Kathy Kugler: ‘There is nothing like a cookie.’

Kathy Kugler

There are people who come into our lives when we need them the most. I met Kathy Kugler on a day when I felt overwhelmed by the world’s problems and helpless to do anything about them. I knew very little about Kathy’s background, except that she was nominated to be interviewed by us because of her ability to act and help others.

When she greeted me at the door with offers of coffee and chocolate, I knew that this evening would be special. She showed me around her home and gardens, taking time to point out items that held significant meaning to her. She pointed out the exact spot where Angie, a woman from Colombia that she sponsored, married the love of her life. She put my mind at ease. There are no strangers in Kathy’s life; only friends she hasn’t met yet.

Interview by Abbey Bruce. Photography by Dyah Miller.

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I grew up in southern Indiana in a nice family. My dad was an alcoholic, but he was a good man. My mom was a strong woman who valued education, even though she only went to the eighth grade, which wasn’t uncommon in the Great Depression. She went to something called a “business college” and learned accounting and secretarial skills. She always worked and always had a mind of her own. I got that example from her. I married a very nice man. We loved to travel and hike together. He was a great guy. He died unexpectedly in 1991 of a heart attack. That really changed my life.

I moved back to Madison, Indiana, with my two daughters and raised them with the support of family. After both my daughters graduated from college, I was able to retire at age 60. I thought I would stay in Madison for the rest of my life, but they both live here in Cincinnati. The babies started coming, and I was on the road all the time visiting my grandchildren. My daughter said I needed to move to Cincinnati. I love the culture of Cincinnati: the art, the symphony, and theater. I love my grandchildren. I have become active in a lot of civic organizations. I am trying to advocate for clean air and clean water and protecting lower- and middle-class residents of Sycamore Township.

Kathy Kugler

You were nominated because you’re someone who’s not content to stand on the sidelines of life. Can you tell me a little more about how you get involved?

You know, when I was thinking about sponsoring a Colombian student, I had never done anything like that in my entire life. I felt absolutely driven to make a big difference for her. I was going to do whatever it took to help her to stay and learn English… I would somehow find a contact in Colombia at a corporation who would hire her when she went back so that she would have a really good job. As it turns out, it was even better than that. You never know what is going to happen when you do a good deed or step forward. She stayed with me and I paid for everything – her medical care and tuition – because she was not allowed to work.

You never know what is going to happen when you do a good deed or step forward.

While she was here, one of the other students said, “Angie, I know a really nice guy who works with my boyfriend, and I think you would like him.” Angie was very focused on learning English and working hard here, so she didn’t think she wanted to see him. Her friend said, “Oh, come on.” Of course they hit it right off and dated six or seven months. He proposed to her and they got married here in my backyard.

What is Angie’s field of study?

She is in advertising and graphic arts design. She is very good at it. I am a member of the Sierra Club and we recently had a fundraiser. She designed a flyer for it, and it was really lovely. People who are so afraid of immigrants have not met the hardworking people that I’ve met. I am not a better person than her. I have worked hard in my life and I have had my major issues to cope with – like the death of my husband and raising two small children. I got through that, but I had Social Security and social safety nets.

I think poverty is the same everywhere. Poor people in the United States are just one car wreck or ticket away from going to jail. When my husband died, we moved back to Madison, Indiana, from Maysville, Kentucky. My mom was there; my in-laws were there. I had ready access to a job because I was educated as a school psychologist. I didn’t have poverty and homelessness to go along with it. That was lucky. I am not a better person than anyone else.

Kathy Kugler

What motivates you to get involved?

Way back when, my mother always said, “Treat people right,” so I really learned that from her. I always saw her doing that in little ways. When I was in Girl Scouts, my mother said to the troop leader, “Here is $25 or $50. Use it for anything you need, because you need money to do these things.” I didn’t see anyone else’s mom doing that. So that was one example of my mother acting upon – usually with money, because she was working full-time, so she didn’t have time to do anything else. She would give above and beyond to support things.

A long time ago, I missed an opportunity to do something good. I have regretted it ever since. I got the idea that, morally, it is just not enough to say, “Isn’t that too bad?” I need to physically get in there and do something. I think this is the only time to do it. I can’t do it in the next life, if there is a next life. It’s right here; it’s right now. “Open your eyes, Kathy. Read the paper and, when you see the things that are heartbreaking, do something about it, if you can.” I decided three years ago that if I had an opportunity to do good, that I would, and to not be afraid to do it.

If you open your eyes, you will see little opportunities to be kind and do good. You don’t know how much good you can do.

A lady was out front of my house with her car on the side of the road. I asked what the problem was, and she said, “I think I’m out of gas.”

I told her that I think I have a gallon of gas for my lawn mower: “I’ll go get it and put it in your car and get you on your way.” If not, I would call AAA. I saw a couple of guys standing around, so I said, “Hey, guys, we have to get her car off the main road. Someone will hit it. Come help me push it off the street,” and they did. We put a gallon of gas into her car and it started up and she was on her way. I don’t even know who she is. I give that as an example, but those opportunities are in front of you. Just open your eyes.

Would you talk about your response to the vandalism at Withrow High School and Hebrew Union College?

I was reading the Enquirer and saw that [someone] had vandalized both of those places. I said to myself, “I am going to bake some cookies.” I called the school to see if it would be all right, and I took cookies to the faculty. After I arrived at Withrow, there were some students outside with signs protesting that kind of racism. I asked if I could join them and I stood there with them. People drove by and honked in support. I felt very uplifted. I don’t know if it made any difference to the faculty.

Did it make a difference to you?

Yeah, because I don’t support that kind of stuff. I see a lot of fearmongering going on. I went to Hebrew Union [College]; that is a very elite, intellectual place. So, I met someone and got to talk to them and leave my cookies. I found out about their lovely art museum. I went back a couple of times for programs. It wasn’t a big thing. In the realm of things, it was very small, but it was physical. I decided that I was going to put myself in that place – my feet on the ground – for the perspective of it.

Kathy Kugler

I know many women who sit on the sidelines because they don’t know where to start. What advice do you have for women who want to get involved?

My plan has always been making a personal contact with somebody. Just say, “Hello, I saw this happened; I’m really sorry it happened; what can I do?” Instead of saying, “That was horrible,” I went over to that school and just said, “This is really horrible. How can I help?”

I cook. There is nothing like a cookie. Comfort through food is very basic. I try to take something that I made and make a personal contact. I want to give a hug and connect if I can. I think that means a lot to people on the other side. I have taken the risk; maybe they will say, “Get out of here.” It hasn’t happened yet. If you open your eyes, you will see little opportunities to be kind and do good. You don’t know how much good you can do. It renews faith in people, helping when you don’t have to.

Who would you say is the most influential woman in your life?

Gloria Steinem. Two years ago, she was doing an interview with Jessye Norman, a woman of color and soprano singer. She wrote an autobiography called Stand Up Straight and Sing! They were going to sit and discuss the book. I said, “Let’s pay extra to meet them.” So we went, and I got to meet Gloria Steinem and Jessye Norman in person.

I also think going to a women’s college was good to see all these women in leadership. The teaching staff was 90 percent women that were educated, caring, strong, and kind. It gave me a lot of role models that were educated, confident, and encouraging women.

Kathy Kugler and Abbey Bruce

As we become involved and engaged, we can get burned out. What do you do to recharge yourself and give back to yourself?

Sometimes I see a little bit of progress or I meet a friend, then I can say, “I am not the only one.” I am not the only one that is working for equal rights. I am in the Sierra Club. I learned about reporting soil erosion violations. Now that doesn’t sound very exciting, but the biggest pollution in our streams and in the Ohio River is washout from construction sites where there wasn’t mitigation. I got trained on this, so if I am driving along and see construction – say, an apartment complex being put in – and the soil is washing away, I take three or four pictures and send them to the EPA. I don’t go looking for these things, but if I see them, I stop. I have seen 100 percent results. I take before and after pictures. I am helping to prevent erosion and I feel okay about that. I see the change happening and we are saving the Earth.

You must pick the place where you need to be.

Sometimes I also think, “I need to sleep in today and not feel bad about it.” I am involved in so many things and I don’t want to stop any of them, but I can’t go 100 miles an hour. You must pick the place where you need to be. I must save enough time for my grandchildren. I see them every week and we garden together. I need to make more time for them. Good will conquer evil and love conquers hate.

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