As a child, the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was Vicky Hemmes’ hero “because he seemed to see a miracle in everyday things.”
As an adult, Vicky is a well-educated dog groomer and breeder trying to do the same thing.
Vicky is one of those rare individuals who goes to school with the primary intent of gaining knowledge, not degrees, although she has them in anthropology, sociology, English literature, philosophy, economics and political science.
“The adults in my life saw a potential in me to be more than a housewife and I was groomed to excel academically, taking college prep courses and the like in high school. But I got married at a young age and after that just never really chose a conventional path.”
Vicky’s held a succession of jobs between childhood in Indiana and adulthood in Las Vegas, though seldom in the areas in which she’s degreed. She cites variety, personal growth and challenge and her ever present curiosity as reasons for finding employment such as a waitress, janitress, encyclopedia salesperson, book-keeper, legal photographer, substitute teacher, and horse trainer. She still breeds bulldogs part time.
There’s no diploma required for dog grooming, either, just “the patience of Job and the implements of destruction, “ jests Vicky. “Actually, it may not hurt that I’m a vegetarian, too. Animals are sensitive to a lot of things.” Then more seriously, “I like the one-on-oneness of my work, the non-verbal communication connection I have with the animal. And it’s a flexible job – I work for myself.” Her special reward in cleaning and grooming pets is seeing the dogs feel better about themselves and people feel better about their dogs – touching them more.
Though she loves the work she’s been doing for the past three and a half years, Vicky finds herself wondering sometimes if she should be “doing something more, something larger or more meaningful on a social or political level.” This is perhaps because at 42, Vicky feels she’s part of a generation that’s been disenfranchised.
“The ‘baby boomers’ could bring so much power to bear if we’d assert ourselves politically. There’s an awful lot of work to be done today in the political arena,” Vicky declares. “Sometimes I think that’s where I’ll head next.”
Even though her jobs have often changed, and for a while she and her husband moved around a lot, at least one thing has remained constant in Gladys Hightower’s life: singing.
“Oh, we were always singing,” Gladys says of her family of nine brothers and sisters in Valley Mills, Texas where she grew up. “My dad was a very good singer. He sang in the Methodist Church and us kids started singing there, too.”
In a time of segregated schools, some of Gladys’ earliest performances were for the white children at a school across town. Since then she’s sung at weddings, anniversary parties, football games, senior citizen centers, community events and more. She sang as part of The Echoes of the Valley gospel singing group in Texas. And she’s always sung in church.
“Gospel music is my favorite. I like the blues, too,” says Gladys, “but when I sing the blues it’s the old blues.”
Gladys’ children are grown now and she and her husband live alone. In recent years she’s worked several odd jobs around Las Vegas to bring money home, but when Wal-Mart came to town in January of 1990, she got a job as a greeter in the store.
“I like the job,” Gladys declares. “Wal-Mart is a good company to work for and I get to see a lot of people and do different things all over the store. In the Spring I really like to work out in the garden areas.”
Early role models for Gladys were her mother, a house-wife, and an older sister who worked in a hospital; both women were also generous church workers. If she had it to do over again, Gladys things she might go to school to be a nurse for the elderly.
“I’ve worked with older people and taken care of older people. It’s been a long-time interest.”
And as for her singing…
“Years ago when we were growing up we’d have spiritual singers in our homes and big gospel singers there in our little Methodist Church in Valley Mills – the Soulsters, the Pilgrim Travellers, Sam Cooke even,” guaranteed inspiration according to Gladys, “because we’d get to open up the program!”
Since singing is just about her favorite thing to do, Gladys thinks she wouldn’t have minded a professional music career, making records and performing. But a large part of her singing now is for free, a reflection of the values given her by her family and the importance of religion in her life.
“I just believe God gave me this talent,” says Gladys, matter-of-factly, “so I can go out and give it to other people.” And she offers this advice especially for young girls: “Keep your dreams and remember to trust in God.”
Two key events foretold Martha Johnsen’s career future.
Anyone taking notes while she was in high school could have predicted that her first exciting experience on the KFUN airwaves – illegally occupying the last hour of her disc-jockey boyfriend’s 5pm to sign-off shift – would win her to radio work forever.
The other career-deciding event? It happened long before high school, in the basement of her home when Martha was just a little girl and she became…
“Miss Gay. I was a teacher and my name was Miss Gay. My father refinished furniture in the basement and he set me up with a desk and supplies and my three-year-old sister Sylvia as a student.” Martha laughs, “I remember I had to discipline Sylvia a lot.”
It’s been years since Miss Gay last showed her face and a lot has happened between then and now:
Martha thought she’d become a veterinarian, disliked biology at at NMHU, thought she’d become a journalist, interned at Johnson Space Center in Houston where she worked in public relations during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, wrote and read English and Spanish press releases for NASA radio, came back to Las Vegas to stay because she missed her family. She crammed two days for her FCC test, got the job, went back to Highlands for another degree, this one licensing her to teach at the elementary level with a “bi-lingual” endorsement, fought to keep her morning radio job and that’s why Over the Back Fence now airs earlier.
Somewhere in there Martha got married, had two children and held about six other jobs.
On just beginning a new career – teaching – Martha has this to say:
“I’ll be 36 by the time I get into the classroom and I think of all these other people who’ve been teaching since they were 22 years old and they’ve already got 14 years of retirement under their belt and so on and I start to worry. But then I realize I bring a lot of experience to the classroom that they don’t have because I’ve done so many different things.
“I’ve never found anything really to be boring. I’ve learned something from everything I’ve done, even if it’s been car-hopping at the Arctic Circle, and I think all I’ve done has been to some advantage.”
In 1981 Aile Lee ventured into the world of large exotic bird breeding with an initial investment of $3600 for eleven birds. The check was hot and so was her husband Homer, meeting her when she returned from a trip to the East Coast with her new career making its presence unmistakably known from a wooden crate beside her.
“I sure got my feathers plucked that day!” Aile recalls with a smile.
But Homer and Aile went to work building homes for the birds in the corners of their house, and Aile was happy to set about learning the business of exotic birds. The Lees now share their home with over 500 birds of all shapes, colors, sizes, and shrieks. The birds come from Africa, South America, and other points the world over, and Aile is now one of the U.S. Southwest’s foremost bird breeders.
Like her birds, Aile’s come a long way from where she started. As the daughter of a German professor of Assyriology and a “creative homemaker,” five-year-old Aile and her family fled Berlin and a fledgling Nazi regime to come to the United States.
Young Aile’s early interest was art.
“I enjoyed learning the process part of arts and crafts and how different materials worked together,” she says. After attending The School for the American Craftsman in New York, Aile heard about a good art school in New Mexico. In 1956 she enrolled at Highlands University.
Pottery was her field and she became quite skilled in it, but acknowledges she didn’t have much confidence in art as a career until she met Homer Lee.
“I had all the raw materials for my life, but they really didn’t get put together till I met Homer. He said, ‘You’re good, Aile. People would buy your pottery if you gave them a chance,’ and one day I came home and he’d built me a studio where our driveway used to be!”
That was thirty years ago and though she experienced success with her ceramics, she explains her abrupt career change by simply saying, “I really like to learn new things and I love baby birds.”
She believes, too, in the work she’s doing, both in an educational and a preservation sense.
“A good breeder can ensure that a species remains true to its relatives in the wild. They can keep disease to a minimum, helping to guarantee the continuation of a species though its native habitat may be disappearing because of human intrusion.”
These days, however, Aile is extremely conscious of the fact that 500 feathered lives depend on her. She admits hers is a job that doesn’t allow for much time off or a definite retirement since many of these long-lived birds can easily be expected to outlive her.
“As I get older I’d like to use what I’ve learned as more of an administrator. I suppose a goal of mine would be to see this business evolve into something for the public because of its educational aspects. These birds could hold a lot of interest for future generations.”
Eileen Lujan, M.D. is still occasionally addressed as “nurse” instead of “doctor,” although she explains, “It’s usually by an elderly person. It’s just the way they were brought up.”
The Ribera native has an added role in her professional life. She’s an emissary of sorts from her generation and those that follow to an older generation, one that saw career opportunities for women limited to working in the home, or perhaps becoming a teacher. This is especially the case in tradition-rich Northern New Mexico.
Eileen ran headlong into that kind of thinking from a career counselor during high school.
“I’d always been in the top 10% of my class so I never felt limited in what I could do. I told the counselor that I wanted to go on and get a degree and do something with myself – become a civil engineer or maybe a doctor. And he told me that probably I could aspire to be a nurse, but no further than that.”
It’s a good thing for Eileen’s patients she doesn’t believe everything she hears.
Medical school at the University of New Mexico was tough, as medical schools usually are, but especially so for Eileen since she was a wife and mother by that time. But it was the support of her family and their “teamwork” that encouraged her to hang on when, like all medical students, she went through phases of reconsidering her goal.
Today, with a successful family practice in Las Vegas, Eileen is proof that women are conquering territory previously widely considered closed to them.
“I believe today some of the greatest barriers for women are self-imposed,” she says. “It’s like one of the professors at Highlands told me again and again as he urged me to go after a career in medicine, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try.’”
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