by Kaye Bennett
Mary Ellen Geist is an award-winning journalist, a professional jazz singer and much more. But her rise on the career ladder took an unexpected turn when she abandoned her ambitions to become a full-time daughter to her ailing father. That experience in turn led her to write an acclaimed and influential book that is having a profound effect on caregivers and families.
Born into a family of talented people from the Detroit area (father Woody was not only a CEO but also a jazz singer; mother Rosemary, an artist and art teacher; grandfather, a naturalist; and grandmother a newspaper columnist), Geist says, "People considered me a wild child because I always wanted to do so many things." She graduated from Rochester-Adams High School and then bucked the family tradition of attending the University of Michigan. She chose Kalamazoo College instead because, she says, "I didn't like huge schools and I didn't want to slip through the cracks." Kalamazoo College "made me feel like it was OK to be adventurous."
Geist started her Kalamazoo coursework in 1974, majoring in English and creative writing and minoring in theater. She spent her junior year abroad, studying at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. It was that study abroad program, says Geist, that kick-started her career.
While she was in Sierra Leone in 1977, students and youth in the country launched a major anti-government demonstration against the administration of President Siaka Stevens, claiming the president had used the country's diamond riches to finance his personal lifestyle. Geist was deeply involved in the incident, seeking shelter in the home of one of the U.S. ambassadors and writing about the experience by candlelight at night. "It made me appreciate the freedoms I had in the U.S.," she recalls. She also learned the important role that journalists can play in the world. "I realized that writing could be a tool." Before going to Africa, she hadn't considered journalism as a career, but the experience made her reconsider.
It also brought her recognition. While in Africa, Geist wrote poetry, for which she was given the Maynard Owen Williams award for creative writing.
Not surprisingly, life in Kalamazoo seemed pretty tame when Geist got back from Africa, so she ended up putting her senior year on hold. "I got offered a job singing in a jazz band in Ann Arbor," she says, "so I did that for a few years." During those years, she also worked for the Idaho Public Theater in Boise. She returned to Kalamazoo a few years later and finished her classes, graduating in 1981. To this day, Geist credits the College's programs and its professors for the success she's found in her diverse careers: "I wouldn't have become a journalist or a singer without my foreign study experience," she says.
She also says that the efforts of English professors Larry Barrett, Herb Bogart, Con Hilberry, and Gail Griffin, as well as Marigene Arnold in the anthropology and sociology department "encouraged my curiosity about the world and helped me to believe I could become a writer."
And become a writer (and a journalist) she has! After graduating from "K" in the early 80s, Geist went to work in radio, reporting, producing, and anchoring for stations in Petoskey, Michigan. By the mid-80s, she was also writing for magazines, films and videos, and then in 1985, she moved to CBS/FOX video in Farmington Hills.
For the next 20 years, her career was meteoric, taking her from Michigan to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and ultimately to New York, where she was afternoon anchor on WCBS Radio. During those years, Geist won a host of awards, including regional and national Edward R. Murrow Awards and numerous citations from the Radio and Television News Directors' Association and the Associated Press Television and Radio Association. Geist found herself reporting on news events ranging from the O.J. Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana to the Clinton impeachment proceedings, hanging chads in the 2000 Presidential election and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Then in 2005, Geist braked her career to a stop, or, as the New York Times described it in a front-page article about her on November 24, 2005, she jumped on "the Daughter Track." Woody Geist, Mary Ellen's father, had been CEO of an industrial distribution company, was a community activist and had, for more than 40 years sung baritone with the Grunyons, a Detroit-area men's a cappella jazz group. In 1992, he began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. By 2005, the disease had progressed to the point where caring for him was more than his wife could handle alone. That's when Mary Ellen left CBS, left New York, and headed back to Michigan on the Daughter Track, defined in the New York Times story as "a late-in-life version of the Mommy Track, a career downsizing popular with younger women."
For the next five years, Mary Ellen helped her mother Rosemary provide basic care for Woody. But Mary Ellen brought her own skill set to the task. She researched the disease, and designed and conducted appropriate mentally stimulating activities, plus a physical fitness regimen and outings. She called on her experiences in dealing with influential people to persuade the esteemed neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks to consult with the family, resulting in a feature on Woody Geist in Sachs's 2007 book, Musicophilia. Mary Ellen sang Woody's favorite jazz standards with him for hours on end. And oh yes, she wrote a book.
Geist says she wrote Measure of the Heart: A Father's Alzheimer's, A Daughter's Return at night, since she wasn't sleeping anyway. The book was released in August 2008, and describes her experiences with her father in his last years. It touched a nerve - and the heart - of the whole generation of people who are caring for elderly parents and of everyone dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer's. Geist has discussed the book and her experiences on the Today Show, the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, and with Reader's Digest and Caring Today magazines. It was on AARP's Best Book list and was selected as one of the Best Books for Caregivers. Geist was named one of the top twenty 2009 Michigan Notable Authors and continues to lecture on the gifts of coming home to care for a loved one and on her personal favorite topic, the special connection music can create between caregivers and people living with Alzheimer's.
"As a result of the book," Geist says, "a cappella singing groups throughout the nation have begun organizing visits to residential facilities for people with Alzheimer's and nursing homes."
Music never stopped being a part of Woody Geist's life. "Nearing the end," his daughter says, "the whole family came in. We sang his favorite songs and he sang till the end." His final words to the family were, "Aren't we lucky?" Woody Geist died on March 17, 2010.
Five days after Woody's funeral, Mary Ellen was scheduled for her first singing gig in years, at Stafford's Perry Hotel in Petoskey's Gaslight District.
"It made me appreciate the freedoms I had...and I realized writing could be a tool."She decided her father would have wanted her to show up for the date she had booked long ago. The gig went even better than she'd hoped: She sang many of Woody's favorite jazz tunes, which she says she knew by heart, since she'd sung them with him repeatedly while she'd been caring for him for the past five years.
Today Geist and jazz guitarist Phil Tarczon perform every week in the Noggin Room at the Perry Hotel. But that's just part of what keeps Mary Ellen Geist busy these days, as she splits her year between the family home in Washington (on the eastern side of Michigan), and the family cottage at Walloon Lake. She also works as a freelance radio reporter for several public radio stations, as well as writing for Traverse Magazine and its website. She says she enjoys conducting business from her kayak, with her cell phone in a Ziploc bag, and editing in her bathing suit.
She has her eye on a few more projects as well. Music producer, manager, and director Lou Adler has optioned Measure of the Heart and discussions are in the works about a possible movie. In addition, Geist is discussing with PBS a potential story about the healing power of music.
Geist travels and lectures throughout the nation, speaking to families about caring and caregiving and the role of music in that mix. She also speaks with students, advising aspiring journalists that a liberal arts education, such as she got at Kalamazoo College, is vital, since they will be, like she was, called on to cover a huge variety of topics in their careers.
Geist is at work on a second book, on a far different topic from Measure of the Heart. This one is historical fiction, exploring a Geist family legend about the origin of the name of her great-grandmother, Winona Tishiminga; it looks at Native American life in Minnesota in the 1860s. She says she's having a hard time finding enough time to write, now that she's sleeping nights again, but she got a huge boost in the summer of 2009, when she was invited to attend the Ucross Foundation artists' workshop in Wyoming. For two weeks, Geist says she had nothing she needed to do but write, eat and socialize with other artists, such as writer Joyce Maynard. "It was two weeks of heaven," Geist says.
She also keeps up her contacts with Kalamazoo, which is only natural, considering both her sister and brother-in-law work at Kalamazoo College. Alison Geist is director of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, and her husband, Gary Gregg, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology.
So what does the future hold for Mary Ellen Geist? Will she hop off the Daughter Track and back onto the career ladder? She hopes not, but she's still not sure. She's torn between the energy and ambition that drove her for so long and the peace and tranquility she's found in Michigan. "I don't know if I want back on the hamster wheel," she says.
"I'm trying to do what I want to do most from here," she says. "I hope I can do it." Technology makes it seem like a possibility. "I Skype in the mornings with the PBS person in Manhattan."
The experience of caring for her father has affected Mary Ellen Geist deeply. She says she has learned the meaning of Mother Teresa's words, which Geist often quotes on her lecture tours: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
Mary Ellen Geist: with her sister Alison (right); portrait; and in the radio broadcast booth