Photographer, Traveller, Painter, Education Specialist, Goldthwaite, Texas

I had a wonderful problem during this photoshoot. I couldn’t get my subject to stop smiling. The one photo where she is trying (and failing miserably) is also one of my favourites. That’s Ms. Peggy Blackwell though. She is most happy while being creative in her home, in the middle of Central Texas Hill Country. This talented WOW Woman enjoys showing off photographs of the bluebonnets, birds and horses, loves her cat and bakes incredible sweets. You quickly realize though that she also does not sit still. Peggy attends photography meet ups all over the United States where she perfects her technique and successfully sells her work online and in shops. She also paints.

Further prying revealed a curious and a gutsy traveller, solo explorer and an open-minded, accomplished and fearless WOW Woman. Ms. Blackwell has gone on three solo safaris, travelled all over the Middle East, served as a dean at the Zayed University (that’s in Dubai) and flew to Thailand one weekend just because. I needed to dig deeper. How did this Texan come upon the inspiration to seek and find, explore and sample all that life had to offer? I also wanted to understand what is behind the drive to celebrate diversity and appreciate sundry voices and colourful personalities? Ms. Blackwell didn’t disappoint.

1. Name.

Peggy J. Blackwell

2. Where is your hometown?

Goldthwaite, Texas, USA.

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation? What did you study?

My profession is education. I have a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology with a minor in Industrial Engineering. My career has been in higher education. I joined the University of New Mexico (UNM) College of Education in 1971 as an assistant professor and moved through the ranks to professor. I also served as dean for six years, returning to the faculty in 1997. In 2004, I took a position as Dean at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates and served there until 2010, when I retired and returned to Texas.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of, and what was the turning point to set you on a current path in life?

Looking back, the journey was uneven. My first job was as a teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (That job was unplanned – I only applied because my parents kept asking where I was going to work. I was in Denmark when my dad called, laughing, to tell me he’d accepted the job for me.) I often say that when I went to the teacher’s lounge, the school counselors were there. Whatever the reason, I took a leave of absence and returned to Texas to pursue a master’s in counseling psychology. I soon discovered I was not meant to be a counselor and was admitted to a doctoral program in Experimental Psychology with minors in Industrial Engineering and Educational Psychology, graduating in 1970. By then, I had met a man and wanted to stay in close proximity so I took the job at New Mexico. Aside: Engineering had a long way to go back then. I was the only woman student in the college of engineering at Texas Tech; when I interviewed for a position in a college of engineering I discovered the ladies room was in the basement behind some boilers.

In 1982 a new dean asked me to serve as assistant dean for research (later promoted to associate). That was the turning point because it led me into the administrative side of higher ed.

Being dean at UNM was a difficult time at best. The University and Regents had questioned the work of the college and various, not-good, scenarios had been put forward. So an accomplishment could be described as saving the college from the worst options. This was done with support and work of many of the 120+ faculty, but surely not all. As I said then, what we did made everyone equally unhappy. The dean, at the time, told me that I probably couldn’t deal with conflict and hence shouldn’t be a dean.

Well, I consider it a major accomplishment to have become a dean who dealt with conflict day in and day out for six years. And survived it! I learned early on that handling stress is absolutely important.

I had a pond and waterfalls in my backyard and I would go home, put on my waders, get the scrub brush and vigorously clean the rocks (take that! whoever had vexed me that day!). Worked wonders and I got a little exercise too.

I loved being the state coordinator for the National Geographic Education Alliance, formed by Gil Grosvenor who was president and chairman of the National Geographic Society. This was such fun and enabled me to work with New Mexico teachers who wanted to put geography back into school curriculum. They were enthusiastic and dedicated about their work and the mission and I’m still in touch with some I worked with. They taught me a lot about teaching and the social studies curriculum and this experience is something I still treasure.

And, of course, there is my time at Zayed University, which is a national university founded by His Highness Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. The university at that time was for Emirati women, with a goal to graduate students who could become leaders in the country. That was one reason I took the position, plus I was asked by the external advisory board to place focus on research. I arrived only to discover that the provost had targeted the college of education for downsizing because of insufficient students. My first year was spent working again--fighting really--to keep the college intact. The students were the best part of the six years I spent there. They were so open, friendly and committed to learning. The “picture” we often get in the U.S. of Arab women and Islam bears no resemblance to what I experienced in the UAE.

5. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

A junior in college at the University of Wyoming, I was engaged and probably had a notion of being a housewife and mother. I did a minor in education because my father said that being a teacher was something a woman “could always fall back on,” but I didn’t really want to be a teacher. I wanted to travel but never, ever dreamed of living abroad. Ironic, isn’t it, for someone who absolutely did not want to teach to spend her life in education.

I think this is the place to share the influence my parents had on my life. First, my father. In looking at life in the 1950’s, today I would say he was dogmatic but at the same time, he wanted me to be a strong, independent woman–in his last years, he told me he’d been too successful. My dad was in a business that took him back east and out of the US on travel. He learned from the people he met and brought those ideas and attitudes home with him. I was brought up to believe I could do anything I really wanted to do. A couple of examples illustrate “learning to be independent.”

When I was 11, my dad decided that I should go to camp. A colleague’s wife took a group to a camp in Delafield Wisconsin, so I joined them. Camp was two months and there I met girls from all over the U.S. and Canada, who, looking back, had major influence on my attitude and thinking.

At 16, I was getting ready to think about college. My dad wanted me to visit Wellesley. The trip was first delayed in Dallas (because the door of the plane had fallen off) followed by cancelled second leg of the trip in New York (where a huge snow storm had grounded all planes). My dad gave me a sealed envelope and told me to open it in case of problems. In it I found a name of a wool buyer who lived in New Jersey and his phone number (sadly, I can’t remember his name). He picked me up, drove me around NYC, took me to the Empire State Building, and got me a room at the Waldorf Astoria, where we went to see Benny Goodman. I’m not sure I fully appreciated what this man did for me. The next morning I went back to the airport, learned about black or white coffee, and flew to Boston. Never got to Wellesley.

My mom’s influence was just as powerful, but quite different. From her I learned about hobbies, appreciation of art and the written word. I learned about the importance of family, friends, and community. My mom traced the history of our family as far back as she could and I am now using Ancestry to fill in the rest. (My paternal grandmother had roots in the Scottish royal family. We should have curtsied to her.) Mother had a high school education but wrote the history of our county, helped find the county’s historical museum and Commission, and was an accomplished artist. To recognize her contributions, the city named her “Mrs. Goldthwaite for All Time.”

I’d like to talk about travel as a solo as an adult—not quite like going to camp at 11. While I was the dean, I traveled to many meetings and conferences in all parts of US. There were group activities, but often I was on my own. I found that extremely difficult at first, frequently eating in my hotel room. I can’t pinpoint what changed, but I began to eat out, most often in the hotel at first, and always with a magazine or a book to accompany me. I still hate, just hate! when the greeter says, “Only one?”. I smile and go on. These days I’ve left the book behind and engage in people watching. I often strike up a conversation with the server or other people, especially if I’m sitting at the bar.

I’ve finally figured out that no one is interested in me except for a passing glance, so why should I care? I go to really good restaurants and am finding that more folk are solitary diners.

One piece of advice to readers is not to short yourself: go see the sights, see the plays, enjoy events. I traveled internationally while living in Dubai. My first international trip alone was to a spa, Chiva Som, in Thailand. Spas are a good way to get used to traveling solo. Yes, it’s good when you have someone to share with, but it’s not so bad alone. I went through northern Thailand alone and loved every minute of it.

But if you are really self-conscious, carry a camera and notebook. That adds intrigue and purpose about why you are there, all alone.

Living in Dubai meant being able to fly to places I’d only dreamed of. One was Southeast Asia (Cambodia) and another was Africa (Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe). I never thought I’d get to go on a safari. I went four times, three alone. It’s a great trip for a solo.

You meet people at the lodge, have guides, get to eat great food, and become enthralled by the animals. I cannot tell you how much I love Africa. Going there touched something deep within me that I have trouble putting into words. I could live there. Traveling solo means getting to meet people you might not if you were with someone or in a group. I also try to keep in touch via facebook with the guides I had in different nations. Syria was one of my favorite countries to visit, but I’ve lost touch with my guide, Rustom, and I worry about what’s happened to him.

I’ve had people ask how I had the courage to take a job in the United Arab Emirates. I confess when the head hunter called me about it, I had to look up the country in an atlas to see where it was. I was at the point of retirement from UNM, so that was not an issue. I’d been to Israel twice and to Egypt and loved both. I wasn’t afraid of going to the region, although many people told me it wasn’t safe. I felt completely safe the entire time I was there. What tipped the decision was meeting the students, one in particular, Lolowa. All I could see of her were eyes, big curious, friendly eyes. She convinced me that I would love the job and the country. And she was right! I took the job in mid-July and in August moved with all but eight suitcases in hand. The next morning I woke up, went to the window, listened to the call to prayer, looked at the traffic circle and thought, “Good heavens, what have I done?!”

During my first year Lolowa (who has now completed her doctorate) came in without the veil. She said she’d gone home, announced to her family, who were watching soccer, that she was taking it off. They evidently said something like, “whatever,” and kept watching the game.

6. Was there a time when life knocked you down and out and how did you get back on your feet?

I’ve been discouraged many times, especially while dean at UNM. I’ve been disillusioned by people who have gone out of their way to get their way. I’ve found I am sometimes too trusting of people to do the right thing or tell the truth about something.

Getting back up takes courage and confidence in what you are doing. Anger sometimes helps.

I’ve also found and learned that the majority of people I’ve worked with are caring and honest. It has been those individuals who have shared the problems, who have been there when I needed them, who were willing to take the time and make the effort to provide a “leg up.” Friends are invaluable—essential to surviving what I’ve called “the dailies.”

7. Advice for other women?

Belief in self is primary. If you do not believe in what you are doing, you will fail. A strong support network is essential. I was fortunate to have four great female deans that I “palled” around with on our deanly trips. We could talk about anything and everything. I also had a network of four other deans –two were male and two female—whose colleges were having the same issues as mine. These individuals provided something akin to life support when I needed it.

You must be willing to share with your network the issues you have so they can help. Keeping everything inside just creates more stress and more turmoil. By the way, networks do not have to be professional. They can be personal.

Somewhere in all this is the ability to listen, really listen, a rather lost art today. Listening is much more important than talking. Listening to another point of view permits you to understand in ways you never will if you just talk at someone. I learned this the hard way while I was the dean at the UNM, and if I could go back and do it over, I’d spend much more time listening to faculty and students than trying to get them to see my point of view.

8. Anything I’d do differently if you had another go at life?

Not much really. I’ve enjoyed my life. I probably wouldn’t be so idealistic about finding a life partner. I’d learn to listen better. I’d spend more time with my parents and grandparents. I’d try to learn to like exercising, but I suspect there’s not much hope there.

9. Knowing what we know now in the current political climate, can women be “all that we can be” in today’s world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for “feminist values”?

There are bright lights in today’s political scene with more women participating and taking leadership roles at all levels. This should open the way for many women to pursue their own dreams. Your WOW Women are great examples of bright lights. As has been said, women are in a double bind, expected to meet male norms in most professions while also adhering to gender role expectations. Being all we can be is so highly personal that women all over the world have to think of their particular situation and go forward from there. I also suspect that women’s conception of “feminist values” vary from person to person and from place to place.

One way forward regardless of person or place is through mentoring; it is important for women in all areas and parts of the world who have achieved success to be willing to mentor others. All too often, however, women are their own worst enemies.

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” – where is your happy place?

At home, wherever home is. I have somehow developed the ability to be at home wherever I am.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

I love to cook, learned from my grandmothers and mother. Now I cook dishes from all over the world. I also do needlework – embroidery, learned from my mother’s mother. I started photography seriously while in Dubai. Travel to wonderful countries demands a good camera. So I got serious and now actually sell some photographs. I continue to go on photography workshops with some truly accomplished photographers and have learned so much and get to meet interesting people—plus I get to travel to places I haven’t been. Now that I consider this question, it occurs to me that I’ve created a personal network and new friends through these workshops. I took online watercolor classes last year and now dabble at that.

12. What fears do you have?

Not being physically able to do all I want to as I get older is probably my major fear.

13. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

If I haven’t grown up by now, I’m not going to. What I want now is to be happy, to enjoy the rest of my life, to take advantage of any opportunities that may come my way.

14. What inspires you?

My brother. He is incredible, just the best brother anyone could have. He has four grandsons and it is joyous to watch him with them. He is a master photographer—he has what is called “the photographer’s eye” but he is very protective of his work and mostly does not make it public (only here). He has this fantastic sense of humor and is a wonderful story teller. In olden days, he would be the community’s oral historian.

My aunt who is 101 and who has lived her life her way. My uncle who is 96 and who is an eternal optimist and who loves my cooking.

15. What are you hopeful about?

I’m basically an optimistic person, although the past couple of years politically have been trying. Nonetheless, as I look at the progress women have made around the world, I am hopeful for their future. I wish I could say that for women in every village, town, and city in every nation.

You haven’t asked me what I worry about, but here it is. I worry about our air and water, especially in the United States. I’m concerned that corporate greed and the quest for short-term profit will trample the reality of long-term consequences including impact on the environment and communities. I hope my brother’s grandchildren get to experience the wonderfulness of clean air, good water, and the freedom to travel around the world.

16. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Accepting who you are is basic. Looking for the good. Enjoying small pleasures. Having empathy.

17. What is a quality you most love about yourself and why?

I do not stereotype people. I try to accept them as they are. This has enabled me to make friends around the world and has enriched my life.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year old self?

Study math! Learn another language. Quit worrying about what other people think of you!

19. What are you reading now? What books do you gift the most? What are your favorite reads?

I just finished The Priory of the Orange Tree, which I really enjoyed. I read mysteries like the Joe Pickett and the Longmire series. I’ve read all Tony Hillerman’s books and am so glad his daughter, Anne Hillerman, continues the storyline. Janet Evanovich’s books are fun to read. And I read science fiction/fantasy such as the Terry Goodkind epic. I try to give books that enhance the person’s interest. They end up mostly being non-fiction. This year I gave the National Geographic book, Birds of the Photo Ark and the book Stories From Texas: Some of Them Are True and gave myself The Practice of Contemplative Photography, which I learned about during a workshop. You know, you just have to tend to yourself every now and then.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why?

I immediately thought of four women who wow me in many ways. Three are from my time as the dean at UNM and one is a more recent photography colleague:

Mary Hatwood Futrell is an amazing woman. She was the president of the National Education Association at a tumultuous time in its history. She honored me by asking me to proof/edit her piece about working as a teacher in the south during desegregation. Mary was the dean at George Washington University when I got to know her. She has said I mentored her, but it is really the other way around.

Sister Mary Diez. Mary is a very special, exceptional woman. She is a quiet force for good, for improved education, for a better world. We wrote four articles together. For the first one, I went to Alverno College, where Mary was a professor, and I stayed in the nun’s quarters. Every St. Patrick’s Day, I think of the fabulous meals the sisters cooked. She continues to inspire me through facebook in her current role as President of the School Sisters of St. Francis.

Nancy Zimpher. Nancy was a dean at The Ohio State University when we began to work together through The Holmes Group (later The Holmes Partnership). She has so much energy, it is astonishing and is one of the most gifted speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Nancy is the former Chancellor of the State University of New York and is a Senior Fellow at the SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Patricia Templeton. I met Trisha on a photography workshop and was surprised to learn she is an Episcopal priest in Atlanta. I should not have been surprised, because she is the embodiment of a forward-looking person of God. I wish I could attend her church. Plus, she is a super photographer. (and she loves cats!).

21. 21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

Buy my work here: peggy-blackwell.pixels.com

My website: peggyblackwellphotography.com

FB: @peggy.blackwell1 , Smugmug: @texasgal and IG: @tigercat613