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September 16, 2002

'Stories' offer insight, personal history

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld

The Miller-Ward Alumni House provided the backdrop, while two armchairs and a dimmed table light created the ambiance. Accompanied by two steaming cups of coffee, Jan Gleason and Karen Salisbury provided the intimate conversation.

It looked to be the perfect setting for an impromptu exchange between old friends—and it was that, in a way, just with 80 other friends listening in.

They were the fourth pair to participate in the Women’s Center’s annual “Telling Our Stories” event, held Tuesday, Sept. 10. Gleason, associate vice president for Public Affairs, and Salisbury, assistant dean for Campus Life and director of Student Activities, both have been at Emory since 1985.

They started their stories with childhood reflections. Salisbury, a Minnesota native, grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs in the “perfect little house” with her parents, sister, brother and dog. Gleason grew up on 80 acres in rural Michigan with her parents and older sister. The two self-confessed tomboys spent a large part of their youth outside, climbing trees and playing softball.

It was during childhood when both said they were exposed to stereotypical gender roles—something they didn’t like or agree with. During the summers, Salisbury said her mother would assign everyday household chores to her and her siblings. While she and her sister would iron and clean inside, her brother was outside mowing the lawn or cleaning the garage.

“We had to iron and clean the shutters in the bathroom; that’s because we were the girls, and we had to do those ‘girls’ projects,” Salisbury said. “There were clearly things [my brother] could do and things we had to do.”

Gleason said her first bout with stereotyped roles came on the playground in grade school. To climb the monkey bars, students had to wear pants or shorts, but the school dress code said girls had to wear a skirt or dress every day. So, Gleason wore pants or shorts under the required skirts.

“For the next seven years of elementary school, I had two waistbands on,” she said. “To me, it was like, ‘Wait a minute, this really stinks.’ Let me wear pants so I can get on the monkey bars, or let me get up there with a skirt on.”

Both said they never let gender stereotypes stand in their way, citing constant encouragement from their families to overcome such roadblocks. After high school, Gleason graduated from Albion College in Michigan and received her master’s degree in public relations from Syracuse University in 1981. She came to Emory in 1985 as editor of Emory Report. Since then, she has been director of News & Information and vice president for University Communications before being appointed to her current position. Gleason has chaired both the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the advisory board of the Emory Women’s Center. She and her husband, Jeff, have three children: Tyler, 14, and Corbin and Caity, 11-year-old twins.

Salisbury is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and received her master’s degree in counseling and student development from Central Connecticut State University. Since coming to Emory, she has served as assistant director for Student Activities, director of University Conferences and coordinator for the Olympics at Emory. Salisbury and her partner, Roger Palys, have three dogs and a cat, and she is an active volunteer with Special Olympics.

Aside from their experiences in the higher education field, the two logged hours working in factories in their teens. Salisbury worked in an Illinois factory where she put the tops on cans of Dr. Scholl’s foot spray, rising to the rank of foreman, while Gleason worked in the Kellogg’s cereal factory in Battle Creek, Mich., in various departments (raisin reclaim, quality control and cereal prizes).

“Once you’ve been in a factory, you see things differently,” Gleason said, with Salisbury
nodding in agreement.

In closing, the women encouraged the audience to tell their own stories to each other because of the unique perspective it offers.

Or, Salisbury added, have someone close tell your story from their standpoint, which she did with her mother. Prior to the event, Salisbury asked her mother to tell her Salisbury’s story from her perspective. In return, she received a two-page, handwritten letter detailing her life and how important she was to her mother.

“It brought me to tears,” Salisbury said. “I think that letter was the most significant thing I’ve ever had, and I will cherish it to the day that I die.”