Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #071. First published in the St. Cloud Times June 25, 2013

A “hoot” is not the first descriptor that leaps to mind for an obituary, and an obituary for someone I never even met seems an odd hook on which to hang a column.

But the Times notice of Dorothy Becker’s death from cancer on June 2, just two weeks shy of her 76th birthday, is indeed a hoot — and her story opens out to encompass some noteworthy and encouraging features of our life in this community.

Her personality

The obituary starts with frogs, dragonflies, ladybugs, butterflies and rabbits “observing a moment of silence for the passing of their dear friend.” Poetic license, of course, but how much more effective an evocation of Dorothy’s love of nature than “she loved nature.”

Dorothy was a volunteer in Sauk Rapids schools, and clearly touched the hearts of her students, who “will remember fondly their fun and silly teacher’s assistant.”

And silliness, a humanizing trait in too short supply these days, is something her family will miss as they wonder who now “will deign to dress up like gypsies, Disney or Grimm characters, to sing like nobody’s listening, to dance like nobody’s watching?”

After reading the obituary, I felt I knew Dorothy better than some people I actually “know,” but the portrait has been further deepened by friends of mine who were close to her and by things I learned at the June 17 “Women on Stage” celebration of the Women’s Fund of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation.

What she gave

At that event, there was a “Fund the Need” auction for four charities the Women’s Fund grants committee had decided would be the focus of giving for this year:

  • GREAT Theatre for a production of “The Secret Lives of Girls,” a play about bullying that will be presented in area schools.
  • The St. Cloud VA Health Care System to provide outreach to female veterans.
  • The Hope Community Support Program of Catholic Charities for the benefit of mentally ill elder women.
  • And the College of St. Benedict, recognizing its century of educating women.

The auction was kindled by the surprise announcement that there was a challenge grant — from Dorothy Becker. Shortly before her death, Dorothy proposed to stimulate giving at “Women on Stage” by matching every dollar up to $10,000. And with that incentive, scores of people rose to the occasion, pledging a total of nearly $15,000, which Dorothy, present in spirit, turned into $25,000.

What I learned subsequently, however, gave substance to something mentioned in the obituary that might have been mysterious to most readers: “The Starfish shone a little less brightly.”

Starfish

This isn’t just another in the catalog of disconsolate animals. It refers to the Starfish Program — supported by the Women’s Fund — that provides mentoring over a period of many months for any woman who has experienced any type of abuse, domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

The program takes its name from the legend of the starfish. An elder walks a beach littered with thousands of starfish dying after a violent storm. A youth picks them up and flings them back in the ocean. “Why do you bother? You’re not saving enough to make a difference.” Picking up another and sending it spinning back into the water, the youth replies, “Made a difference to that one.”

The Starfish Program was closest to Dorothy’s heart. She frequently hosted Starfish “graduates,” and on one particularly memorable occasion gave each of them a $50 bill, with instructions to invest it through Kiva.org, the world’s foremost channel for microloans.

Dorothy did not require any accounting from the Starfish graduates; she trusted them, on the basis of their experience of a remade life, to “pay it forward.”

Dorothy Becker “made a difference” to a lot more than one starfish. We all want the world to be a better place for our having been here. Not many of us will have an obituary that’s a hoot, but we can hope our lives will have ripple effects like hers.

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