Confessions of a Women’s Conference Escort

I was a Governor and First Lady’s Women’s Conference escort. 

Like Las Vegas, some conference sights, sounds and experiences stay at the Long Beach Convention Center. 

But there are some wonderful moments that can be shared. One would be standing within easy earshot of Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King discussing Sarah Pallin’s vice presidential candidacy. 

As a fairly good clue to the tenor of the conversation, Gloria Steinem sported a button on the strap of her purse, which said that if Hillary endorses Obama so can she. 

Far more revealing and enduring than the political discussions were the tender personal connections, the abundant emotional sharing and the camaraderie of common purpose from so many women from such disparate backgrounds. 

It wasn’t until First Lady Maria Shriver’s lunchtime speech – many pounds of water were released through 14,000 tear ducts – that the audacity and uniqueness of the Women’s Conference she has created became clear. 

As one woman said, “I pity the next governor.” 

To use Maria’s Shriver’s words, there is no event like this conference in the world. No venue – one-day, one-week, one month – brings together such a celebrated and sensational group of speakers. 

Warren Buffett and Heidi Klum. Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife Lisa and daughter Daphne. Christiane Amanpour. Madeline Albright, Cherie Blair, Condoleezza Rice. Jennifer Lopez, Michael J. Fox, Sally Field. Bono. 

That’s a partial list. And it doesn’t include the five women selected each year to receive Minerva Awards. These are women who exemplify the qualities of the Roman Goddess – wisdom, courage and strength. Women who work “24/7 on the front lines of humanity.” 

This year’s recipients were Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King, Betty Chinn, Ivelise Markovits and Louise Hay.

Every speaker and Minerva winner gets a volunteer escort. I spent the better part of two days with Louise Hay, a pioneer of the self-help movement. Her 1988 book, You Can Heal Your Life, found itself back on the New York Times Bestseller List again this year without a single word changed from 20 years ago. 

Louise Hay believes that positive thoughts – loving yourself and loving your life – lead to greater health and happiness. Visualize and affirm a good outcome and that will be the result. 

I joked that I was a struggling small business owner. 

“Drop the first word,” she said. 

There must be something to the notion: Nobody believed Louise could possibly be 82.

Interestingly, her ideas, which were thought to be “out there” 20 years ago by mainstream publishers, were echoed repeatedly in the remarks of a number of the conference’s speakers, not the least of which was Maria Shriver who talked about finding her real self by facing her fears.

Other speakers highlighted the linkage between inner and physical health. The theme of the conference the First Lady chose was: “Be who you are. Feel it. Live it. Pass it on.”

Louise and Melanie Lococo, director of giving for Louise’s $100-million-a-year publishing empire, Hay House, were delightful company. When publishers were skittish about putting out You Can Heal Your Life, Louise published it herself, Hay House’s beginning.

Louise gave every impression under every condition of being indefatigable and was remarkably patient even when she and the other Minerva recipients had to wait more than 30 minutes for some final photos to be taken.

Billie Jean King, who dedicated her Minerva to the people of her hometown of Long Beach, helped fill the long minutes by chatting with the other four women about their plans for Thanksgiving, among other things.

Louise was also gracious and wise.

At dinner Tuesday night, I mentioned that our daughter is 16 and that it was a difficult time.

“For who?” Louise said causing me to think I should be spending more time thinking about what being 16 was like for our daughter than what her being 16 was for me.

Cracking me up pretty hard, as photographers posed the five Minervas for yet another group shot, Louise said brightly: “Tits up, ladies!”

Some of the most memorable Minerva moments were between Louise and Betty Chinn.

There is a committee that nominates Minerva candidates. At the conclusion of the nominating process there’s a lunch and members of the committee make presentations about the finalists. The woman who nominated Louise Hay couldn’t make the nominating speech so I was asked to do it.

One of the executive producers of the conference, Sandy Gleysteen, made the presentation on Betty Chinn. After Sandy was a few paragraphs into her talk, I turned to U.S. Navy Commander Maureen Pennington, a Minerva winner last year for operation of field hospitals in Iraq, and whispered, “This woman is going to get a Minerva.”

Betty did and, in a very cool turn of events, Maureen was Betty’s escort. 

Betty has – for more than 23 years – gotten up at 2 am to prepare coffee for what are now about 250 homeless persons in Humboldt County.

Some live in bushes. Some live under bridges. Some are old. Some are families. She takes them coffee, finds out what they need – blankets, diapers, a shower, a phone card – and does everything she can to deliver it to them.

She says is not her job, it’s her passion. It’s a thank you for the kindness America has shown her and a passion born of her firsthand knowledge as an outcast during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She knows what its like to be friendless, alone and invisible because she was.

Betty had never experienced anything remotely as glamorous, big or exciting as the conference, she said.  More than once, she said the celebrities there were “make-believe,” people she only saw on television or read about.

At a reception Tuesday after I introduced Louise to Maria Shriver and Gov. Schwarzenegger – “I have your books on my nightstand,” the First Lady said – Betty Chinn appeared at my shoulder wondering if she could meet them too.

Maria Shriver saw Betty and hugged her, the governor then hugged her, Betty cried, her face lit up in a smile of unbridled joy and awe.

I also had a chance at that reception to talk with Ivelise Markovits. She founded Penny Lane in 1969, a Los Angeles center that helps foster kids, which has now grown to a $30 million a year entity.

Her son is a journalist who wrote for the English language paper in Venezuela, the Daily Journal. He wants to continue in journalism and she wanted my advice. I gave her my two cents, which was worth every penny.

As Ivelise and the other Minerva winners were waiting backstage prior to the award ceremony, Betty said she was petrified of speaking in front of so many people.

And there was Louise Hay, her arm around Betty’s shoulder, encouraging her, soothing her. As the five women walked to the stage for a dry run of the ceremony, Louise held Betty’s hand.

At the actual ceremony, Louise was the first Minerva to be honored. She encouraged the women filling the convention center to love themselves and their lives.

After she finished, I walked to the steps she would come down to squire her back to the holding room. Instead of heading for the stairs, Louise stayed with Betty until she went on stage, offering support along with Gloria Steinem who was the honoree following Betty.

On stage, Betty learned for the first time that the award was accompanied by a check for $25,000.

To say she was astounded and ecstatic grossly underestimates it. Her acceptance speech and stunned but thrilled reaction were heart-lifting.

Even more heart-lifting after Betty explained to me that when she has money, the homeless get ham-and-cheese sandwiches. When the money is low, peanut butter and jelly.

“We have money. We have money. So much money,” she cried excitedly over and over after Louise walked her back to the holding room. She was bouncing off the walls, breathing raggedly.

And, again, there was Louise with a hug, a sweet word, a calming voice.

Billie Jean King to Betty: “Give me a high five, girl. That’s what we do in sports.”

In her acceptance speech, King said Louise would make a good athletic coach since coaches tell athletes many of the same things Louise encourages.

While waiting for the final photo to be taken – a wait greatly extended by the length of Bono’s speech – Betty hugged her bronze Minerva award to her chest, while absently rubbing it with her hand.

“That should be as shiny as gold by tomorrow,” Louise remarked.

Betty said she planned on displaying the award at the BBQ she was throwing Sunday for the homeless.

Not unlike Louise’s philosophy, Betty’s kindness to others returns kindness to her. She was told recently she should have a webpage but explained that she had no money to create one. Her neighbor turned out to be a webpage designer and created one for her: www.bettysblueangel.com.

I have confessed enough. So far.





Filed under: Venting

1 Comment »

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    Comment by Virginia Harris — 10.24.2008 @ 8:24 am

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