When Catherine MacRae Joppa was growing up in rural Kansas in the late 1940s and ’50s, she never imagined that one day she would be walking across a stage, accepting a contribution award that has been shared by Bill and Melinda Gates, Mary Tyler Moore, Magic Johnson and many other individuals and corporations well known on the national and international scenes.
Her journey to that stage was filled with obstacles and adjustment, and a drive to help people who need it the most.
The first major adjustment started with her own career plans, after the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) first hit at age 19. The first adjustment she made was to abandon a music major and cello scholarship because the disease made her hands feel like boxing gloves.
She changed her major to elementary education, and was soon student teaching a room full of second graders whose parents were among the first combat GIs deployed to Viet Nam, stationed at Fort Riley. It wasn’t just Kansas anymore. The world beyond had arrived at her doorstep.
“My blunt, first impression was ‘Wow, these children are beautiful!’ In that class, there were seven Caucasian children. The remaining 15 were mixed race. Their fathers had been stationed at Army posts all over the world. Their children reflected the blended roots of their parents. African American, Native American, Asian American, Mexican American, German, Japanese, Filipino, Arabic … I was the fortunate observer in that Technicolor Kansas classroom.”
This was not a classroom her father, also an educator, would have been grateful to be a part of. “My dad had always given three categories of people the best put-down he could verbalize. People were no good if they were a Democrat, Catholic or black. He was a violent and unhappy Kansas farm boy who never did learn how to recognize life’s wonders.”
Catherine took a different path, and the wonders and diversity in her life were about to multiply exponentially.
In 1971, she became assistant director of health and recreation at the YWCA in downtown Washington, D.C., arriving not long after large scale protests there. She had 2,200 women and children in gym and swim classes each week, with the vast majority being non-Caucasian. The swim classes were always full with a waiting list. Women wanted to conquer their fear of water, Catherine says.
“After teaching just a few lessons that first year, I saw the rigid fear with which my students approached the water. I needed to find a way to help them get it in the open, and get on to the next step.” Catherine helped accomplish this by asking each beginner class a question: “Have you ever known someone who was in a drowning accident?” Most had. “Knowing they were not alone with those demons was a good start.”
The staff at the YWCA included young women from India, Guyana, Mexico, Pakistan and other countries. “Their courage and humor taught me so much about how we, people from around the globe, are alike. They would talk with sadness about the prejudices that raged inside their countries, just like the civil rights movement had opened our eyes to the problems in the USA. Living in D.C. in my special circumstances, I came to understand, at a deep level, the frustrations that black men and women generally felt in their efforts to get ahead financially and in their workplaces.”
While working with the YWCA, and later in the D.C. public school system, Catherine was also coaching and traveling with Capitol Wheelchair Sports. “I was part of a world where it was understood that at every level we can take more than we think we can, and we can achieve more than we think we can. Kids and adults I worked with were never supposed to live, much less succeed.”
After 10 years in D.C., when she was going to graduate school, working full time, coaching, managing an apartment complex and raising her twin daughters, it was apparent that she needed to slow down to survive. “By the end of the day, I often crawled from my car to the apartment, sitting to go upstairs and sitting to go downstairs. Couldn’t hold a phone, talking took huge energy and sliding out of my wheelchair wasn’t unusual. My children seemed miraculously to know when to laugh with me, laugh at me, empathize or just plain help.”
When Catherine came to the Northwoods in 1991, she knew it was her final home. The beauty of the water, skies and trees spoke to her, and the cool weather was good for her MS. It was here that her idea of making an exercise video first came together. “I wanted to teach others what I had learned about being whole again.”
From the beginning, she knew what she wanted, and what she didn’t. She didn’t want her project to be like other exercise videos: she felt they were “silly, patronizing and awkward” for people with physical limitations. She did want to hand pick the people who would be a part of the video. She was looking for hope, pleasantness and positive attitudes, and she knew them when she saw them. “Every one of us has been to the depths of fear and loneliness and has come out on the other side, ready to take on life and be OK.” She would eventually credit the beautiful people in the video for making it so good.
With a business plan and investors in place, she hired a production company out of Green Bay. In December 1993 they moved to The Pointe Hotel in Minocqua to start filming.
Catherine went home to her cabin on Fence Lake in Lac du Flambeau to edit the footage taken by the three cameras. Working with a lapboard, three computers, three video recorders and three remotes, she soon realized that none of the footage of her was usable.
“I told them that we were going to re-record me and edit in the other people. They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Yes I can.’ They said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I said ‘Well, I will do that.’ They said, ‘That’s not possible.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’”
Every second, every phrase, every breath of the video was in her head, she says. That is when she realized what producers do: they conceptualize every part. But, she says, the only thing she really got in the production crew’s faces about was the rerecording.
At the time, she recalls, Barbra Streisand had a reputation for being difficult to work with. “I thought, ‘Well, at least I’m in good company.’”
The production continued, along with Catherine’s physical exhaustion. At the end of one day she collapsed in the parking lot before she could get into her car. But the next day was the re-recording she had insisted on, and she came back and did it “flawlessly.”
“That is what human beings can do,” she says.
In 1996, her video, titled Gentle Fitness, beat the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Kaiser Permanente (currently the largest managed care organization in the U.S.) to win the International Health and Medical Film competition.
The awards ceremony was like the Oscars, Catherine recalls. She paid for her ticket to San Francisco, as well as tickets for both of her daughters, then wondered if she should use her crutches to get on stage if she was called. She did.
“It has been a life-changing experience,” Catherine says. After the Mayo Clinic requested and previewed the video, they decided to carry it in their store. Even with all the accolades and positive feedback, it did not sell enough to pay back her investors. That she regrets.
Catherine taught for seven years in the Adult Basic Education program at Nicolet, and now works with seniors, helping them learn about their laptops and Internet connections. She continues to fight the same battle she has fought for herself and so many others.
“Sometimes,” she says, “there’s a voice that says ‘I’m not up to snuff because I can’t…’ People get caught up feeling less than they should.”
Jill Olson is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.