Alumna Gives Thanks: Reading Beyond the Story to Write My Own

By Barbara Gellott Petee ‘84

In early June of 1984, I completed my last exam at Michigan State University, walked the blue book to my professor’s office and thanked him for all that he’d taught me the last two years.  

The professor was Joe Waldmeir, his office was in Berkey Hall, and the class was one of several Joe taught, and I’d taken, in American Literature. He’d opened my eyes to so much; the expatriates who defined the Lost Generation, his own stories of Paris and travels through Europe and, quite simply, how to read a novel. Perhaps, even more simply, how to read.

There’s the story—but there’s also the story behind the story. Told through imagery and symbols, it’s what skims beneath the words that is so crucial to understanding the entire picture. Novels are mirrors to the world around us—and I’d use that understanding, and the skills and tools I’d learned in Journalism, to shape and help forge my path for the next 38 years.

Growing up as the youngest of seven children, my parents made the commitment to ensure we all received a college education, and I followed their directive and advice: ‘Don’t go to college to get a job; go to get an education. The rest will fall into place.’

I could never imagine then how much would fall into place for me—not by luck; but by using the the life skills that MSU taught me, as well as the degree in Journalism I earned that required so many liberal arts credits. I understood the importance of history and pop culture. I could talk science as well as the latest scores. And, above all else, I could write. Thanks to the unbending and sharp rules of my J-School professors, I learned about deadlines, thorough research, spelling correctly (well before spell-check) and understanding that my writing was, indeed, my signature. And if doors were to open, my signature needed to be clear, concise and strong. 

My first job out of college was as a PR and advertising specialist at a small bank, in a small town. The ATM had recently invaded the quiet of Main Street, and I’d stand on that street in rural Ohio and give demonstrations for the loyal bank customers who had long-preferred their weekly chat with the their favorite teller, assuring them that she would still be there when needed, but this was a quick alternative. It was here I came to understand that the relationships customers had with tellers were more than just transactional, they were personal. And in those personal relationships were the stories beneath the stories: The farmer making the loan payment on time. The young boy opening an account to save for a down payment on his first car. The Christmas Club member who—in 1984—still stuck to the tradition of depositing five or 10 dollars a week so that the holiday bills didn’t hit hard.

I understood bills piling up. Those 18 months of skimming on the edge of poverty didn’t stop me from dreaming big about the future, but they provided a better understanding of the challenges faced by those who didn’t have options and roads in front of them. For so many, choices were few. And I was reminded–again–of the stories behind the story.

In early 1986, I was recruited to health care. Beginning in the corporate communications department of a tertiary hospital in Toledo, I’ve been fortunate to stay with the same organization–ProMedica—as it evolved into a major Midwest health system. Now, thirty-some years on, I’ve had a career that took me from the humblest of beginnings to myriad roles that eventually led to Chief Communications Officer, then Chief Advocacy and Government Relations Officer, and now, a dual role of also serving as Executive Director of The Root Cause Coalition, a national organization that works to address health equity and basic needs. I maneuver Capitol Hill with the same familiarity I walked from ComArtSci to Berkey. I talk and write about hunger as a health issue and other basic needs that, when unmet, prevent individuals from achieving their best self, and often call to mind John Steinbeck or, more specifically Tom Joad, when preparing for presentations. Always mindful of the story behind the story and the circumstances behind the face, I know many depend on me to be their voice and tell their story.

The novels I studied in college, and have continued to read ever since, remind me that fiction is the most thinly veiled truth, and the truth can only come out in the most carefully honed telling. Journalism and American Literature: for me, a perfect marriage.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have a succession of increased responsibilities that I was confident in shouldering because of the start I received at MSU. The professors and the rigors of the Journalism program shaped my life. But so, too, did the maneuvering and learning how to wind my way through the labyrinth of this spectacular University—both literally and figuratively. It wasn’t easy; it was challenging. Yet every time I conquered a challenge, I was building a reservoir of experiences that would give me the full confidence to take on the unexpected turns that life would hand me. Sourcing a story, corroborating sources, tackling research and meeting multiple deadlines, while also juggling a full load of coursework in other subjects taught me so much. And those other courses—in sociology, economics, biology, history, and—my beloved American Literature—broadened my view of the world around me. 

Thirty-eight years on, I’ve had the chance to take in more of this world than I could have imagined, and take on more opportunities and challenges than I would have dreamed. Sure, some times have been scary, some full of wonder, and many days fly by so fast there’s no time to think—just do. But I’m fortunate. My husband and I have been married 28 years, and our two children are now adults—our youngest just having joined the ranks of Spartan Alumni, with a B.A. in Communications. The loyalty and love of our Alma Mater runs deep. We love thy shadows. And it’s in the shadows and layers of so many stories, of so many individuals that I’ve plied my trade—always striving to tell each story a bit better than the last.

This past May, I found myself in Lansing for business and had arrived the evening prior. It was mid-week on a glorious evening and, with some time to spend, I decided to take a walk through campus. Graduation was past, the summer session had just begun and campus was quiet and still. Passing Beaumont Tower, I noticed up ahead someone coming out of Berkey Hall, and my mind immediately went back to Joe Waldmeir and American Lit. My pace quickened, hoping that the door hadn’t locked behind the young man leaving; I so badly wanted to visit one specific room.

To my relief the doors were open, but I’m fairly sure I was alone in the building. Though I’d never been there in such quiet, it was immediately familiar and, without thought, I found my way to Joe’s former classroom. Cleaned from the semester just finished, the blackboard had been washed, desks neatly arranged. Metal Venetian blinds were angled half-open, and the evening sun came through in warm gold slits across the entire space. I stood at the front, flooded with memories of the young girl that had arrived nearly 40 years ago: the Journalism major who aced Joe’s American Literature courses—who fell in love with Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and so many others, which led me down so many paths.  Joe passed away a few years ago, so I took a moment and then silently thanked him—again.

Then, without hesitation, I took a piece of chalk from the ledge and wrote:
In this room I learned how to read…a novel. It changed my life — forever.  
— BGP ‘ 84, 5/23/18

Barbara Gellott Petee is a 1984 Graduate of MSU with a B.A. in Journalism. In addition to her professional roles in health care, she is the author of two novels, One Step from Grace and My Father’s House. She also serves as a member of the ComArtSci Alumni Board, where she began her role in October.