jack Chin's passion for justice. His work for the Alien Land Law Project of the Immigration and Nationality Law Review scours through antiquated laws like these to have them repealed or changed.

        Roberto Peraza: Left homeland for college

        Nineteen-year-old Roberto “Bob” Peraza had one year of college under his belt and was anxious to prepare for his future. An unexpected knock on the door in 1960 changed Mr. Peraza's life and became one of his defining moments. A representative of the Cuban government informed him he could not return to college in the fall.

        “They told me I wasn't allowed to continue at the university because of my opposition to the Castro regime,” says Mr. Peraza, now president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

        Instead of abandoning his dream of being a chemical engineer, Roberto left his family, his home, his homeland and bought a plane ticket to the United States. He enrolled at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.two years later, graduating in 1965.

        “Coming here alone was a major change for me,” he says. “Even though I knew about the United States, I left Cuba with one bag of clothes because I wanted to experience freedom, be a free person. But I knew if you work hard, you can make a good life. It was a gamble but I felt I had nothing to lose.”

        Mr. Peraza's passion for engineering brought him to Cincinnati in 1994, where he continues his career at Procter & Gamble.

        His most recent defining moment came Sept. 11, 2001.

        “My wife and I lost our son in the World Trade Center,” says Mr. Peraza, 59. “Rob was a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor.”

        He says the initial grief and subsequent anniversary were difficult. “My faith is what has been carrying me through.”

        Send us your defining moments
        Dr. Phil's defining moment: Oprah's intervention

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