The Colgate Scene
May 2005

People on the go

Karen Lee '99
[Photo by Gary Fabiano]

When President Bush called on government agencies last year to provide support to the reconstruction effort in Iraq, Karen Lee '99 packed up her liberal arts skills, took a leave from her job, and headed to Baghdad. Her assignment: six months, helping to rebuild the water infrastructure, through the Iraq Project and Contracting Office.

"I had no idea what to expect," said Lee. "All I knew was that I had a job and that I knew a couple of people here."

A regulatory analyst in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in Washington, D.C., Lee had watched as the official war in Iraq was winding down and the provisional government was forming, and felt that the United States had a responsibility to help the Iraqi people as they transitioned to a new government and way of life.

She also felt a personal responsibility, "the hope that I could do something good," said Lee. She started her days in Iraq as a project manager, and two weeks later was asked to lead the water sector, one of six reconstruction sectors in Iraq. In her new job she would direct the effort to deliver potable drinking water and build sewage systems and workable irrigation systems throughout Iraq. No small task -- especially for someone with no experience in engineering.

Without pause (or prompting), Lee points to her Colgate education (she was a political science major) as a key factor in her ability to tackle the task at hand.

"That's the brilliance of a liberal arts education," said Lee. "It gives you the skills to think analytically. You don't need to be the expert in contracts, procurement, or engineering, but you know how to ask the right questions."

Lee led the water project so successfully that the director of programs asked her to serve as his deputy director, overseeing all six reconstruction sectors -- oil, electricity, public works and water, security and justice, transportation and communications, and buildings, education, and health.

"There are areas of Iraq that have an hour of electricity a day," said Lee. "Going from that to setting up a distribution and transmission and generation system that can get them four, five, or six hours of electricity a day, and working with people to make that a reality is awesome."

Lee enjoyed the work, although she never quite knew what to expect. The unpredictability of insurgent attacks made for a lot of late nights in the office, working to calculate and re-calculate project costs and logistics. One day she would be working to find funding for a hospital and the next she would be working on ways to ensure that contractor programs were running efficiently.

Stationed in the "international zone," an enclosed four-square-mile area in Baghdad, Lee said that she had to deal with the constant threat of attack.

"Once you realize that you're going to be there for six months, you tell yourself that nothing is going to happen; whether it's delusional or just a coping mechanism, I don't know."

Lee wore a flak jacket and helmet whenever she went outside. But she didn't let the sense of danger hold her back. "You just go ahead and do your job. You can't stop; there's a larger mission."

Now that she is back in the United States, Lee will continue her work with OMB and will start taking night classes at Georgetown University in pursuit of her law degree. Reflecting on her experience in Iraq, she said that some of the smaller successes are what kept her going.

"Getting a thousand people drinkable water -- it sounds like nothing, but to those thousand people it's very important," said Lee. "This was the most amazing experience I've ever had."
— Charlie Melichar

Philip Beard '85
[Photo by Craig J. Schmitt]

Philip Beard's first novel was rejected 28 times, more than enough for most people to question the sanity of leaving a successful law career to become a writer.

Instead, Beard wrote a second novel. This time 28 different editors passed and Dear Zoe (see Books and media) seemed destined to go unpublished, too, but Beard persisted.

"Fear and stupidity, I guess," offered Beard by way of explaining his tenacity. And a belief in his story, told by 15-year-old Tess to her deceased little sister, Zoe.

Following his graduation from Colgate (indelibly marked by Fred Busch, professor of English, emeritus) in 1985, Beard went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh. He began his career in litigation, didn't like it, and eventually joined his father's firm to practice business law.

"I knew when I began I wanted to get back to writing," said Beard, who also realized he didn't have the mental makeup to be a Bohemian. Instead, he saved money and by 1998 when the itch to write became unbearable, he figured teaching would be the perfect day job for a budding novelist.

During his practicum, after more coursework at Pitt, Beard discovered that "teaching was too hard to try to write at the same time. It didn't help that I had a newborn and two other kids." A coaching job allowed him to be involved with students while having the energy and time to write. So began the ill-fated first novel.

For five or six hours a day Beard worked and, "at the end of nine months I had a stack of paper that felt like a novel." He quickly, and fortuitously, found an agent and figured he was on his way, but then the rejections began. They continued for six months. Advised that the best antidote was to keep writing, Beard began Dear Zoe, which felt to him and his agent more marketable, with appeal to a broader audience. But, no.

Beard said "defeated," then replaced it with "discouraged" when recounting that second flight of 28 rejections. He turned his considerable "classic overachiever" energies to self-publishing and was poised to invest a considerable chunk of his savings when the friend (with publishing connections) of a friend read the manuscript.

Cue the fanfare and cut to the punch line. Viking buys Dear Zoe, Beard goes on a 12-city, cross-country author tour in April, then a May mini-tour (with a stop at the Colgate Bookstore during Reunion), and signs with the publisher to revise his first novel for publication.

There are rewards aplenty in such a tale of persistence: Vindication and excitement, of course, but more poignant, and maybe more important, has been the reaction of Cali Fleming, Beard's stepdaughter, who was the inspiration for Tess and started Dear Zoe on its way. "She loved it, and I had been really afraid of her reaction even though Tess is very different [from her]." Cali told Beard the novel was "liberating" for her and that she was "amazed" he understood her without her sharing all that much.

Beyond the backstory, Dear Zoe is a remarkable achievement even when judged only on its literary merits. Beard's ear for dialogue is pitch perfect, his ability to inhabit the soul of Tess otherworldly, and his prose a joy to read.

"I love the life I'm living. I see my girls off to school every morning (in addition to wife Traci and Cali there are also Madelynne and Phoebe). I have dinner with them every night and I do what I love in between.

"Never doubt the power of blind faith and serendipity," said Beard, blessed with one, touched by the other.
— John D. Hubbard

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