Scholarships Can Change Lives

(A version of this essay is now part of my just-completed memoir “The Queen of Everything.”)

“I still can’t believe I won!” This was the comment of a Nordstrom Scholarship Program Award recipient, one of forty who will receive a $10,000 scholarship to a four-year accredited college of their choice. Reading about the winners, and seeing the photos of their smiling faces, instantly transported me back to the day, forty years ago, when I received a phone call awarding me of a similar type of scholarship from what was then known as Joy Manufacturing Company (now Joy Global Services).

As a high school senior, and oldest of seven, growing up in the small brewery town of Golden, Colorado; I was pretty sure I wanted to go to college, mainly because I couldn’t picture a career – or even another year – at Hested’s Department Store, a kind of upscale five-and-dime where I worked part-time during high school. This was the sort of store that held Moonlight Madness sales (employees wore nightgowns and pajamas to work and we stayed open until midnight), had a lunch counter that served grilled cheese sandwiches and banana splits, and had a huge fabrics and “notions” department in the basement, along with a row of goldfish, songbirds, and small turtles.

Some of my classmates were going to college in-state (mostly up the road at the University of Colorado), some were going to work right away at Coors, and some were getting married. Amazingly, when I think of today’s college-savvy high school students, most of us figured this stuff out on our own, with very little or no guidance from counselors or parents.

My father, who had a rather itinerant job history, had been, for several years running, a heating and air conditioning mechanic for Joy Manufacturing Company in Denver. He also drove the library bookmobile up and down the hairpin turns of Lookout Mountain, sold tickets at the race track on weekends, and sold carpet at Montgomery Ward’s several nights a week to support our large family. Neither of my parents, nor anyone else in my family that I was aware of, were college graduates. By some miracle of timing and luck, though, my father heard about an academic scholarship that Joy awarded each year to children of employees – they awarded nine each year, world-wide, to graduating seniors.

Joy Manufacturing was an international mining and engineering company; and the tragedy was that had my father been able to complete his never-finished degree from the Colorado School of Mines, he would have been in a white-collar job “upstairs” with his fellow geologists and engineers. Instead, he worked the rest of his life in air conditioning and heating maintenance jobs. Blue collar jobs, where his intellect simmered unrewarded. He gave up a little piece of himself every day, done in by his dislike of management, money problems, and monotonous work.

The day I got the phone call from a representative of Joy Manufacturing telling me I had been awarded one of the four-year scholarships, I knew I had been set free from my family. Set on a course where I could be anything I wanted to be. And I had done it on my own.

Or had I? Hadn’t my father taken the day off to drive me to Colorado Springs to take the standardized test for the scholarship? Hadn’t he sat in the lobby of the fancy office building for all those hours while I took the test and had my interview with a company vice president? Hadn’t he encouraged me, rooted for me, dreamed right along with me?

The day of the test and the interview, as we flew along the highway headed north back to Golden, he cut crazily in and out of traffic like he always did, cursing slower and less intelligent drivers. He smoked and played the radio low, listening for the results of the ninth race, as I sat daydreaming about what my life might be like if I won one of the scholarships. We were in a golden Cadillac, a used golden Cadillac with balding tires, belching out frequent puffs of black exhaust, but nonetheless. My father always loved a Cadillac.

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