February 18, 2011

Part two: Q&A with Michelle Fromm-Lewis '63, the New Mexico years

Michelle and brother Cliff in 1951 and recently on vacation in Peru. That's Michelle on the left in the Peru photo.
Click on photos to enlarge

Eventually you moved to New Mexico, quite a big change for a Levittowner. When did you move there and what were the circumstances?

I moved from Bethpage to New Mexico in 1973 with my two children and husband (now my ex). We were looking for better climate and lower taxes. I had never been west of Pennsylvania and came here completely sight unseen. Some people said I was very adventuresome, but I figured if it didn't work out we could return to New York. It didn't take long for the culture shock to wear off and my love affair with New Mexico to begin. My childhood pleasure with the outdoors was rekindled. The opportunities to be active and to enjoy nature are abundant here. Our winters are usually mild enough to enjoy outdoor sports in the city, or, take a 30-45 minutes drive to hike in National Forest, or to snowshoe or ski at higher elevations. Though New Mexico lacks an ocean, which I miss quite a bit, we have lots of lakes for boating, fishing and camping.

As I recall, you did not start college until several years after high school. Your Facebook bio states that you earned a BS in 1978 and an MA in 1987 from the University of New Mexico. That appears to have led to your 15 years at the Sandia National Labs. You had some interesting jobs, lots of responsibility. Tell us something about those years.

In 1974, almost 12 years after high school, with both of my children in school full time, I decided to enroll at the University of New Mexico. At the beginning of my sophomore year my husband and I divorced. At that point I had to weigh options. I chose to struggle through, supporting myself and the kids with grants, loans, scholarships and a little child support. I graduated in 1978 with a BS in Home Economics Education. My intent was to move back to New York after graduation where the children and I could be near extended family. Instead, I married Chuck Lewis after a very short courtship and stayed.

When I taught work study for the public schools I had a sign on my bulletin board that said, in effect, most people get their careers by sticking out a thumb and hitchhiking. They move from job to job and end up somewhere that they hopefully like. That's exactly what happened to me.

After graduation, while waiting for a teaching position to open up, I took a job as a head hunter for an employment agency. A year later I was hired by Albuquerque Public Schools to teach a work study program in the hospitality industry for low income students. The program was on a federally funded grant. When that grant dried up I was hired by the State Department of Education on another federal grant. This one was designed to help teachers throughout the state develop their work study programs. In both of these grant positions I had to interface with education and industry, and teach adults as well as teens.

I continued to take graduate level courses to maintain my teaching certificate, but I wasn't in a degree program. Sometime around 1983 the cosmic forces started to fall in place for me. The second grant was winding down, I discovered I loved corporate education, and UNM started a program in an up and coming new field call Performance Technology (PT). PT is a broad spectrum approach to improving productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency in the workplace. It involves assessing a situation, developing training if necessary, or providing other interventions such as fixing flaws in systems, writing policies and procedures, creating job aids, and finally doing cost benefit analysis assess results. Unfortunately, the 21 graduate hours I had accumulated to this point were so spread out in time I couldn't transfer any into the new program. Undeterred, I enrolled, and was awarded my MA in 1987.

While working on my MA I did some more hitchhiking. I worked for the NM Association of Commerce and Industry as an assistant to the president and lobbyist; I managed a locally owned candy store that did its own production on the premises; and, I held a part time position as an Assistant Dietician and Kitchen Supervisor at University Hospital.

After receiving my MA I lucked into my dream job at Sandia National Laboratories. I got to travel, to participate on and in some exciting projects, and to work side by side with many respected business people, scientists and engineers. Picture the shy girl from Levittown in a Detroit office with Lee Iacocca's chief aide and vice presidents from General Motors and Chrysler who gathered to plan the first Agile Manufacturing Conference. Picture that shy girl, frustrated by a discussion going in circles, getting up from her seat, approaching the flip chart, picking up a marker and taking over the meeting. Oy vey, I still can't believe it was me.

It was like stepping out of my skin and becoming someone else. For a while I worried that I had overstepped my bounds. However, the outcome of my boldness was to be asked to coordinate all the conference workshops. In another situation I was asked to teach a group of visiting Russian Naval personnel and scientists about our training and evaluation methods. The Russians spoke only a few words of English and I don't speak any Russian, so five days of training and socializing after hours happened through an interpreter. In yet another highlight of my career, I was the PT consultant chosen to help develop a two-year training and mentoring program for a select group of Sandia engineers. On this project I was honored to work with retired scientists who had been a part of the Manhattan Project.

In retirement, you and your husband Chuck have done a lot of interesting travel, driving thousands of miles and visiting interesting places. What are some of the highlights of your adventures, the latest of which was flying to Machu Picchu?

First of all, I'm on a quest to visit all 50 states. My personal rule to count a state as "visited" is that I must stop and see at least a couple of sites or participate in some meaningful way with locals. I can't just drive through it. At this writing, between work travel and vacations, I have been to all 50, but I don't count Montana, Indiana, West Virginia or Vermont.

Chuck and I have been fortunate to extend our travels beyond the United States. Being neighbors with Mexico, prior to the current unrest down there, crossing the border into Juarez, and further, was safe. In addition to the border town, we've been to San Carlos, Ixtapa, and the "Mexican Riviera" (Puerta Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas). We've vacationed on a small Belize island. And, as you mentioned, we were recently in Peru. We've been to England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, and British Columbia, Canada.

So what were the highlights?

Machu Picchu, Peru: There aren't proper words to describe how awesome this place is. The vastness, the architectural feat, and the breathtaking beauty of it cannot be be captured in pictures----not even video.

The Amazon, Peru: Hot, sticky, buggy, few amenities even at a four-star inn, but an experience I wouldn't trade (just glad it was only three days!)

The St. Lawrence Seaway cruising from Quebec to Kingston: Breathtaking scenery, many historical and interesting sights, and going through six locks were the highlights. Chuck and I both love being on the water (even though we live in the desert!). This ship was a replica of a steamboat and there were only 60 people on board, including the crew.

Krakow, Poland: Auschwitz: probably the most heart rendering and emotionally difficult place we've ever visited. "Never forget".

Wieliczka Salt Mines: Incredible! The mines date back to the 13th century and are 1,073 feet below the surface. There are complete rooms carved into the salt, including chapels (where they actually hold services and weddings). The statues, wall carvings, alters, walls, floors, ceilings, all made of hard salt.

Tell us about your family--spouse, children, grandkids and brother Cliff.

My brother and I had wonderful parents. Lou and Sylvia Fromm were hard working people who taught us good values and gave us abundant love. Cliff and I were always close. Being the "big brother" he watched out for my safety and was proud of my successes. For example, when he taught me to ride my two-wheel bike he treated my success with a trip to Carvel. He was also pretty critical of my boyfriends, especially ones he thought were too old for me.

My husband and I have a blended family. We each brought a son and a daughter into the marriage, and the four kids, ranging from 10-16 at the time, lived with us full time. Chuck, a retired mechanical engineer, is involved in Free Masonry and is an active Shriner. Our children, all in their 40s now, have given us five wonderful grandchildren (doesn't everyone say their grandkids are wonderful?). The oldest, Felicia, who just turned 24; Brendan, who will be 15 in two months, is a freshman in high school. The twins, Walter and Jesse, are in 3rd grade. And Jacob, the only one who doesn't live in New Mexico, is in 2nd grade.

In retirement, besides travel, how do you keep busy? I know that you do a great deal of volunteer work. Your new year's resolution was to cool the volunteer work.

Keeping busy is never an issue...finding time to relax is the problem. I'm very active in the Sisterhood associated with my synagogue. In the last six years I've served as finance coordinator, president, secretary, and currently as treasurer, and I'm active in the many fund raising, social, and cultural events we conduct each year. For two years I worked on the Susan G Komen Race for the Cure, chairing the volunteer committee one of those years.

I like to be physically active and I like variety, so I walk, hike, or swim regularly. I like to snowshoe a few times each winter, and kayak in the summer. Wanting to bowl, but not wanting the pressure or commitment of a league, I organized a group that meets twice a month. On the less physical side, I belong to a book club, and I do many different crafts, such as knitting, crocheting, cross stitch, quilting and jewelry making. I'm not great at any of these crafts, but I like creating, and I like the down time they provide in my hectic life. Chuck and I are also camping and boating enthusiasts. Over the years we've sailed and power boated....currently we have a pontoon, which is very conducive to groups of family and friends, especially the grandsons.

With our commitment to wind down some of our volunteering, I'm starting to take more classes, and together Chuck and I are starting to plan more, and longer trips in our RV. Maybe I'll finally get to those last four states.


Anonymous said...

From Kathy Stahlman Zinn, class of 1963

A great interview. Michelle is a fascinating person!

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