It’s county fair time! In honor of the event I’m blogging about a dear friend of mine who happens to be a winner in all areas of life.
A Winsome Woman
A womanâ€™s competitive nature blossoms into blue ribbons at a local county fair.
It was only 7 a.m., but already a dozen cars were parked haphazardly along the muddy country road near Rush City, Minnesota. Several crowded make-shift tables displayed the excesses of rural life–rusty tools, faded garden gnomes, and leaning stacks of dirty terracotta pots. Bargain hunters, layered and padded to minimize the Minnesota chill typical for an early May morning, held Styrofoam cups of coffee in one hand while pawing through clothing piles with the other.
It was Rush Cityâ€™s annual garage sale day, and Kathleen Hoffman had a list of plants she hoped to find. Dressed in jeans and a fleece jacket, with her highlighted blond hair stylishly tucked under a baseball cap, she managed to look casual, classy, and determined. A rummage sale veteran, and seasoned competitor, Kathleen knew which addresses offered promising flower transplants amidst the usual family castoffs and how to stay one step ahead of the hagglers. After a quick browse around the perimeter of the sale, she noticed a warped cardboard box near the garage. The hand-printed sign taped on the side said, Three bulbs for $1. Inside the box, an odd pile of mummified brown lumps sprouted thick white whiskers.
Poking through the leathery assortment, her eyes were drawn to the calla lily bulbs. â€œI was surprised,â€ Kathleen recalls, â€œI didnâ€™t realize calla lilies could grow in Minnesota. In fact, years earlier I had wanted calla lilies in my bridal bouquet, but I couldnâ€™t get them in Duluth. I had to settle for silk calla lilies.â€ She tossed a handful of bulbs into a brown paper sack, figuring the experiment was worth a few bucks, and it paid off. By July, the brown lumps had turned into a blue ribbon, and Kathleenâ€™s love of competing had found new ground to conquer.
Germinating Seeds of Success
Kathleenâ€™s feminine graceâ€”the way she moves, her gracious manners, her flirtatious witâ€”suggests sheâ€™s more southern belle than fierce competitor. Far from it. Some fifty-odd years ago Kathleen was born in the northern port city of Duluth, Minnesota. Her parents, Bill and Barbara Wilson, were both strong role models, but it was her motherâ€™s strength that influenced Kathleen the most. Bill, a legendary ore boat captain, spent more days on the great lakes than at home. Her mother handled the worrisome absences of her husbandâ€™s work by flourishing in her own career and social interestsâ€”unusual in that era of housewives. Kathleen watched and learned. She credits her mother with giving her the resilience and strength to think independently, and to always aim high.
Kathleen began speed skating competitively at the age of six, and continued through high school. â€œI had to win,â€ she emphasizes, â€œor I felt like I didnâ€™t want it bad enough, or hadnâ€™t worked hard enough. Mom has always been my inspiration, but the demon drive to finish firstâ€¦thatâ€™s all me.â€
The discipline and training on the ice prepared Kathleen for the challenges of college and marriage. After earning a bachelorâ€™s degree, Kathleen pursued a Masterâ€™s in English. Straddling work and school tested her endurance, but she was young and sleep didnâ€™t matter as much back then. The finish line of graduation kept her going, and soon the trophyâ€”a diplomaâ€”was in hand. â€œIn hindsight, I should have gone on for my doctorate. But I felt I needed to reinvest myself in the marriage,â€ she says. â€œSomething felt offâ€.
Kathleen discovered her husband had been having an affair. They divorced. She acknowledges the loss of the marriage, like any loss, hurt because she had put in the effort. The pain of reconstructing her life brought insights, however. Like a mended bone, she was stronger because of the break, and she moved on.
She accepted an editing job in California. The demands were high and the hours long, but she still managed to develop a passion for deep-sea fishing. It became a woman versus fish-too-big-to-believe competition. She loved the exhaustive fighting the sport provided, and, as usual, Kathleen took her prize. Ultimately, however, Californiaâ€™s sunshine lost its luster. Kathleen missed her family. It was time to move back to Minnesota.
One day her brother asked for a favor. He had a friend, Daniel, who had tickets to a long awaited concert but no date. Would she please help the poor guy out? Kathleen later learned her brother had given Daniel the same story about her. The set-up worked. Marriage, and a move to Rush City, followed.
With a population of about 1,500 citizens, Rush City is a town reluctant to grow. Daniel, also no stranger to a challenge, accepted the job of City Administrator. Kathleen was quickly hired by the English Department at the Cambridge campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College. While house-hunting, Kathleen and Daniel fell in love with a vintage Craftsman-style residence nestled on a quiet side street. The neighborhood had a feeling of maturityâ€”large oak trees and quaint houses comfortable with their time on earth. â€œThe landscape around our home, however, was a bit dated and looked exactly like the yards on either side of us.â€ said Kathleen, â€œI had to get busy.â€
Kathleen turned the yard into a cottage garden that embraced the Craftsman lines of the house and showcased her love of color. She used plant “finds,” gifts, and neighbor discards as she experimented fearlessly. Even a cactus took root and survived. Today the garden exudes a joyous cacophony of shrubs, vines, and flowers. â€œI think Kathleen could stick a toothpick in the ground and make it grow,â€ says Cluadia Kittock, a friend and former teacher at the college. â€œShe has an enviable knack for nurturing plants. Compared to her, Iâ€™m the grim reaper of the plant world.â€
Two years after settling in Rush City, Kathleen was drawn to the flower competition at the Chisago County Fair. Walking past floral displays, and studying the winners in particular, Kathleen had a nagging feeling that she could do better. The more she thought about it, the stronger she felt the lure to compete. Little did she know a garage-sale bag of bulbs would be the key to her success.
A New Competition Takes Root
Towards the end of May Kathleen planted the calla lilies. She found the bulbs liked well-tilled soil, manure, bone meal, full sun, and water. As the earth warmed, tightly furled leaves emerged from the ground like scrolls slowly revealing intimate secrets. By July, exquisite white flowers swaying on slender stalks waved to her as she walked by. Kathleen knew what she would be entering in the fair.
The floral entries needed to be at the fairground by noon on a Thursday. Early that morning, Kathleen studied her flowers and selected a calla lily to enter under the category of â€œLot,â€ or specimen. The criteria for a perfect calla lily are that it is tall and straight, with a large smooth flower. Feeling the familiar rush of competition, Kathleen dropped off her entry, took a deep breath, and left the building.
The next day she found a Reserve Champion ribbon hanging from her vase. Kathleen was jubilant until she overheard another competitor mutter, â€œBeginners luck.â€ â€œWhen I heard her say that, I was hurt,â€ says Kathleen. â€œI felt like she dismissed me, and my win, as a fluke. I was determined to prove her wrong.â€ Kathleen pauses and smiles like Mona Lisa. â€œThe next summer my calla lily won Grand Champion. I think I made my point.â€
Winning takes priority
A few years ago Kathleenâ€™s mom gave her an Alaskan cruise, which, unfortunately, fell at the time of the Chisago County Fair. Undaunted, Kathleen devised a plan. Before leaving she pulled out an assortment of vases and asked Daniel to select a calla lily and enter on her behalf. â€œHe was so nervousâ€¦ a complete basket case, but I knew he could do it,â€ she says.
Mustering his best creative eye, Daniel not only entered her calla lily, he designed a dinner table arrangement and entered that division under his own name. When Kathleen returned, he dangled two Grand Reserve ribbons from his fingersâ€”one for her and one for him. â€œI have to remind her every once in awhile that she isnâ€™t the only one with talent in this house,â€ he says with an exaggerated sigh. Kathleen rolls her eyes, but itâ€™s obvious she is delighted to have a partner as competitive in nature as she is.