Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say, why not? G. B. Shaw
By now, it's no secret that I admire strong women--especially women who look at their imperfect world and ask, "why not" make it better. Carolyn Blackmon was a "why not" woman.
Starting Out a "Why Not" Woman
Carolyn Powell Blackmon was the pride of Peoria, Illinois. Her father, Burt Powell, was an executive with the Caterpillar Tractor Company. Her mother was a homemaker. But it was her grandmother, Edna Brown Turnbull--Gigi (1887-1973)--whom Carolyn most resembled. Gigi was a pioneer spirit who went alone to Europe for the coronation of King George VI, attended the School of the Art Institute in Chicago to learn how to paint on porcelain, and amassed an amazing Oriental art collection which she passed on to Carolyn. She also passed on less tangible things like an eye for beauty, a sense of civic responsibility, and a love of adventure.
During her young adult years, Carolyn stayed close to home. She attended Bradley University where she majored in education. She married her childhood sweetheart, handsome and personable Jack Blackmon. All the girls set their sights on Jack, but Carolyn took one look, said, "why not?", and caught him. They remained inseparable for 57 years.
"Why Not" in Peoria
Volunteering was in Carolyn Blackmon's blood. Early on, she became Vice-President of the Peoria Heights Mothers' Club. When she saw that the local school board consisted only of men, she asked "why not" have a woman there? She ran for the Board and won. She was the chief fundraiser for the Peoria Center for Arts and Sciences and a Republican Central Committeewoman for the 18th Congressional District. She was a Gray Lady for the Red Cross at the hospital and a member of the Fine Arts Society and Women's Symphony Guild. It bothered Carolyn that outsiders viewed Peoria as a cultural wasteland. She asked herself, "why not" change that perception? She became a supporter of the Peoria Players and Broadway Theatre League. Figuring out "what played in Peoria", she brought it there and transformed a raucous Midwestern town to a city of culture. In 1961, the Junior League of Peoria named her Volunteer of the Year. The Peoria Star Journal described her as a "...young woman who, in a comparatively short span. exerted a tremendous influence on her community..."
Coming to Chicago
In 1965, Carolyn and Jack moved to Flossmoor with their four children. Of course, the first thing Carolyn did was volunteer. As Chairman of the Flossmoor Service League, she organized tours of historic homes in the area. The proceeds went to the Ridge Training Center for Handicapped Children in Chicago.When they moved to Chicago, Carolyn volunteered in the education department of the Field Museum of Natural History. It didn't take the Field long to recognize what a treasure they had and offer her a full-time, salaried position.
Carolyn at the Field: "Why Not"?
Carolyn soon saw that the Field's approach to education wasn't working, so"why not" change it? She introduced the museum's first volunteer program. She developed adult education courses and supported environmentally-focused field trips. She organized an outreach program for caregivers and children, and she established family workshops and overnight events. Her changes were so successful, the museum appointed her Chairman of the Education Department in 1978, a post she held until her retirement in 1996.
Not many innovators can say they changed the purpose of a great institution. Carolyn did. Until she took over as Education Department Chair, the museum functioned primarily as a place where culture was on display. "Why not", she thought, have everyone who visited the museum leave knowing more than they did when they arrived? She revolutionized the concept of field trips to the museum. Kids no longer just walked through and looked at objects--they learned first hand from knowledgeable staff about the history and meaning of each artifact they saw. She put her philosophy into a book called Teach the Mind, Touch the Spirit: A Guide to Focused Field Trips. And Carolyn wasn't satisfied to limit this interactive concept to one museum. She persuaded the Kellogg Foundation to fund a national multi-year project called "Museums: Agents for Public Education" that focused on educational strategies, team-building, and professional growth. The program grew to encompass 500 staff members from 300 museums around the country. It resulted in the publication of another book, Open Conversations: Strategies for Professional Development in Museums. Carolyn Blackmon became a nationally recognized figure in the museum world. She could have filled a trophy room with her awards and honors, including the Lifetime Distinguished Service Award for Midwest Museums and the Illinois Association of Museums' Lifetime Professional Achievement Award.
Building Cultural Bridges
Throughout the seventies and eighties, the Field was involved in building bridges with native cultures whose artifacts were on display in the museum. Carolyn became a key player in that endeavor. She made several trips to Canada's northwest coast where she collaborated with groups of Canadian Northwest Coast Indians to mount the Maritime Peoples of the Arctic and Northwest Coast Exhibit and Programs. The highlight of the exhibit was a 55-foot cedar totem pole carved by the Nishga tribe. Members of the Nshgas visited Chicago to talk about the carving and where it would be installed. "Why not" put it at the museum's entrance where visitors would be greeted by this massive work of art, suggested Carolyn. That's where it went.
During one of the pre-installation trips, Carolyn threw an Old Town party for the Nishgas. About half way through the evening, a few guests picked up their drums and started beating while others performed a rhythmic tribal dance. Not to be outdone, Carolyn joined the band beating on a plastic pail with a wooden spoon. No one who was there will ever forget that night.
Another of the Field's cooperative ventures in which Carolyn was a prime participant was the installation of a Maori Meeting House inside the museum. She brought the Field staff and a group of Maoris from New Zealand together, and they assembled a Ruatepupke Maori Meeting House, a living cultural and environmental exhibit. In a rare exchange, Carolyn was invited to New Zealand to participate in the opening of their own Maori Meeting House. She was one of few Americans ever to receive such an honor.
Making a Quilt and History
Carolyn frequently went out into Chicago schools to recognize the efforts of students engaged in noteworthy educational projects. I was teaching history at Lakeview High School in the mid-nineties, and my classes decided to make a quilt documenting the slave experience in the United States. It goes without saying that none of them--including me--could sew, and we had no idea how to construct a quilt. Somehow, we created images from scraps of cloth, assembled them on a backing, bordered the piece with kente cloth, and ended up with a magnificent depiction of the struggle from slavery to freedom. We presented the quilt at a school assembly that Carolyn attended. She was so impressed she thought, ,"why not" put this on display for everyone to see. She invited students to bring their project to the Field Museum. It was a memorable occasion, especially for one young man who barely made the bus because gang gunfire in the housing project where he lived had caused police to lockdown the area. Wearing makeshift uniforms and singing the old spiritual, "Many Thousand Gone", students watched with pride as their slavery quilt was raised to the balcony of Stanley Field Hall.
Carolyn in Old Town
Carolyn left her mark on Old Town. An avid preservationist, she volunteered to serve on the Historic District Committee--a group dedicated to preserving the community's historic houses. She took on the Herculean task of chairing the Old Town Art Fair, the nation's oldest juried outdoor fair. She became Old Town's first archivist and developed a resource center that housed more than 50 years of neighborhood history. Today, that room remains a testament to her organizational skills community spirit. In 2001, she slung a camera around her neck and became the photo editor for two books documenting the history of Old Town. In 2005, the neighborhood association honored their favorite volunteer with a Crystal Triangle in recognition of her dedicated service.
There was something magical about Carolyn Blackmon--something more than the sum of her "why not" activities and achievements. She was a woman with sunlight in her soul who knew how to do so many things: bake a cherry pie, make an orchid bloom, banish squirrels from gardens, and how to dance. When Carolyn and Jack were on the dance floor, you forgot about Fred and Ginger. She was a whimsical creature who named trees after old movie stars; a daredevil two romantics designated to be their companion on a trip down the Amazon (never taken); a sprite who danced with a giant stuffed alligator on New Year's Eve; a gambler who could pick a Derby winner out of a hat; a cook who turned deviled eggs into a gourmet's delight; a doting grandmother who had all her Christmas presents wrapped and ready to mail in July; and, most importantly, my best friend for more than 30 years.
Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good;
I've been inclined to believe they never could. Neil Diamond
I will not go into Carolyn's struggles with cancer in her final years. I will simply say she fought until she could fight no more. I'll never forget her last surgery. I got to the hospital as they were wheeling her into the OR. Sedated as she was, she opened her eyes and whispered to me, "You made it". Yes I did, Carolyn. Yes I did.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times