Vickie Countryman was one of those Spokane women everyone knew.
I met her in diversity work in the 1990s and for a brief time, we were part of "Circle of Friends" a short-lived but very fun KHQ noon show. Vickie was never shy on that show. She was a TV natural.
She did an origami workshop with our Spokesman diversity committee once, and she filled us in on etiquette when eating a traditional Japanese meal. "It's OK to slurp soup and make noises of enjoyment," I remember her telling us.
She died suddenly on Jan. 18, at 49. She did a lot of good living, and good work, in those 49 years. Read her obit here. True to what Vickie might have wanted, her friends and family are waiting for her 50th birthday to really celebrate this amazing life.
A memorial service that promises to be packed is planned for Monday, March March 12, at the Community Building, 35 W. Main Street, Spokane from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
If you knew Vickie, as almost everyone did, drop by to say goodbye. And celebrate. In the extended post below, read what Darlene Stevens, one of Vickie's many "fans," wrote about her.
(Spokesman-Review archive photo of Vickie Countryman taken in 1996)
Vickie Countryman was my supervisor, my mentor, my advocate and my friend.
I never interviewed to work with Vickie, nor did she have any input in the selection of me as her secretary.We were put together in a new job position and a new department…Equity and Diversity.Vickie came from the business world and earned a reputation in the community of being successful in negotiating and calming issues involving racial and equity issues. The school district had seen these successes and thought she would be a valuable resource, as she would prove to be.
Vickie was a large woman, around 5’ 11, with broad shoulders…and a dark complexion attesting to an ethnicity not immediately apparent..She had straight shoulder length black hair and brown intense eyes, smiled with a flash of very white teeth, and walked with a mannish gait in quick decisive footsteps.She could be both intimidating yet friendly at the same time. She spoke loudly and when she laughed it seemed to come from some place deep inside.
Common speculation was that Vickie was Native American, one of the native tribes of Alaska, or perhaps Hispanic.The first Monday, I entered her office to see it was decorated in the Asian tradition to honor her heritage. Vickie’s father was Caucasian, her mother Japanese…an Issei, (ei sa ei sa) a Japanese immigrant to the United States, who even years later when I met her, spoke very broken and hard to understand English. Vickie, born in the United States, spoke nothing but Japanese her first six years.Consequently, when she started school she was taunted and teased.She, her siblings and mother all learned English that year¸ although even years later when I knew her, Vickie often reverted back to her fist language.She had one expression that she said quite often when frustrated.One day in frustration I repeated the words even though I had no knowledge of the meaning or content.I don’t think I have ever seen her laugh so hard, the sound coming up from her belly.I am sure if she had been drinking water, it would have bubbled up through her nose.
“Good job, Darlene!” she said when she could finally contain herself enough to speak.“Just be careful who is around when you say that!” She never did explain what I had said, but I still used the expression once I a while to see her response, which never disappointed me.
Vickie grew up feeling the sting of racial discrimination, and she often told the story how as a child she scrubbed Ajax cleaner on her arms until they bled trying to make them white.
All her life Vickie had straddled two cultures trying to find her place.While this could have made her bitter, instead it made her compassionate for all mistreated individuals, and as she became well-known and respected within the community she used this power as a means of advocacy.
I think at some level Vickie may have known she would die young.She lived her life as if she was on a deadline and time was running out….her mannerisms…her speech patterns….everything about Vickie was fast and head-on; and yet, despite her bravado there was always a shy little girl inside fighting to belong.
On the first day I took her around to introduce her to our co-workers.She later told me that was the hardest thing she had had to do in all the years we worked together. She did not want to be seen as a supervisor…just a member of the team who was fortunate to have certain privileges.
Vickie believed privilege comes with responsibility and those fortunate to have privilege had a personal obligation to help those who did not.
Vickie saw the invisible people.She was an advocate for anyone she deemed being discriminated against in any way…secretaries…instructional assistants….cooks and custodians, and would often butt heads with authority.She once butted heads with the superintendent of Spokane Schools telling him he did not have the “cojones” to stand up for an equity issue.
Given its very nature, there is a class separation of employees in a school district.One is either “certificated” or “classified.”If you are classified, no matter how hard you work, or how many hours you put in, you will never rise above a glass ceiling.This isn’t an indication of oppression, it just means without a certificate or license, there are certain jobs a person is unable to do.Asa secretary I was “classified” with limited privileges and visibility.
Vickie was a community leader, presenter and speaker who often spoke at seminars and conferences. In 2000, Vickie was asked to present on the topic of diversity training at a state-wide secretarial conference in Moses Lake, Washington, and suggested I co-present. I was honored…astounded…and protested soundly.This just wasn’t something secretaries did!Attend?Perhaps.Present?Definitely not.The event would be in October several weeks away. I knew the district would never approve…not of me attending the conference and certainly not as co-presenter.More importantly, I didn’t think I was capable nor did I want to try.The more I protested, the more determined Vickie became…for every reason I gave why I could not…she came up with five reasons why I should.
Getting permission was another hurdle and several meetings were conducted, and I am sure many Japanese phrases ensued.Finally, permission was given if I would take a “personal…without pay” day, and would agree not to talk about it among my peers. Lest, I am sure, they feared a crack in the glass ceiling and the possibility of hoards of classified personnel running amuck.
Days passed….weeks passed….and I could not pin Vickie down as to what the presentation was to be.Vickie always spoke off the top of her head, and apparently didn’t see the need to prepare.As the day grew closer, my level of anxiety did also. It was going to be terrifying stand in front of a group of people and speak. I needed an outline with notes.
The day before the presentation, she agreed to sit down with me and go over some of the things she thought we could talk about.She selected a topic that she would present and then one that I would present.
“Just speak what’s in your heart,” she said.“It will come to you.If you get stuck, just look at me and I’ll take over…no-one will ever know.” On the day of the conference I could hardly speak… “Breath Darlene,” she had to keep saying.She told me later that she had never seen anyone so pale or shake so hard.I longed for the cloak of invisibility.
When she introduced me, she explained that I was a secretary as they were, and felt strongly about equity issues and wanted to tell me story.What!!!What was my story?We hadn’t talked about my story. When I spoke, I felt warmth and acceptance in the room.I didn’t speak as a presenter, I spoke as one of them, and when I spoke it was from my heart. I read a poem I had recently written summarizing my beliefs of equity and diversity and Vickie, like the proud teacher she was, stood beaming.
For the rest of the presentation, I would start something on my list, but very soon would freeze and she would come to my rescue as promised…adding to what I said and making it look as if it were part of the presentation.
2000 was a Summer Olympics year and lives seemed to revolve around the presentation of gold, silver and bronze medals.As we made the two hour drive eastward to Spokane, a harvest moon appeared in the sky...gold and incredibly close.Vickie pointed to the sky.
“Look, Darlene” she said, “there’s your Gold Medal.”
Vickie gave me gifts I will always cherish.They are engraved in my heart.People are people…some come in pastel colors and live quiet lives…and some, like Vickie live loudly and reside in rich and vibrant colors that accent our lives. But in life, like a tapestry, all threads are equally important in weaving an intricate pattern; and that even if you come from limited privilege, once you understand, you have the responsibility of sharing what is in your heart.
In Arizona I facilitate a writer’s group, “Writing the Stories of Your Life.”At least once or twice a season, I challenge the group to explore and write about cultural and diversity issues.As each person reads what they have written, I can almost see Vickie standing by and smiling.
“Good job,” she would say.“Good job.”