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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

Things my mother taught me: Well-known people share lessons learned from their moms

By Celia R. Baker, Deseret News

Published: Thu, May 9 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Lidia Soto-Harmon (right) at age 12, with her mother. Nina Soto. Soto-Harmon is CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital. Her mother taught her to be compassionate.

Lidia Soto-Harmon (right) at age 12, with her mother. Nina Soto. Soto-Harmon is CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital. Her mother taught her to be compassionate.

(Courtesy of Lidia Soto Harmon)

A mother can spot potential in her child like no else can, and find her own way of cultivating it. If you had a mother, or are one, you've learned that children need kisses and encouragement — and some correction and provocation — to become all they can be. Ask a successful person how they got where they are, and you can expect to hear about a lesson from Mom:

Lidia Soto-Harmon, Girl Scout leader

One of the greatest lessons Lidia Soto-Harmon learned from her mother is compassion for others. Soto-Harmon is CEO of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital, where she leads over 90,000 girls in the nation's second-largest Girl Scout council. This position, and her tenure on the U.S. State Department's Council of Women, make her a role model for the nation's Latina girls and for all women.

Soto-Harmon grew up in El Salvador, surrounded by poverty. At age 12, she went with her mother to a dilapidated neighborhood to conduct a Sunday school class.

"I was thrilled because I had come up with a great project for the kids," she said. "I had made homemade play dough for them to play with. So, I ceremoniously passed out my play dough to the kids — a mixture of flour, water and a little salt."

As she prepared to start her lesson, she noticed that all of the homemade modeling clay was gone — the children had eaten it. Her heart was filled with fury because her carefully planned lesson couldn't go forward.

Seeing her daughter's frustration, her mother Nina carefully explained that the children were hungry. Her kind, gentle words helped young Lidia comprehend the poverty of the ragged children who sat before her, and care more about their needs than her own pride.

"To this day, that lesson has stayed in my heart," Soto-Harmon said. "I think that is why I love working for the Girl Scouts, because we are trying to build girls of character, courage and confidence, but also girls who have compassion for others."

Leon Fleisher, world-famous pianist

When Leon Fleisher, 84, made his solo debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 16, his playing was so electrifying that he was hailed by the conductor as the talent find of the century. An illustrious international career followed. But during his 30s, when Fleisher was at the height of his fame, he lost the use of his right hand because of a rare medical condition called focal dystonia.

Fleisher didn't give up. Instead, he began performing piano music composed for the left hand only and took up conducting, developing a successful new career. He was able to return to performing with both hands in the early 21st century, thanks to new medical treatments, and resumed his performing and recording career as a two-handed pianist.

Fleisher said he learned persistence from his mother, Bertha Fleisher, an emigrant from Poland.

"She taught me the necessity for stick-to-it-iveness," Fleisher said. "That's the best way I could put it. Young people are not always possessed of that quality. They want to try this, try that, play and experiment. The quality of stick-to-it-iveness to accomplish something special is essential."

Bertha Fleisher was a tough taskmaster, and her son didn't always appreciate that when he was a child — though he does now.

"We called her 'Big Bertha,'" he laughed. "That was the largest cannon that the Germans had in World War I."

Gabrielle Blair, Design Mom blogger

In a farmhouse nestled in the French countryside, Gabrielle Blair writes the popular Design Mom blog, which was named a 2010 Top Website of the Year by Time magazine. Blair, a designer and mother of six, is featured in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living and Parents magazine. She thanks her mother for teaching her that giving 110 percent in every situation isn't actually smart, necessary or even good. Sometimes, less is more.

Donna Pack McEvoy, Blair's mother, is a talented and professional cake decorator who always made elaborate birthday cakes for her children's birthday parties in their hometown of St. George. A realistic Holly Hobbie cake was young Gabrielle's favorite — the perfect cake for a little girl growing up in the 1980s.

When Blair was 10 or 11, she remembers anticipating something fabulous when her mother's Cub Scout troop was asked to contribute to a cake auction.

"Instead, she let the 8- and 9-year-olds have at it," Blair said. "They smooshed on the frosting in odd color choices, added candy and haphazard details, and finished the decorating in about five minutes or less."

Blair asked her mother why she hadn't worked her cake-decorating magic, and still remembers the reply.

"She told me that she could have spent hours decorating those cakes, but that her work would have been wasted," Blair said. "Those charming, rascally Cub Scouts were delighted, even proud, about how their cakes turned out, and it was wonderful to let them have that moment of pride."

A professional cake that took hours to make wouldn't have looked better in the boys eyes than their own five-minute effort did, and wouldn't have raised any more money for the troop, Blair's mother explained.

"I remember that lesson often as I parent, and in my work," Blair said. "Sometimes minimal effort is the best effort."

Bill McGlaughlin, NPR host

National Public Radio host Bill McGlaughlin's mother, Catherine McGlaughlin, could see talents in her son that he was ignoring, and her encouragement set his life on its course. McGlaughlin, a trombonist, conductor and composer, hosts NPR's popular "Exploring Music" and "St. Paul Sunday" programs.

McGlaughlin, 61, grew up in Philadelphia, the oldest of six children. His grandmother was a very good pianist and his mother had suffered through lessons when she was young. Still, she offered him the opportunity for lessons each year.

"I always turned her down," McGlaughlin said. "'No thanks, Mom. I'm working on my jump shot,' quoth I, certain in the knowledge that I'd be a 6-foot-8-inch power forward in the NBA."

Finally, just after McGlaughlin's younger brother Jake had taken a year of piano lessons, then switched to violin and finally moved to 'none of the above', his mother overheard Bill singing a song he'd heard on a Disney show the night before.

"Bill," she said to him, "You have such a good ear. You should take lessons now."

"This time I couldn't refuse her," McGlaughlin said.

Within a week of starting piano lessons, McGalughlin knew that being a musician was the only life for him.

"I've never looked back — but I wouldn't have taken that first step without my mother, who knew just the right way to put a suggestion," he said. "I wish she were still around. I'm due for another great notion."

What did your mother teach you?

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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