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Lessons I Learned From My Wife

By Marty Nemko

No matter how many books I’ve read or experts I’ve interviewed, I find I’ve grown most from lessons I learned from my wife, Dr. Barbara Nemko.

She was no doctor when I met her. She was the remedial reading teaching in a too-urban middle school in Corona, Queens. I was the drug counselor. During breaks, we’d both sit in the teacher’s room. The difference was that I spent those ten minutes exacerbating my burnout, ever lamenting the future of “the youths.” In contrast, Barbara was chatting, laughing with her more upbeat friends. That might make you think she was an uncaring teacher. I found out later that her principal rated her among the school’s best. The difference between her and me was that she knew that moaning only makes matters worse.

We came to Berkeley so I could go to graduate school. Barb had to find a job. She knew no one so networking was out. Rather than the passive approach of responding to want ads, she got in her car and went from school district to school district, walked in, and strutted her stuff. Within five days, she had three job offers. Lesson Learned: Showing your wares, even if not solicited, pays off. I’ve subsequently found, as a career counselor, that Barbara’s experience is not unusual.

We were at a party thrown by one of my professors, Myra Windmiller. Being new to California, we didn’t realize the convention: you bring a bottle of wine. Barbara bought a pie plate. Myra was quite taken with it, which opened the door to she and Barbara having a nice conversation, at the end of which, Myra said, “Why don’t you apply to graduate school at Berkeley?” Barb applied, and despite a good but not world-class academic record, got in. She now holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Lesson Learned: Even in something seemingly as objective as getting into Berkeley, relationships are key.

But while Barbara was plenty smart, emotionally intelligent, and hardworking, she lacked the ambition gene. She held a number of positions, the last of which was as administrator in the Napa County Office of Education. When the position of Napa County Interim Superintendent of Schools came open, even though she was highly regarded, she never really thought about applying. I made her think about it. In fact, I pushed the heck out of her to apply. She did and became the cabinet’s and board’s unanimous choice. She has since gone on to become the twice-elected superintendent and was just nominated as the region’s Superintendent of the Year. Lesson Learned: Everyone needs a champion.

Two months ago, Barbara was at a holiday party, where an attendee said, “Barb, Napa’s Dreamweavers Theater is doing a production of Neil Simon’s play, Brighton Beach Memoirs. You should try out for it.” Barb said, “I’m flattered but I haven’t acted since I played a tree in the 4th grade. Besides, where am I going to find the time?” But Barb came home and her pushy husband said, “I believe in one-time opportunities. Why not try out? Dreamweavers gets actors with mile-long acting resumes. Even if you get cast, it will be in a tiny role, but trying out will be fun.” Lo and behold, not only did she get cast, she got cast in a wonderful role: the Jewish mother (which doesn’t require much acting for Barbara.)

It’s one thing to impress in a brief audition; it’s another to perform a big role, 16 performances no less. Barbara thought. “What’s the smartest way to get skilled fast? To get coached by the person who played that role on Broadway.” So, she googled and found the person, Elizabeth Franz, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in that role. Amazingly, Elizabeth’s phone number was listed, and not only did Elizabeth answer, but she agreed to work with Barbara, for free. Elizabeth turned out not only to be a great coach, but a truly lovely person. Lesson Learned: Solicit the best. Even many of the eminent appreciate being asked.

I’ve been watching Barb at rehearsals for this Tony-Award winning play, and she and the rest of the cast are really quite wonderful. I spend much of Act One laughing and much of Act II teary. The play runs through Mar. 7. For tickets, 707-255-LIVE. (I love my wife, so I couldn’t resist giving her a plug.)

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