With a soft word and a steady hand, Eve Madigan ministers to a parade of fallenspirits: Women and men at life’s crossroads--suspended--confronting that moment before all comes crashing down.
She performs her quiet miracle work in an unassuming collection of busy offices on the Los Angeles Trade Technical College campus Downtown.
In her 14 years as the founding director of its Career Counseling/Equity Center, she has helped to dramatically rebuild and redirect lives.
There’s Nelly, an eighth-grade dropout who, after raising 12 children, wanted to recast her “stunted” image.
She earned a certificate in community counseling and is now director of a local women’s center and a graduate student at Cal State L.A.
There’s Denise, whose husband left her for a woman a dozen years younger. In hopes of someday finding a job to support her two teen-age kids, one of them hearing impaired, she decided to go back to school.
Madigan happened upon her in a hallway, the center’s brochure in hand, and suggested that she enroll in the VIP class for women entering the job arena. Denise now runs a catering business, with an eye toward opening a home to feed and house the elderly.
And there’s David, a former homeless man whom Madigan literally pulled off the streets. He’s studying journalism at Humbolt State University.
At 8:30 on a recent Wednesday morning, the Equity Center’s foyer is quaking awake. Case managers trudge in and out, taking turns at the computer, answering questions on the fly. Student workers answer the bleating telephones.
A few people wander in to sign up for this morning’s assessment of their Myers-Briggs personality-type indicator, the first of many measurements Madigan uses to find out where a person’s strengths and interests lie. Sitting on the hardback chairs flush with the wall, the participants range in age and aspirations.
Four students with backpacks and note pads have come to decide their direction. Nearby, a middle-aged woman, curious about her untapped potential, bubbles with questions. A man in his 50s, sent to the center as part of CUPS (Civil Unrest Program), appears quietly detached, even though he’s perched dangerously close to the edge of his seat.
Madigan, wearing a pressed linen suit, her silver hair swept into an elegant up-do, tucks a notebook under her arm and escorts the group of six down the dimly lit halls, past young men in chef jackets and plaid pants, and giggling women in the crisp white smocks particular to cosmetology students.
Erasing the chalkboard in an empty classroom, she reveals her purpose: “I’ve seated you next to your personality type. You’re going to meet your new best friend,” she says. They study the yellow form with a jutting graph that, in shorthand, somehow explains their past and predicts their future.
This “instrument,” Madigan explains, eschewing test because she believes it carries too much baggage, ultimately aligns participants with a major--and perhaps a commensurate career. It can help a late-blooming adult make a life-altering shift.
Members of this generation must realize that they’re going to have more than one career. Most likely six or seven, adds Madigan, who proudly speaks of her own “short cycle” of three or four years per job. “I swam upstream like you did,” Madigan tells a woman who is on the bridge to a new station in life. The woman nods slowly, as if she is reading her mind.
“Take a look at those occupations, but please don’t marry any of them yet. Please don’t close anything out or down. We have a long way to go yet.”
Madigan’s mission has long been to build the Equity Center into the assessment center of Los Angeles, offering a smart-minded grab-bag of programs, including culture-specific parenting classes, services for displaced homemakers and support groups for women pursuing jobs traditionally held by men. “I think we can do that,” she says, hands on her orderly desk.
Women--especially those with children--who are struggling out of divorce, or suddenly widowed or are barely getting by, need to find jobs that will pay upward of $9 an hour. “And,” Madigan explains, “you certainly can’t do that typing.”
Madigan is known across the state for her ingenuity in keeping her programs funded and for making unflagging strides in the territory of gender equity.
“I call her a rainmaker, because she can get all those grants, the grant moneys that they tell us just don’t exist for those services,” says Mary Thorpe, an educational consultant for Thorpe, Hendrix and Associates in Fiddletown, near Sacramento.
“She’s one of those long-distance runners . . . a great role model for those of us who try to serve the people who fall through the cracks. She really understands the life they have . . . she looks at them as people with a texture. That’s her greatest asset, and she’s managed to share it with all of us. A lot of people have given up. I see her as one of the veterans in the field.”
Life’s interferences might slow her pace somewhat, but few things stop her. While walking across campus last fall, Madigan, 65, suffered a mild stroke--a sobering warning sign. An MRI confirmed the worst--a brain tumor. The surgery was successful, the tumor was benign, and four months later, she returned to work. Her prognosis: Excellent.
For single women surviving what might seem larger-than-life obstacles, such as trying to stay off welfare, she’s an especially good role model. “I’ve been every place they’ve been,” she says.
Widowed at 42, with four children to raise and support, Madigan had never worked outside the home. “I grew up being taught that women aren’t supposed to enjoy working. It took me along time to realize just how wrong that was.”
She grew up in the Napa Valley among the lushly tangled vineyards in a rambling Victorian-style home. But within the idyllic environs, her life was far from an uplifting bedtime story. Her mother’s stormy marriages to more than one abusive man further eroded her already slim self-esteem. That, coupled with the brand “learning disabled” in school, did a number on her. “I perceived myself as retarded. And it wasn’t until my 30s (that) I found out I was dyslexic. But by that time I realized I had too many successes to be retarded.”
In 1959, she moved to Southern California to marry Donald T. Madigan, a high school classmate. The ghosts of her childhood made the transition to marriage a challenge. She had “a very hostile view of men,” says Madigan, her voice tinged with a hint of pain. “I had to re-educate myself. . . . I realized if I was going to be successful in this life, I had to come to grips with the way I felt about men and the hostility that I really had.”
She made certain not to follow her mother’s lead. “I had to start from scratch,” she says. “The thing I feel saddest about where that’s concerned (is) that there is no real spontaneity in my life. I run everything through this screen and always have. And that’s what I feel I was robbed of--spontaneity. I am very cautious in making decisions . . . and they’re good qualities for an administrator, but they are not good life qualities.”
She channeled her energy toward her loved ones: husband Donald, owner of the prosperous Morris’ Steakhouse in Alhambra, and children John, Donald Jr., Terry and Kathleen.
Then her husband was killed in an automobile accident, the victim of a drunk driver. Madigan was unsure how to find the ends, let alone make them meet.
“I thought education was the way out,” she recalls. “My education was in art, I had a studio in Alhambra, Norman Rockwell’s old space. I painted by commission. But I realized I would never support four children with art.”
Denied financial aid to pay for school (“I was told that I was too old”), she designed an emotionally and physically challenging schedule that would allow her to spend time with her fragile family.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., she attended sociology classes at Cal State L.A., and in her “spare” time made a tour of the local small businesses to offer bookkeeping services. “I hired a CPA with my last hundred dollars to show me how,” she says. After dinner, she and the children worked on their homework together. When they went to bed, she went to work on the ledgers. “I learned,” Madigan says, “to get along with less sleep than most people.”
For six challenging years, she navigated through a series of jobs and classes in sociology, psychology and women’s issues. The sometimes grueling setup allowed her the flexibility she needed. And Madigan learned something she’s tried to pass on: “What I did was sell myself,” she says. “We tend to bend our needs to other people, women tend to do it more.”
After earning her sociology degree and a certificate in counseling, she set out to guide women like herself through the dark.
Sherry Blythe, her eyes obscured by a springy crop of blondish-rust curls, her muscular body squeezed into a bright floral cropped top, black cigarette jeans and high-tops, bobs on the balls of her feet. She’s jittery with energy, a blur of challenges and wisecracks. Her male classmates, with difficult-to-read expressions, stand in silence in a cavernous work space where automobile shells crouch, guts strewn out on the asphalt.
Blythe, a 32-year-old automotive major, has been at Trade Tech for 18 months. In her first semester, she learned a lot about how to negotiate this world, and as part of Madigan’s Women in the Trades’ Brown-Bag Lunch discussion group, she has found her safety net. Her goal is to become a computer technician for a large company such as Nissan. “Pullin’ in about a hundred thou’ a year. Can’t beat that as a secretary,” she cracks.
Blythe says she grew up around cars. “I was raised around mostly men. ‘Pass me that wrench. Hand me my three-quarter wrench.’ No questions . . . ‘Just do it!’ ” she mimics with a toss of the curls.
The mood in the classroom is “not exactly what you’d call open,” she says. “Some of the men are angry, uptight--'What is she doing here?’ What we need is 15 women running around here in technician suits. Put our foot down. It’s one of the reasons that I stay.”
Madigan brightens at the sight of the Sherry Blythes, those who cast off the notion of limitations, tear stereotypes to shreds.
But for all of Madigan’s feminist leanings, the Equity Center aims to serve both genders. “We give equal attention,” Madigan says. “We’re taking peoples’ positive attributes and juxtaposing those to the 22,000 careers out there. Instead of putting a square peg in a round hole, we’re finding the round peg for the round hole.”
Rosemary Royal, who has served as the center’s assistant director for eight years, knows the value and scope of the programs. She enrolled in the center’s VIP program, at 50, to avoid completely wilting in the shadow of her doctor husband. She had never worked. Didn’t need to.
“I was just your typical stay-at-home mom,” says Royal, who is working on her master’s in career counseling at Antioch College in L.A. “People get validated and supported here,” she says, looking around the room, her eyes wide as if to survey her rise from part-time student to Madigan’s potential successor. “I’ve learned a lot about how to bring out the best in women . . . and how to help them spread their wings.”
When Madigan arrived at Trade Tech more than a dozen years ago, the design for this little nest of offices was modest. She had already shown great promise as an innovator on other campuses. At East Los Angeles College, she co-created an audio-education program for housebound women and others with a desire but no means to get to school.
And during an internship at Rio Hondo College, she crafted HELP (Homemaker Employment Learning Program) to direct middle-aged women into the mainstream work force.
Hired to be the architect of Trade Tech’s women’s center, Madigan arrived to find her supervisor off on sabbatical. Worse, she says, “I was told was that this grant was going to run out in June and here it was April. . . .”
Left to her own devices, Madigan did a “needs analysis” and decided against creating a traditional women’s center. Instead, she proposed the Equity Center. And, she says proudly, “I have worked with 47% men ever since the first day we opened the doors.”
The services are free, and supporting the enterprise is as exhaustive as it is expensive. The center, Madigan points out, has never had categorical funding. No school funds. No state money. She has become a pro, she admits, at writing grant proposals.
“We operate 100% on soft money,” says Lance A. Williams, program coordinator. He’s responsible, he says, for the “schmoozing and massaging"--better known as the magic act of pulling money out of air. The Civil Unrest Program has become critical in raising the center’s profile, he says: “It’s been the showcase to show people just what Eve can do.”
The center won a bid with the city and county of Los Angeles to assess people affected by 1992’s civil unrest. “The Feds just kind of picked up 2,500 people and put them on (what) . . . amounted to about a six-month job,” Madigan explains. “As they began to reach completion, (we) set up assessment areas, facilities . . . to identify ways for getting them additional training or jobs, before they even came out of that situation.”
Madigan has built her curriculum to nurture self-esteem. Her emphatic promise is to raise an individual’s self-esteem by 50%. “And believe me, you can take that to the bank,” she says. “In California we take a lot of flak for our emphasis on self-esteem, but I will always think that it is the most important variable in readjustment.”
She has encountered women standing stock-still in the hallway, frozen in fear. She has calmed nerves, made soothing cups of tea and stared into the eyes of women who relate their nightmares come to life: Mothers with a dozen kids and barely a junior high school education. Women relieved of their safety nets, of what they believe is their sole purpose on the planet.
It is Madigan’s job to sift carefully through that emotional wreckage. She doesn’t make assumptions or quick assessments; she knows the full range of options as well as the sobering dearth of them.
“I’m a product of WWII. . . . No women during the war were in the home. They all worked . . . and then we saw them all recalled after the war, put back in the homes,” Madigan says. “They made the adjustment just fine. When women did get into non-traditional work, they were paid a really good wage.”
But Madigan knows that not every woman is equipped to take that road. And even those who are should not walk alone. “I don’t say just based on personality alone that she’ll make it . . to throw them out there when they don’t have the temperament for it. . . . It’s worse than no help at all.”
On this unseasonably chilly May afternoon, the heavy clouds look like steel wool. Madigan has lit a fire in her South Pasadena home, taking a rare moment to relax on the overstuffed sofa in a living room elegantly arranged with antiques and freshly cut flowers.
Her youngest son, Terry, 29, sits close by. A USC graduate, he has tried everything from loading UPS trucks to journalism and now heads his own public relations and marketing firm in South Pasadena. His mother’s example has been inspiring: “We’ve learned you can take risks.”
Thinking back on her broad swatch of careers, Madigan says with an easy chuckle that builds from the back of her throat: “Sometimes I don’t know how I did it.”
Her days have evolved into a steady stream of time-consuming administrative tasks, attending meetings, doing paperwork. “I’m looking at retirement. . . . at the end of 2 1/2 years,” she says. “I’m trying to make a determination now about what I want to do. And I don’t know yet . . . that’s my next challenge.”
For starters, she says with a sort of mysterious smile, “I want to consult . . . or paint Rockport Harbor in the winter.”
During her recovery after surgery, Madigan witnessed the legacy of her mentoring. “It’s funny, it’s only been the last few years that I’ve looked at the end of my career--that was so open before. . . . It took a lot of building for this service to exist, and I want it to continue.”
She needn’t worry, case manager Theresa Banks says during a pause in her busy afternoon, incessant phones crowding the backspace. “Eve is very dynamic. She’s shown us that regardless of where you are now, what age, you can do. It’s just hard work.”
Banks says she has learned not only by modeling herself on Madigan, but by taking in the environment. “I’ve really turned my whole outlook around. You have to be flexible and adaptable in that world we live in. Eve’s kept going. Pushing, pushing. Especially (with) the type of program that she runs. ‘Cause you know somewhere along the line it will pay. Just keep going. Regardless.”
Native: Yes, grew up in Napa, lives in South Pasadena.
Passions: Helping people navigate toward fulfilling careers.
Family: Widowed; four grown children.
On the lasting effects of her anxious childhood: “I am very cautious in making decisions . . . they’re good qualities for an administrator, but they are not good life qualities.”
On raising four children alone: “I learned to get along with less sleep than most people.”
On getting a job despite a lackluster resume: “What I did was sell myself. We tend to bend our needs to other people, women tend to do it more.”
On being a workaholic: “I grew up being taught that women aren’t supposed to enjoy working. It took me along time to realize just how wrong that was.”