An Interview of Lynda Watts, by author Martin W. Schwartz
When Lynda asked me if I would write a “short blurb” for her blog to describe her to her audience, I was initially honored. Then it dawned on me: How could anyone possibly write a short blurb to describe a woman with so much depth, life experience, and expertise, one who is as incredible, interesting, and talented as I know Lynda to be? And, secondly, why would she burden me with this job? I thought we were friends!
Because we are friends, and because I admire her both professionally and personally, I decided to accept the challenge. In my best attempt to ask the questions that would evoke responses which give you a better understanding of this dynamic and fascinating woman, Lynda and I sat down over a $7.00 cup of coffee, digital recorder in hand.
And though this is certainly not a short blurb, it only scratches the surface of this woman’s incredible journey:
Q: Your life experiences are unbelievable, and your talent is exceptional. How do you take all that vast knowledge and experience, along with your passions, and turn it into something tangible?
A: Well, that is the question, isn’t it! And I don’t yet know the answer. I’m working on it. I’m at a critical juncture right now, the infamous cross-road. Do I go left? Right? Forward? I just don’t know. Chances are though, I’ll abandon the road altogether and make a new path through the rough landscape. I do know that whatever it is that comes next has the potential to be my life’s best achievement.
Q: You’ve always done that, haven’t you – forged your own path?
A: No, not always. When I was young – younger, I mean (because I’m still young!) – I took the expected path. You know, high-school, college, marriage, house, and children.
After high-school, I had a full theatre scholarship and was certain I’d be the next big thing in Hollywood. I love acting, and I excelled with it in college at least. In fact, I did so well that ultimately I decided I wanted no part of it – at least not back then. My “friends” in college quickly abandoned me as I continued to win the leading role in whatever production we were doing. Apparently, that was a rite that was supposed to be reserved for Seniors.
It was a cut-throat competitive environment that I abhorred. My first year of college was miserable, in spite of my theatrical and academic success. Now, I will do shorts when I have time, small acting gigs that allow me to indulge the acting bug that just won’t let go. I’d like to do more, but life has lead me in a different direction.
Q: I’ve always thought you belong on television or the big screen. You were born for it. But, back to the question of forging your own path: What happened after that first year of college?
A: I was so disenchanted with the cut-throat environment of drama school, no pun intended, that I transferred to Washington University in St. Louis. I changed my major – always a double major –going from theatre and communications to psychology and English. After a year at Wash. U., I transferred again, this time to St. Louis University where I eventually obtained my Bachelor of Arts, and later, my Juris Doctorate.
In 1985, I took a semester off and signed up for the Semester at Sea program, with the University of Pittsburgh. Now that was an experience, Martin! Every kid should do it.
Q: What is Semester at Sea? Is that when you went around the world?
A: Yes. It’s college on board of a ship. You spend about 100 days circumnavigating the globe, visiting many countries, while at the same time you go to your classes on board the ship, primarily while out at sea. It’s an expensive program, but I didn’t let that stand in my way. I got a work-study job to cover tuition, and I cut hair on board the ship to earn the spending money I needed in each port.
Q: What effect, if any, did that experience have in shaping your future?
A: It had everything to do with my future. See, there were a lot of really wealthy kids that participated in Semester at Sea, as you might expect. I watched as my peers spent their port time shopping, pulling out Daddy’s credit card and buying or doing anything and everything they wanted. They thought nothing of dropping $10,000 in one shop. I didn’t fit in with those guys, even though I came from a family that was comfortable financially.
My small group of friends and I spent our time much differently than the rich kids. We visited orphanages in every country, for example. I donated a percentage of my hair-cutting income to those kids. We used the money to buy car-loads of toys and clothes and whatever else we could come up with, and then delivered it to the orphans. It’s was so rewarding.
I spent time with the homeless. In India, in what was then called Bombay, for example, a girlfriend of mine and I started a conversation with a man who was homeless but who was nevertheless friendly and interesting, and much cleaner than what one might expect.
We learned that he’d once been a professor at a prestigious New York University. He’d come home to India to care for his ailing mother, exhausted his economic resources, and wound up penniless. But, he had no complaints. There was an aura about this man – something special but hard to articulate — and I wanted to know what he knew. I spent the entire day with him. It was like sitting with the Dalai Lama, where you want him to share the secret of life. For me, at the young age of 19 or 20, it was an “Ah-ha” moment.
Anyway, to try to make a long story short – My perspective on the world changed during those 100 days. My eyes were opened. My heart was opened. Life for most kids that age is very narcissistic, and I was no exception – until then. My life completely changed.
A: For example, when I came home to the States, I couldn’t watch television. The commercialism disgusted me. Shows like Wheel of Fortune, which was huge at the time, made me nauseous. The issue of money was something I couldn’t get around. The extravagance of the United States compared to so many places in our small world — it was hard to swallow. I decided to dedicate myself to making life better for people. I didn’t know how, but I knew it was my mission.
I got married a year later, graduated from college, and entered law school. I gave birth to my daughter smack dab in the middle of my first round of law school exams. When I graduated, I was pregnant with my son. I went into labor with him during the Bar Exam, and officially became an attorney on the same day I gave birth to him. In fact, I went straight to the swearing-in ceremony from the hospital, and was holding my newborn in my left arm while my right hand was raised as I took the oath. It turned out to be quite symbolic.
Q: In what way?
A: In the sense that I would forever balance parenting with my career. I’ve never set my parenting obligations aside in favor of my career. In fact, I ended up setting my career aside in favor of parenting. And, ultimately, my care of kids and young adults became my career — they merged — just as did on the day that I simultaneously held my newborn and took my oath, nearly 20 years ago.
Q: I know you quickly rose through the ranks as a civil litigator. Tell us about that.
A: Yes, I did. Before I graduated from law school, while I was pregnant with my son, I took the second chair in my first trial. That means I assisted the lead attorney in trial. But, I did most of the work, pre-trial, trial-prep, and the actual litigation. The jury, I later learned, started a baby pool, betting on whether I’d make it to the end of trial. I was as big and swollen as a house.
Anyway, when I finally got my license, I was handed a “loser” case to handle on my own. My boss just wanted me to get my feet wet, to try my first case without concern about a financial loss to the firm. It was an employment law case, and it was considered a loser. In fact, the defense offered a $500 settlement just to get rid of it. That’s how little the case was valued.
When I met with my client for the first time, I knew that I would be devastated if I lost the case for him. He and his wife were this cute little couple, short, not particularly attractive, and definitely struggling to survive. There was just something lovable about them. He’d been the janitor for a large company. A customer beat the crap out of him one day while he was at work, and he had to file a Worker’s Compensation claim. His injuries were very serious. Eventually, the company fired him. I won’t go into the details, but our position was that he’d been fired against the laws that protect employees from retaliatory discharge.
I worked the case to death. I gave it everything I had. On the day of trial, the defense increased their offer of settlement to $5000. Now, that’s a lot of money for a client like that client was. It would’ve made his life easier. It was really hard for him to turn down the offer, but I encouraged him to let a jury decide.
When the trial began the next day, I was incredibly nervous. I knew I was prepared, but it was my first trial on my own. I was using an overhead projector to display some documents when I realized that I couldn’t see out of one eye. It made it incredibly difficult to effectively use that damn projector because my vision was so bad. During a recess, I called my doctor who arranged to get me in for an exam late that evening after court.
When the second day of trial began, I was privately awaiting the results of an MRI that had been done the night before. I got the call from my doctor during the lunch hour, and I was told that I had Multiple Sclerosis. I was devastated, but I had to put it aside until I’d done my job for my client.
By the time of closing argument two days later, I felt absolutely certain that we would win. The jury was out for less than 3 hours, and they returned with a verdict in favor of my client – for nearly half a million dollars. It broke records at the time. But more importantly, my client and his wife felt vindicated.
Q: And that’s when you were offered a partnership, right?
A: Yes. And then the firm reorganized. We ultimately incorporated as Dolgin & Watts, P.C. By the age of 26, I was the Vice President, Managing Partner, and Chief Civil Litigator. I had two children, a great husband, a new house, and a fantastic legal career.
Q: And multiple sclerosis?
A: Yes and no. Let me explain.
What was at first a devastating diagnosis of MS turned out to be a misdiagnosis, thankfully. But, something was still definitely wrong, and it would take years to find out why I was struggling. I was exhausted beyond anything that could be considered normal. It was much more than a matter of burning the candle at both ends, which I was certainly doing.
I had migraines that left me completely debilitated. I suffered from extreme pain for which there was no explanation. I lost feeling in an arm, a leg, a foot. Then the feeling would return. And so on. In addition to running the law firm and caring for my family, I was constantly running back and forth to the doctor, being admitted to the hospital, undergoing countless tests and taking all sorts of medications that didn’t work.
At the same time, my husband and I were concerned about some issues with our son. I suspected that he was deaf, but his pediatrician didn’t agree. It’s a long story, but when he was just 2, he spiked a really high fever and suffered a brain injury in his left temporal lobe. His entire behavior changed. He went from being a happy, quiet baby to a little monster. He became violent, uncontrollable, and was clearly miserable. We didn’t know why. It was heart-breaking.
I sought out the best medical care for him that I could find. He was finally diagnosed after a long, difficult period of fear and uncertainty. In addition to the brain injury, we were now being told that he was autistic. Keep in mind, this was long before autism was the epidemic it is today. There was very little information about it, and no support.
It’s difficult to describe how hard that time period was for me and for both of my children. In a nutshell, it was a nightmare.
Eventually, my own health concerns and the needs of my son were too time-consuming for me to give my clients the attention they needed and deserved. I felt guilty on both fronts. My doctor kept telling me to take some time off to rest. After a year of cajoling, I finally agreed.
The plan was to take a year off from my law practice to better care for my kids, and to rest. But it didn’t help. I got worse. And the needs of my family became increasingly complicated.
Finally, after several years of testing and pot-shot treatments, a brilliant neurologist figured out the cause of my illness. He diagnosed me with a rare blood clotting disease known as antiphospholipid antibody disorder – or, APS. Little was known at the time about APS, and there was only one doctor in the entire world, quite literally, who was studying it.
I began treatment which involved taking high doses of anticoagulants. For the first decade, I took oral medication. Later, I had to give myself daily injections. Now, I take a more holistic approach and treat by living a healthy lifestyle. And it’s working. Now that I don’t take medications, I finally feel healthy. I’ve become a closet-adversary, so-to-speak, of pharmaceuticals and “big pharma” in general. But that’s another story.
Q: And all this was going on while you were trying to care for your son?
A: My son and my daughter. We’d learned by that time that my daughter was bi-polar and also had a classic case of ADHD. Again, this is before these things were epidemic.
The combination of a bi-polar, hyper daughter who has an IQ in the genius range, along with an autistic, brain injured son who was later diagnosed with a disabling neuromuscular disease, is a combination that is best described as lethal. Individually, each of my children were and are beautiful, loving, funny, compassionate children. Together, they were hell on earth. My husband and I even considered separating, each of us taking one child, just to be able to live peacefully for a little while.
Q: That’s pretty extreme! Did you do it?
A: No. But, it illustrates how serious the situation was. Frankly, my husband and I didn’t want to be apart from one another. In spite of the fact that we ended up divorced, we had a great marriage. Looking back, I’m surprised we lasted as long as we did. We faced so many challenges, challenges that would’ve killed most relationships. The percentage of divorces that result from just one of the crisis we faced was staggering. And he and I faced about half a dozen of those types of challenges, from disabled children to chronic illness to financial struggles, and so on.
We divorced in 2004, and we’re still good friends. He has a wonderful new woman in his life, and he is living simply – something he always wanted. The mess we found ourselves in, through no fault of our own, ended up being too much for him. He had to get out. It was the situation – not the relationship – that ended our marriage, sadly.
In fact, the breaking point for him came after I’d been in a serious car wreck that resulted in my need for back surgery. The burden fell to my husband to care for our children while I was out of commission, and the combination of it all was just too much.
Q: How is your health today, if you don’t mind me asking?
A: No, I’m happy to answer. And, I’m fine. I will always have APS, but I’ve learned to live with it. It doesn’t control me, I control it. From the car wreck, I have is a small scar down my spine. My bones ache, but I don’t know if I should blame that on the wreck or on age! Really, though; I’m good. Simply by eating healthy, whole foods, exercising regularly, and managing stress — that’s all it takes. I’d be healthier though if I gave up coffee with sugar. It’s the one vice I can’t give up.
Q: I know that you’ve spent more than a decade as a passionate advocate for the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, and the developmentally disabled, while juggling your health concerns and the kids’ needs, unbelievably. It blows my mind, really, Lynda. But, let’s talk about that. How did that get started?
A: Not long after I decided to take a break from my law practice, during that time period when I was dealing with finding a diagnosis and treatment for my son and for myself, I befriended a single mother of two inner-city youth. She began to rely on me to help her watch the kids. They’d leave the ‘hood and stay with me on the weekends.
Eventually, after one of them ended up in legal trouble, she asked if I could take in the older son on a full-time basis. She’d seen how well he responded to me. In being a parent to two very challenging children of my own, I learned behavioral management techniques that most parents are never exposed to. Those techniques worked just as well with kids who struggled due to their social environment.
My friend’s son moved in with us, along with a friend of his. These were the first two kids — other than my own children — who called me “Mom.” It was the start of it all. I discovered an innate talent, and I put it to use.
Today, there are probably somewhere around 50 or more kids, many of whom are now adult, who all call me “Mom.” Many of them have lived with me. Many more simply spent or spend weekends with me. And still more simply rely on me to mentor them.
Today, I have only one “extra” child in residence. Everyone else is on a revolving basis; they come and go pretty much as they please. Last week, there were 3. This week, 2. Who knows what next week will bring!
Q: Were you — or are you — a foster parent?
A: No. No way. Don’t get me wrong – the foster system has a lot of advantages and does a lot of good for countless children. But, I didn’t want my hands to be tied. One reason I believe that I was so successful with all of these kids is that I was free to do whatever needed to be done for them. I didn’t have to report to anyone unless the child came to me through the courts. Even then, I only had to report their status; I didn’t have to seek approval or anything. As a result, these kids knew they could trust me.
It was that foundation of trust, and also of mutual respect, that enabled us to communicate on a level that is rare between adults and teens – especially a teen whose life had revolved around gang membership, drugs, and violence. If I’m known for anything, it is for my ability to communicate with anyone, from any walk of life, culture, gender, level of ability, and so on.
Q: So you never were compensated for your work with these kids? How could you afford it?
A: I used my savings. And I took on contract work as a consultant. The recession hit me hard, though.
A: Wow, Martin! That’s been some time ago. I think you are referring to “George.” He was finally able to move on.
Q: How did you end up taking in a homeless person?
A: Well, actually, he was the 4th or 5th person I’d taken in. I’d also taken in entire families in need, twice before that. But with George specifically, my son and I were driving to a nearby town one afternoon and passed him walking down the highway. The image of him haunted me over the next several hours. On our way back home, we passed him again on the return trip. So, I flipped the car around and pulled up next to him. We started talking, and you know the rest.
Q: Wasn’t that dangerous?
A: Maybe a little. But, I had my son with me. And, before I brought him home, I had someone run a check on him, as I’ve always done. He did not have a criminal record. There were no warrants. He was just down on his luck.
He stayed in a tent in my back yard at first, on our patio. It was a pretty fancy set-up, actually. We put in a television, furniture, a small fridge, and ran electric to the tent – so he felt like he was living the high-life. After we got to really know and trust him, I convinced him to move into the house.
It’s funny that you ask about George. Just yesterday, I passed a woman walking down the highway. Same story. She must’ve been 60, maybe 65. It looked like she’d lived a really hard life. On my return trip, I saw her again. I pulled over to talk to her, to see how I might be of help. She wasn’t quite as receptive as George had been. LOL. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve not offered my home to someone in need who has crossed my path for some reason. But, as I drove toward her initially I thought, “Oh why, God, why did you put this woman in my path?” I thought for sure I’d have a new face at my dinner table last night.
Another time, when I was still practicing law, one of my clients ended up homeless. He suffered from very seriously advanced diabetes. He had no legs, and he was legally blind. When I heard that he was living in an abandoned vehicle under a bridge, I knew I’d be bringing him home with me. He stayed with us for about 6 months, as I recall. Then, two days before his big trial – a case that would’ve given him the financial security he needed — he died. I’d worked on his case for 2 years. And he dies, just as we’re preparing to get him the compensation he deserved. His entire life would’ve changed. Such a sad story. Still makes me sick to think about it.
There are more stories, but, you get the point.
Q: I am just amazed. I love listening to your stories. Tell us about your official program, the one that was to help the neediest of the needy. It’s called The Watts Alternative?
A: Yes. That’s the name of the program I founded to formalize my work with all of these families and kids. It was an independent program that, as I mentioned, I financed on my own. Technically it is still operational, but I’m phasing it out so that I can pursue a different path. Last week, in fact, I received a call from someone who asked me to take in a 16-year-old. It’s the first time I’ve said “No.”
When I got off of the phone, I balled. I couldn’t stop crying. But, at the same time, I knew it was the right decision to say “No.” For me to be able to really make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible, I need to take a different approach that starts by taking better care of myself and my biological kids. And I can’t do that if I continue to run The Watts Alternative.
Q: In looking at your resume’, it looks like you’ve done more since you went on sabattical than you did when you were still conventionally employed. I mean, it says here that you ran a construction company, you lead an internet site to a #1 world-wide status, you are an author, a blogger – and more. How could you possibly do so much, achieve so much, given your personal situation?
A: When I’m asked that question, my most honest answer is to say “How could I not?” I’m the type of person who can’t ignore it when there is an unfulfilled need somewhere, or in some way. If I have the ability to somehow fill that need, I’m compelled to do it. Like the situation with George: He needed a place to live and food to eat. I had both. How could I not offer it to him?
Or, another example: When my son was attending a private school for special-need children, all of the kids were driven to school by their parents and they came from all over the region. As a result, he and his friends seldom got to play together after school because everyone lived so far away. While the “normal” kids in our subdivision played together every day out in the cul-de-sac in front of our house, my baby was excluded because he was different. It broke my heart.
There were no available programs for kids like my son. There were no after-school activities, either. The programs that would have been suitable for him were cost prohibitive. Kids who wear leg braces and who suffer from social disorders, like my son, were not warmly welcomed to participate in standard programs. Even if the adults were okay with it, the other kids were not. It’s sad, but it is what it is.
So, I set out to create a first-of-its-kind program for my son and the kids at his school. I founded and directed what we named The Miriam Kids Club, and it was so successful. It was a lot of work, but there was tremendous reward in it. And I didn’t want to create something that just occupied their time; I wanted to challenge them to excel, to experience the pride that comes from achievement, all while having fun.
The kids got together to play soccer — even the wheelchair-bound and kids in braces. They made sophisticated art projects. They learned to make complicated snacks and other food projects, which they then devoured. With each project, they earned stars that were appliquéd to their official club hat, hats that they wore proudly to school on Club days.
The friendships my son made during that time period are still near and dear to him. In fact, even though we moved and he made new friends, it is those early friendships that he most values. He’ll be 20 in a few days. Some of the guys, I suspect, will be friends for life. They bonded at a time when kids need to be with like-minded peers in order to develop socially. Without that program many of those kids never would’ve had the opportunity for that critical stage of development. It’s something I’m proud of.
Q: You should be. In fact, you have a lot to be proud of.
A: Thank you, Martin. That means a lot to me, coming from you.
Q: You and I first met when I hired you to write for a magazine I was running at the time. Remember?
A: How can I forget! LOL You flirted with me, as I remember!
Q: And you turned me down, as I remember. LOL
A: Well, it was a good thing, right? You are now engaged to a fantastic woman! Besides, it’s not smart to mix business and pleasure, as we agreed back then. I can’t remember what my first assignment was, but I do know how excited I was to finally be published. You, my dear, are responsible for my becoming an author!
Q: I couldn’t have published you if you hadn’t done the work. I’ll share the credit, though! And, so that the readers understand what we’re talking about, briefly tell them the story if you will.
You were the editor of a magazine called The Hands-On Parent, and you asked me to write an article. I did. Then, you asked me to write another, then another. I became your feature writer for nearly every issue one year, I believe. So, not only was I finally published, but I developed a reputation as a parenting and relationships expert. The pay was crap, but it was worth it.
Q: Hey! You know I would’ve paid you millions, but it wasn’t my decision –
A: I know, I know. And you know that for me, it’s never been about the pay. Until now. And even now it’s only because I want to be able to do something worthwhile with whatever I’m able to earn. I just can’t imagine living any other way.
Q: That’s what makes you unique, Lynda. You are the most selfless, compassionate, and caring person I’ve ever met. In fact, I don’t know anyone, personally or otherwise, with the potential that you have. Your smarts plus your heart – that’s a winning combination, for sure. I’m as eager as anyone to see where you go next.
A: Wow — all that for the price of a cup of coffee? Seriously; You’re too kind. And biased. But, don’t stop — LOL
Q: Yes, I am a little biased. But only a little. The facts speak for themselves. You’ve run multi-million dollar organizations and made them better in the process, all while battling serious personal issues. You can lead a group of 2 or 20,000, and do it in a way that is unbelievable. You’ve provided a hopeful future for countless families and individuals, all without compensation. Your advice is always excellent, insightful, and helpful. You are as humble as anyone I’ve ever met even though you’ve reason to brag endlessly. And, you are extraordinarily creative. That’s something that not many know about you.
A: Thank you, Martin. My creative side has perhaps been given the least amount of attention by me and everyone else, except with regard to the various ways it’s provided business solutions, and so forth. But, yes, I do have a creative-arts side and I intend to focus more intently on it in the future.
Q: In what way?
A: Actually, I have a book of creative ideas that I’ve been accumulating for decades, and I’m hoping to bring some of those to fruition. If I’m right about the value of some of those ideas, it could bring a nice pay-off.
Q: Well, you’ve never been wrong before with these things!
A: I think that is because fundamentally I’m a visionary. If I can see it, I can make it happen. It’s an approach that’s never failed me yet.
Q: Listen, you and I both know that this interview barely touches on your full story – that there is so much more. In fact, we’ve touched on only maybe 1/16th of your story, if that. Your story is a story that needs telling. I can’t even imagine the inspirational potential of it; it would be out of this world. It would take an entire book to tell it properly. Which leads to my next question.
You’re an excellent writer. Have you considered writing a book to tell your entire story? And if so, will you let me collaborate or edit? LOL
A: Absolutely! Of course you’d be my editor. You always are! But, it’s premature for me to start writing my story. I’m only beginning! How does one tell a story which has a beginning for an ending? Did that make sense? Never mind! The point is – Sure. Someday. But not yet. Not until I can end a book with an achievement that qualifies as good enough to go on my headstone someday.
Martin W. Schwartz is a freelance writer, an author, an editor, and a good friend to many. He’s engaged to marry a fabulous lady later this year. He lives and works in Jefferson City, MO.
Lynda is available for nation-wide speaking engagements. Regardless of the size of your group, Lynda is a dynamic speaker on a broad range of topics, all designed to motivate and inspire her audience. Send her an email today, type “Speaking Engagement” in the reference line, and reserve a date on her calendar!