September 17, 1927 an unforgettable force of nature was unleashed upon this Earth: Laurel Piippo was born. She’d be 93 this week, but despite multiple, hard-fought battles she waged against four different types of primary cancers, her wild, exuberant life came to an end August 26, 2015. But since it’s her birthday, I’ve had her on my mind – and always in my heart – I’ve been impressed to share some things with you today about Laurel and what she meant to me. Others have written about her, but I dare say I knew her better. www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/article33307245.html
It was my good fortune as a student at Kennewick High School to have “Mrs. Piippo” (Laurel Piippo) as my English teacher. She was a wild woman! She even gave me an “F” on a paper I wrote once. It was supposed to be a ‘true story.’ She added that she thought it was “so fantastic, it could not possibly be true. If it was true, you would have received an A+!”
She was not just a great teacher in my own opinion, but even years later when the school celebrated its centennial, she was voted “Favorite Teacher” out of all 100 years that the school had been in existence. Her husband Toivo Piippo was a beloved teacher and record-setting coach in Richland, Washington. The two of them were a dynamic duo shaping the lives of young people for decades.
It’s not uncommon in school for a student to be sent home to change clothes when he or she has shown up to school in ‘inappropriate’ attire. Classic story about Mrs. Piippo! The Kennewick High School principal sent her home from school one morning to change her clothes. She had shown up to class wearing a paper dress! Yes, indeed. A dress made from paper. It was the ‘60s after all and a freewheeling time, but he didn’t find it appropriate and thought it was just too risqué and potentially risky that someone might just tear it off of her and leave her standing naked in front of the class.
She was known to be tough. Students lived in abject fear of her ‘red pen’ as she would critique their often-feeble attempts at creative writing. If you were a good student, there was no need to live in fear. By ‘good student’ that simply meant if you completed the assigned course work, participated in class (looked awake and alive), and made an effort – you were ‘in like Flynn.’ I was a good student. I loved her from the start.
It was in the mid-1960s and early in her teaching career when my fellow classmates and I were under the tutelage of this zany woman with an expansive vocabulary who opened up a whole new world of literature and experiences for us bringing in people from foreign countries as guest speakers into our classroom. If they were flirtatious with the students, she would quickly put a stop to that. But just having this exposure to people from exotic places around the world was quite novel and eye-opening. At that time, there were no Black students in our school and Kennewick still had “Sundown laws” on the books. It was as white as white can be. The John Howard Griffin book Black Like Me was on our reading list. When Mrs. Piippo signed my yearbook, she admonished me to, “Remember to beware of foreign men and to stay away from the Ku Klux Klan!”
Every year during her teaching career, she organized trips with her students and family members as chaperones to travel to Europe. Oh, the memories that were made!
When she retired from teaching, she launched her own travel agency. During her lifetime she traveled to more than 110 countries. She would go any length to see an opera production! And to introduce others to the opera.
When she was just a little girl – a second grader – she came home from school one afternoon. As she walked through the house, calling out to her mother, she found her in the master bedroom — dead. She had committed suicide.
The trauma of that haunted Laurel for the rest of her life.
According to Laurel, her father had never been very involved with the day-to-day lives of the children and was at a loss as to how to care for them. As if it wasn’t bad enough that their mother was dead – and what Laurel had seen that day – her father sent each of the children away to live with other relatives – separating them by great distances and completely breaking up the family. I have always believed that that is what fueled her passion for opera, that the stories allowed her to lose herself in them and let her emotions out, let those tears flow, as she had had to hold her emotions in over so many years about the painful death of her mother and loss of her family when she was a little girl.
I left Kennewick High School following my junior year after my cousin Kenny Howell was killed in a car v. train crash. He and I had both planned to be doctors. But that’s a story for another day…
I went away to a private Christian boarding school for my senior year. But Mrs. Piippo and I had a special bond and we remained in contact. We always wrote letters back and forth to each other back then – and all the way through the end of her life we were still in regular contact via phone and email.
She was a prolific writer although not particularly tech savvy. I encouraged her to create a blog. She left that for me to do on her behalf. So, I formatted a blog for her. She’d write the articles and email them to me, then I’d upload them to her blog.
We became very close when I was in my early 20s. I was working for a neurologist in Seattle at Northwest Hospital at the time, Dr. Ted Rothstein. Laurel was suffering from some symptoms (twinkling lights in her eyes) that I recognized as scintillating scotoma, a precursor or prodrome of possible impending stroke. She was clueless about the potential significance of it. But I convinced her it was critically important that she be seen in consultation STAT. She trusted me enough to come to Seattle and be seen. Indeed, her BP was sky high and she was on the verge of a stroke. Ever after that, she credited me with having saved her life. That was our bond.
As time went on she had her first bout with cancer, and then another, and another, and another… Each one a different primary tumor. She suffered so much!
But she courageously underwent all of the standard treatments of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, which she referred to as, “Slash, Burn & Poison.” She raged against it! She even had T-shirts made up with “Slash, Burn & Poison” imprinted on them. Her cause, her lifework became laser-focused on improving quality of life and quality of care and treatment for cancer patients. Specifically, the fact that the costs for radioisotopes to treat cancer are exorbitantly high. The reason? Most of them have to be imported to the United States. Why? Because anything and everything to do with radiation and nuclear-anything in the US is viewed in such a negative way, that it is virtually impossible to have the radioisotopes produced in the US in the quantity that are needed for American patients. Consequently, they have to be purchased from other countries and imported at a very high cost.
When she learned about that – and living in Richland, Washington since the early 1950s – she was acutely aware of the goings on at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, she was also aware that one of the major nuclear reactors was being mothballed at a cost of Billions of dollars a year – just to have it mothballed. She researched the issue thoroughly, doggedly and determined that it COULD BE RETOOLED and COULD BE used for the PRODUCTION OF MEDICAL ISOTOPES.
That fueled her crusade to stop the shutdown and mothballing of that reactor and instead CONVERT it to the production of medical-grade nuclear isotopes for treatment of cancer patients so that even though the patients would still need radiation therapy, at least it would significantly decrease the cost of their treatment by having the isotopes manufactured her in the United States.
Laurel Piippo devoted 100% of her life-force to building a consortium of scientists, patients, family members, community leaders (Kiwanis & others), and political leaders to try to make that happen. She even organized a “Cancer Train” – and actual TRAIN – and took ALL of those people who were involved on a sojourn from the Tri-Cities in Washington to a government and scientific meeting in California in the Bay Area to try to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to HALT the process of ‘mothballing’ that reactor at Hanford and instead CONVERT it to the production of much-needed medical-grade nuclear isotopes.
Despite all of the science and all of her energy and all of her best efforts: It didn’t happen.
Laurel Piippo’s friendship to me through the years was a bond that could not be broken.
However, in my own family, when I met Charles (who is now my husband) and wanted to just introduce him to my father, I was instantaneously disowned and disinherited. Why? Because he’s Black. Or I should say, because my father could not get past the fact that Charles is Black and refused to even lay eyes on him or meet him. That phone call was the last time we ever spoke. I had just wanted to arrange a time to introduce Charles to my parents. But, no, that was not going to happen. That was it. I was no longer part of the family.
Later that year at Christmas I received a card in the mail from my father. I was quite eager to open it. The front of the card made me hopeful. It said, “With Warm Holiday Greetings…” but inside he had typewritten “I never did hate Blacks, but I did and I do when they ‘take’ White girls.” His final words to me. He died without having ever having met Charles, whom he would have had the best time with. Charles would have laughed at all of his jokes and been so loving. Such a shame…
When Charles and I were married, we had a lovely outdoor ceremony in Pioneer Park on the Bandstand in Steilacoom alongside Chambers Bay on a warm July summer evening now more than 26 years ago. Charles’ mother was dressed radiantly that evening. And it was Mr. and Mrs. Piippo who had driven all the way over from the Tri-Cities to ‘stand-in’ as parents for me during our wedding ceremony.