Purple Plums and Lucky Strikes

Share Your Story Blog Series

Conributed By IWL Board Member, Ellen Schmidt

The influence of family… The beauty of not planning… The treasure of unknown and impromptu mentors and learning experiences… The grounding of long-lasting friendships… The bravery to take risks and the humbleness to admit to your mistakes… The commitment to give back to the community and help others… The continuous need to learn and do well by others and in life…

As I begin to write this story, the phrases above kept floating through my mind and how they define who I am at this point in my life. The meanings of these phrases are woven into my story.

What plan?

Have I ever had a true plan that I’ve followed to a tee?  No!  Not me – not a planner by nature in terms of my life and what I wanted to do “when I grew up!” But a large part of me believes that being “unplanned” is the very thing that has given me success in life personally and in my working career.

Early on in my life, probably starting about when I was six years old, I remember my Mom playing lots of music in the house on the record player. She played many different styles of music and was very much my musical influence and mentor in my formative years.

I’m of the age of vinyl records, 33 ½ LPs. Mom had many LPs of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and played them quite a bit. I would sit in front of the phonograph listening intently, yet dreaming. Oh my, there was something that was so cool and exciting to me when I heard Herb Alpert playing that trumpet. I knew I just had to play it too!

About a year later a notice from the school came to us kids encouraging us to sign up for band and learn how to play an instrument. This was it!  This was my chance to finally learn to play the trumpet and SOUND just like Herb Alpert!

So one day, in the summer before school started again that fall, off  I went with my Mom to sign up for band, with cousin Billy yelling at me the next yard over … “Hey Ellen, where are YOU going?” I promptly replied, “I’m going to learn how to play the trumpet!”  “No you’re not!” he yelled again, yet with surprise in his voice. “Girls don’t play trumpet – they play flute or clarinet!”

Well, I’m not sure how I responded to cousin Billy but 47 years later, I’m still playing the trumpet in local community musical groups, sometimes getting paid but most of the time not, here in the states and in Europe.  Wait a minute ….! How did I get from third grade learning how to play the trumpet to playing in musical groups here in the states and in Europe? And what does any of this have to do with my current career?

Okay in a nutshell … maybe

During grade school and high school not only did I play the trumpet but I played the piano, too.  (I actually started that when I was five …!) When it came time to choose whether I would go off to college and which one and what degree, I said to myself, “Gee, I don’t know … I can’t imagine not practicing my piano and trumpet or playing music anymore, so why don’t I go to college for a music degree!”  But which degree? Music education or music performance?  “Why not performance?” I said to myself. So I auditioned on piano at Indiana University and they promptly declined me after the first few notes of playing which led me to audition at Butler University in Indianapolis. They almost declined me, too, but suggested I change my degree to Music Education vs. Music Performance.  (By the way, this is my first encounter with being mentored and not knowing it!) So I changed my degree focus, Butler accepted me, and four years later I graduated with a Music Education degree from Butler – off and ready to be a band director and teach kids music in a K-12 school setting.  Hold it – teach kids in school?  Did I not realize that was what my degree was going to get me – kids in a school?

I quickly began looking for a job in Indianapolis, not necessarily a band director position, because I wanted to stay in the Indianapolis area. I’m originally from Hammond, Indiana and had slowly grown fond of Indianapolis even though it was not much of a city back then and especially in comparison with Chicago, which I dearly loved and still do.  Anyway, I found a job in the accounting department at a company called RCI and thus launched my career in the corporate world – never again looking back twice at teaching in a school.  (Hold on … I do not dislike kids or teaching as you’ll see soon enough … and what’s this about Accounting?!)

For me, RCI was the best company I could have landed in, by chance, to start my corporate career. I stayed there for 14 years, had many wonderful work and project opportunities (the Accounting department gig was only for a few years) along with a few good managers who mentored me in my work. It was through RCI that I had my first international travel work experiences all related to training and development. One of my positions at RCI was a corporate trainer and I eventually was able to fall back on the knowledge I gained at Butler in my Music Ed degree about how people learn and how you build learning events to match their learning styles and information intake. At RCI I made the decision to get a Master’s degree in Instructional Systems Technology, which could offer me continued work and advancement in training and training design.

From RCI, I have worked at several different companies including my current company, Covance, all with a focus on training and development, instructional design, and performance consulting. I have worked at White River Training and Consulting, ABG/ABG Europe, MCE Belgium, Eli Lilly and Company, and Harrison College.

I fell into my career, not necessarily by design but certainly by interest and taking risks. One of those risks was extending my training position with ABG into their European offices located in Brussels, Belgium. I was to stay 3 years with ABG in Brussels but after 10 months, they decided they wanted me back at the home. I simply did not want to leave yet as I had just finally found my way (literally and figuratively) living and experiencing all Belgium and Europe had to offer. So I extended my stay there on my own and found MCE Belgium where I became a Customize Learning Solutions Account Manager.

The ties and bonds of family brought me back to Indianapolis where I found a job at Eli Lilly and Company as an internal training consultant. I landed back in the states two weeks before 9-11. It was double the sadness for me with leaving behind a wonderful place to live and good friends made yet grieving for our country and all those lost on that terrible day. I stayed with Lilly until the company went through a huge reorganization. I sadly left Lilly and took another risk by choosing to work for a for-profit community college, which admittedly was not a wise career choice at all. Enter Covance and I’m back again in the world of drug development yet still continuing to use my training skills as a Senior Instructional Designer.

Community involvement, volunteering, and the will to continually develop myself…

Let’s get back to kids … I do like them and so much that for the past 7 years I’ve been a ReadUp Tutor for the Indianapolis Public School system. I have tutored more than a dozen 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders combined over the past 7 years and have found joy in being a mentor to these wonderful human beings and to some kids that really just need someone to talk to and show interest in them.

I continue to professionally develop myself by volunteering in my chosen professional organization, the International Society for Performance and Improvement (ISPI). I’ve been a member of this organization since the early 90s; have received a designation by them of a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT); and have been the committee chair for several committees most recently being appointed the Committee Chair for their 2015 international conference.

Through all of this, I have held on to friends that have sustained me through the good and the bad times – here in the states and in Europe – at work and in my personal life. The importance of good solid friendships is sometimes beyond words for me because it is so important.  I just know through my friends I have received support, love, uplifting, important life lessons, all those things that will sustain me a lifetime.

That title …

You may be wondering about the title of my story. It reflects my family and the early influence of my Dad’s Father, my Grandpa, Slava Pericak. This Grandpa lived right next door to us and I remember how he taught me how to break open one of those small purple plums with my thumbs, as we sat in the back of his and my Grandma’s house on a tiny rickety bench.  I remember him taking a purple plum in his hands and then giving me one. He was not a man of many words but as he was taking the plum in his own hands, he gestured for me to do the same. I did and I simply watched how he worked his thumbs down the seam of the plum and it slowly opened to reveal its brownish colored stone and yellow golden sweet flesh inside.

I was only four but have concluded this was one of my very first learning experiences with a man whom I loved and yet who only lived until I was five years old. My first lesson from him was learning by doing and watching and then trying and failing and then trying again. All the while with him encouraging me on to break open that plum so I could enjoy its sweetness alongside him in the back of the house on the rickety bench. To this day, I do not eat a purple plum without first breaking it open with my thumbs and remembering my Grandpa’s first lesson to me.

The plums – they were the first lesson but the second was running after his Lucky Strike cigarettes.  In the end, these Lucky Strikes were the very things that took my Grandpa away from me at his early age of 68 and mine of five. But the valuable lesson for me was to not smoke cigarettes and to chase my ‘Lucky Strikes’ in life in a very different way – planned or not!

Contributed by: Ellen P. Schmidt

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