What Propels a Journey? The Peripatetic Career of Kate Soper

By Rachel Urist | Photos By Tobi Hollander

Kate Soper came of age in the early 1960s. She is part of the generation that ushered in a new wave of women. She is a quiet but active feminist. In certain respects, she followed a traditional path. She is married. She has children. But early in life, she decided that while she might make a home, she would not be “just a housewife.” She has balanced the personal and professional in a way that augurs a new standard for women. True, earlier pioneer women forged roads that most women (and men) could hardly imagine possible. There are women of Kate’s generation who are daughters of those pioneering women. But they are few, and Kate was not among them. Still, she grew up determined to have the kind of independence and professional freedom enjoyed by most men and few women of that era. Her decision was fortified by changing trends. Women began realizing ambitions that took them far from hearth and home. Many of these women, Kate included, became role models for their children.

Kate Soper came of age in the early 1960s. She is part of the generation that ushered in a new wave of women. She is a quiet but active feminist.

After 45 years in several professions, Kate recently retired. As an attorney, she devoted a considerable amount of her time to the still nascent Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (WLAM), a source of support and mentorship for women lawyers. Within the organization, she focused on issues of gender equity. In her own practice, she did insurance defense work and family law. Later, as a University of Michigan administrator, she held positions that allowed her to help countless students and faculty members. Her six U-M posts included Assistant Provost, Assistant Dean of LS&A, and Director of the Dual Career Program at the Medical School and the College of Engineering.

Since retiring, she has turned to writing. Her 2013 book, Steps Out of Time: One Woman’s Journey on the Camino (Stellaire Press), is based on the journal she kept in June of 2002 during her 34-day, 500-mile trek across northern Spain. The book is both a travelogue and a meditation on time and meaning. It quickly sold out its first printing. Public readings draw standing-room-only crowds. Many who thought they knew Kate were amazed to read of her travels. Many were surprised to discover her passion for physical challenge, her love of adventure, the hardiness that kept her going, and the spiritual seeking that deepened the experience, both during and after the Camino.

The limpid prose of Steps Out of Time is marked by insights into solitude, time, and the rewards of contemplation. The book, published under her full name, Katherine B. Soper, includes comic episodes along with graphic descriptions of blisters and their remedies. In a chapter called “Being, Just Being,” she writes about the physical trials of the journey.

…the pain is as real as the moments of peace and beauty—and probably as necessary. The pain, I am discovering, grabs my attention in a way that forces me to set aside petty cares and concerns and puts me in touch with a more visceral reality, making me aware of my body in a way that clears my mind. When I am conscious of the pain, I am truly present.

…A Buddhist friend once urged me to think about the difference between pain and suffering. This was probably good advice. …Later, I heard a saying attributed to professional bicycle racers that helped me understand: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. When I began my journey to Santiago, I experienced pain and I suffered. Now, toward the end of my journey, I still experience pain, but most of the time I walk through it. I am learning to be in the space which is mine. Being, just being. A very Buddhist concept.

In a chapter called “Growing Understandings,” she contemplates the mental effort required to rethink the role of time, which once seemed such a basic concept.

Time on the Camino is tied to the ancient rhythms of the sun and not the relentless ticking of my watch. Sometimes hours slip by at a speed that makes my head spin; other times each minute seems to last an eternity. Moments can be glorious or grueling, but I am present for them. And they pass. The sun appears every morning.

 Many who knew Kate only as an attorney will be further surprised to learn that Kate’s legal career was her second calling. Before attending law school, she was a professor of French, first at Boise State. She loved this job, both for the fun of teaching students about a culture and language she loved and because her schedule allowed her to hit the ski slopes most afternoons from the day the local ski area opened in the fall until the day it closed in the spring. She put her first husband through law school at the University of Colorado, where she earned her Ph.D. and was a teaching assistant during graduate school. (Her doctoral dissertation was a study of the images of women in the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire.) But after seven years, the marriage ended, and she accepted a position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, teaching French and Spanish. “It was the only state I hadn’t visited,” she explained, “and I needed to get far away from the people who knew me as part of a couple.”

At age 31, Kate applied to law school. Actually, she applied to six law schools and was accepted by each. Her father persuaded her that the University of Michigan would be the best springboard for her legal career. While she loved languages and had taught English in Bogotá, Colombia, and in Bordeaux, France, as well as French in Boulder, Colorado; Utica, New York; and Boise, Idaho, she was ready for a change. The summer before law school, she landed a job as a line-walker supervisor on the Alyeska Pipeline. “It was the best job I ever had,” Kate said. Not only did it pay for the first year of law school, it also allowed her to enjoy the pristine landscape of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, and to have unscheduled time for the first time in her adult life. Her various responsibilities included rescuing her crew, most of whom were men, from bears. When a worker saw a bear, he or she would climb up to safety on a pipeline support’s cross-beam, call in the problem, and wait for Kate. Though she had more serious “weapons” at hand (an air horn and M-80 firecrackers — now illegal in the U.S.), most of the time, she’d drive up in her truck, honk her horn, and the bear would run away.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Kate. She was hired for this job after enrolling in a weekend course on new gender equity laws that was offered in Fairbanks by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). She turned out to be the only woman in the class. The men were there to learn more about these laws in the hope that they could avoid hiring women on the pipeline project. When they realized this was no longer possible, they offered Kate a line-walker supervisor position, apparently figuring that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

Kate had proved her mettle in other ways, too. Early in her Alaska tenure, she took a winter survival class. The group consisted of three women and thirteen men, all in their twenties and thirties. For the final exam, they were air-lifted to a frozen lake in the shadow of Denali for what was supposed to be a four day camping trip in the Alaskan wilderness. During the day, they explored the back country on cross country skis. The snow was so deep that if you fell and put your pole in the snow to get up, it just kept going down. One member of the group, a helicopter pilot (and poet!), insisted that Kate take her turn setting the course and breaking trail. He talked about the freedom of making bold choices, of forging ahead, of being first. She still remembers his advice to her: “Don’t be afraid. You must be willing to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty and from every mistake, I learned something. It’s part of being human and it’s how you grow.” From that experience Kate learned that one needs emotional fortitude as well as physical strength to lead the pack. The skiing was hard. But it was beautiful, too. “It felt like I was alone in the world in this vast snowfield; the power of the natural world was overwhelming but so was the feeling of possibility,” she recalled. “It was unbelievably moving and gorgeous.”

She went on:

The day the plane was supposed to pick us up, a storm came in. The plane was delayed—by ten days. They couldn’t come get us so we spent our days in a small wall tent. There was no radio contact and nothing to do so we spent the days telling our life stories. Who knows how much of them were true, but it was fascinating! We strung ropes between the wall tent and the little pup tents we slept in and the latrine, so we wouldn’t get lost in the whiteout. I didn’t think we were going to die, but we could have. It never got even close to zero degrees. At night, it might be thirty below. We wore layers, two of everything, even two sleeping bags, to keep warm. We had a potbelly stove in the wall tent for heat and fire for cooking, but by the time the storm broke, we were down to two slices of bread per person per day and were living off “bread soup.” We were so relieved when the storm finally broke that nobody minded all the hard work of packing down the snow with our skis to make a runway.

For many, such an experience would signal the end of adventures. Not for Kate. “It whet my appetite,” she said. “I loved winter camping.” While stranded, the companions vowed to take a group photo if they were rescued (“We were feeling rather dramatic and anxious by then,” she said) and promised to hang the picture in their offices. The group is no longer in touch, but Kate still sees them every day, in the photo.

Since that episode, Kate has forged new paths in other areas. In the once male-dominated field of law, she became a respected voice for WLAM. In the early 90’s, when Kate was president of the local chapter, she spearheaded the Date Rape Awareness Community Service Program and helped script the role-playing scenarios that were presented in area high schools. Their efforts were cutting edge. Working with other WLAM role models — Naomi Woloshin, Zena Zumeta, Sally Fink, Molly Reno — to raise consciousness and address gender equity issues, Kate’s initiatives were ahead of their time. This was long before “No means No.” It was before “date rape” was common parlance. Each presentation of role-played encounters between a boy and a girl was followed by discussion, which drove home the message. What were the legal ramifications of teenage sex? When could outsiders step in and legally strip young people of their perceived autonomy? Most teens were astonished to learn that something called “statutory rape” was on the books. It was a shocking concept. That their actions could be deemed crimes, when they thought their behavior was private and consensual, was sobering. Many students said the exercise helped them think a little harder about their understanding of consent in this context.

WLAM member Molly Reno, who helped create some of the date rape scenarios, remembers that students sat in rapt attention for these presentations. Today such programs are widespread in corporate, academic, and medical settings. Many use professional actors. These programs operate as teaching tools for faculty and staff, with presentations of difficult scenarios that have flummoxed those in power. When WLAM’s date rape program was active, the organization’s members (along with male volunteers for the boys’ roles) did the role-playing. One of Kate’s former colleagues pointed out that while it may seem odd for lawyers to double as actors, consider that lawyers who litigate do a fair amount of role-playing with their clients to prepare them for the often daunting legal processes of taking depositions and testifying at trial. Mediators, too, find it helpful to role-play with clients, especially when the disputes involve private matters, when clients feel vulnerable and uneasy.

The date rape initiative contributed to Kate’s receiving the 1992 Mary E. Foster Award — “for her contributions to the advancement of women in law and women in general.” According to Molly Reno, “Kate’s leadership had us all looking more at social justice issues.” She adds that WLAM’s mission was always twofold: 1) to promote social justice by using legal skills to benefit all women in society, and 2) to provide emotional support through mentoring, networking, and offering legal support to women lawyers.

Mary Elizabeth Foster, for whom the award is named, was the first woman to practice law in Ann Arbor. She graduated (with high honors) from U-M’s law school in 1876 and set up shop in her home on Catherine Street. Kate joined a prestigious roster when she won the prize. In telling me about it, she exclaimed: “I was so incredibly honored to be on the same list as Jean King!” Jean Ledwith King, as I later learned, was a more recent legend in Michigan’s history of legal matriarchs. In 1965, she entered U-M’s law school. Upon graduation, she challenged the status quo. She was among the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, helped extend Title IX to cover sports in schools, and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1984, which saw the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro for vice president.

Like many of her colleagues, Kate was influenced by the wave of feminist writers that included Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. The climate was ripe for change. Many of Kate’s colleagues in WLAM graduated in classes that were only fifteen percent female. The new generation challenged decades of patriarchal assumptions. Today enrollment at law schools as well as medical schools is at least fifty percent female. Ironically, many young women today are impatient with feminist concerns, which are deemed passé. Female ambitions are taken for granted. Familiar phrases, such as “We’ve come a long way, baby,” document an evolution in which Kate has played a role.

Long before Kate joined WLAM, she had experienced patriarchal bias first-hand. In high school, during senior year, she was told that she couldn’t run for class president because “girls can’t be president.” So she ran for secretary-treasurer. (When her boyfriend of the time teased her by deliberately misreading her posters — “Kathy Ball for Sec’y-Treasurer” as “Kathy Ball for sexy treasurer” — she felt discomfited, but it was not until years later that she understood why.) The following year, at Duke University, after enrolling as a pre-med student, her advisor told her “women don’t do that.” Nevertheless, she joined Duke’s pre-med society where she was the only woman. After the society made her sit outside the operating theater (male students were inside, as observers), she left both the group and her medical aspirations. Today she speaks wistfully of a female friend from Duke who remained undaunted, went to medical school, and has had a long, satisfying career as a pediatrician.

When Kate switched to French and decided to spend her junior year in Paris, Duke tried to dissuade her from that too. “We only give the grade of C for coursework transferred from abroad,” she was told. Given her high GPA, this gave her pause, but only briefly. She went to Paris and turned Duke’s policy to her advantage. She took courses for fun, “courses I’d never have taken anywhere else.” She added: “And I developed a new attitude about rules and the status quo!”

Today, Kate combines her legal and linguistic skills. Acting pro-bono, she translates for asylum cases involving French-speaking Africans seeking asylum status in the U.S. As one friend put it, “she deploys her French for advocacy.” She also helps pilgrims on the Camino by volunteering at the French Trailhead where her French and Spanish enable her to effectively assist pilgrims from all over the world.

Where did Kate get her moxie? Her capacity for self-determination? Many women of Kate’s generation read Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and earlier feminists, but remained locked in traditional roles. That Kate is endowed with self-confidence is clear. Tracing it, however, is tricky. What we do know is that she is the eldest of the three sisters and thought of herself as “independent” and “headstrong.” She was fortunate to have a father who was supportive of his daughters’ ambitions. While his views on women were traditional, he encouraged his daughters to live up to their potential. “He sometimes gave us mixed messages," said Kate, "but he was a good mentor. He never doubted I could do anything I tried, although he didn’t always agree with my choices! And he always held me accountable.” He made a point of taking each of his daughters out for lunch regularly, for tête-à-têtes. Kate loved those outings. “He was so organized,” she said, possibly unaware that she herself is often described that way. “He would have notes on index cards in his shirt pocket, so he would not forget to say and ask whatever was on his mind. Sometimes this was pretty annoying, especially during my teens, but we always knew he was motivated by his love for us.”

Kate’s father was a pilot with his own plane. He flew the family for outings to Chicago and beyond. During World War II, he served in Italy. Upon his return, he entered the family business; his father’s wholesale seed company became the son’s career. He traveled extensively, making connections with growers and working to promote the industry he loved. Shortly before his death in 1997, at age 84, he edited and published the 16th edition of a book that had, under his leadership, become the industry standard for growers. He also wrote the introduction and the first chapter: “Greenhouses for 2000 and Beyond.”

Kate’s mother was a college graduate but never worked outside the home. She urged more traditional activities that held no interest for Kate. The result was tension. She felt her mother was disappointed in her. When Kate had her own children she saw things from a different perspective. “I realized how hard my mother had worked to create a home for us, how much she did to support us, and how much she sacrificed for the family. Raising kids is definitely not as easy as it looks!” Kate also credits her mother for showing her the cultural scene of Chicago. The family’s home was in Geneva, Illinois, forty miles from Chicago. Kate remembers seeing a ballet with Maria Tallchief. They went to theatre productions, museums. When Kate was 13, the family went to Europe. She remembers the Brussels World’s Fair and Aida in the Coliseum, where elephants paraded onstage. The family’s last stop was Paris. Kate recalls sitting in a sidewalk café thinking, I like it here. I want to come back.

We know from Kate’s book that the Camino taught her patience; that at the end of her mother’s life, Kate was able to give her mother the gift of time — to sit quietly with her, and just be. She says this time was a lasting lesson of the Camino. We know that people find her inspiring. Friend and fellow attorney Zena Zumeta, a Mary Foster Award winner, former president of WLAM, and legendary mediation instructor, called Kate “brilliant.” She added: “Kate is a very talented mediator. She listens, reaches out, brings people into decision making. She’s a natural peacemaker.” Zumeta mentioned two more qualities that make Kate unique: “You feel better in her presence” and “There’s no ego there!” Zumeta remembers when women were not taken seriously. “It was hard to get contacts, jobs, recognition. WLAM was a godsend for us. We could talk to each other, send each other cases, stand up to the powers that be. As an organization, WLAM could give voice to women’s outrage.”

…at the end of her mother’s life, Kate was able to give her mother the gift of time — to sit quietly with her, and just be. She says this time was a lasting lesson of the Camino.

Kate’s friend, neighbor, and fellow attorney, Susan Patton, speaks of Kate as a woman who “speaks softly and carries a big stick.” In their neighborhood book club, when Kate lays out a hypothesis, “she drives her point home. As lawyers, women had to be tough,” said Patton. “You had to sink or swim. Kate swam.”

In describing Kate, the words used repeatedly by friends and colleagues are: soft-spoken, engaging, modest, resourceful, adventurous, astute, insightful, sensitive, emotionally honest, considerate, and courageous. Tony England, Interim Dean of U-M Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, worked with Kate when she was Director of the Dual Career Program at U-M Ann Arbor. Her responsibilities involved finding jobs for “trailing spouses.” Most spouses who came to their attention were academics, but not all. Certain cases, remembered England, seemed “insoluble.” She solved them. He gave the example of a faculty candidate whose spouse was a church organist. To his astonishment, Kate found a church that needed an organist. He summed up his assessment: “Her performance was always excellent. I never had to tell her what to do or what to try. She was very effective. She was energetic. I got letters from candidates expressing appreciation — whether or not they got the job!” England’s only fear about Kate was that he might lose her. She worked for both the medical school and the school of engineering. He worried that the medical school might wrest Kate for themselves.

Kate loved this work because it was a way to support women as well as men who were trying to combine career and family. “Finding a good balance,” she said, “is so central to making progress on gender, and it was exciting to be able to contribute in a small way.”

Abby Stewart, former Associate Dean of LS&A, also worked with Kate on dual career issues. She spoke of Kate’s “tenacity and determination.” She added that, “Kate was enormously effective at a very difficult job. She maintained people’s hope, made the connections, and typically found the right fit. She never gave up.”

Finding a good balance is so central to making progress on gender, and it was exciting to be able to contribute in a small way.
— Kate Soper on her role as director of the dual career program at U-M Ann Arbor

In her retirement, Kate is as busy as ever. Between her volunteer efforts and her push to promote her book, she works full time. She is trying to wrap her mind as well as her days around a schedule of readings, meetings, emails, and phone calls. She often expresses amazement that the book has had such a passionate response. Susan Darrow, Kate’s friend and neighbor, said: “I don’t think she realized that people would have much interest — or that she could produce something that people would find worth reading.”

The book deserves a place on every respectable reading list. The final chapter, “Beginnings,” takes us deep into the present. In those concluding pages, we find: “Over the last thirty-four days, I have been practicing with every step, every blister, and every pleasure, the art of being alive.” “Beginnings” has the following passages too:

This new measure of time influences how I think about distance. Now, rather than worrying about how fast I can go the distance, I see that a journey takes time and, more to the point, that the time is not wasted if I look around and appreciate what the distance traveled has to offer. When I started walking, I felt great frustration at how long it took to get anywhere on foot. It was as if I was living in slow motion and would never reach Santiago. Now I see that I’m making good progress. At the end of most days, I have traveled a modest distance under my own power. I haven’t gotten lost, I’ve found food and shelter, and each day I’ve drawn closer to my destination. What’s more, when I embrace this new cadence, I find that I like the pace of a pilgrim. I like being receptive to whatever the journey might offer. It’s counterintuitive for this busy professional, but the Camino way of time and distance is empowering. Now more than ever, I feel centered and grounded.

During her journey, the words “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” also underwent evolution.

I understand pilgrimage differently now, too. Pilgrimage, I thought when I left home, was a trip to a sacred place made by a religious person seeking to reaffirm his or her faith. That definition did not apply to me. Over the past weeks, the experiences of my journey, as well as conversations with my fellow pilgrims, hospitaleros, villagers, and especially Camino priests, have led me to see that while the history of pilgrimage may lie in religious beliefs and traditions, the practice transcends a strictly religious interpretation. …regardless of what we search for, pilgrimage offers the promise of wisdom and understanding. …Secular I may be, but I’m a pilgrim nonetheless.

The long-distance pilgrims I talk with express the same wonder I feel about this journey. We recognize, each in our own way, that we have experienced the magic of the Camino and are changed because of it. What we don’t know, can’t know, is what the Camino will mean in our lives when we return home to spouses and jobs and responsibilities. …We need to get to Santiago, not so we can say we’re done with this trip, but, rather, so we can begin to process what has happened to us.

Kate’s friend and fellow writer, Betsy Jackson, watched Kate struggle with the dual task of accepting and adopting the suggestion repeatedly made by people who read the early drafts of her manuscript: that she needed to open up about herself in the book. Fodor’s publishes travelogues. Kate could write something deeper. “Kate’s journey started before the book and continues after,” Jackson said. “Once she allowed herself to expose her inner self, to explore the spiritual nature of the journey, the book took shape.” For Kate, at first, it felt exhibitionistic. It was antithetical to her. She is a very private person. But those who encouraged her are ecstatic. Said Jackson:

She’s helped others identify yearnings, needs, fears, just by telling her story — not probing into others, but into herself. It doesn’t matter that Kate and I have such dissimilar backgrounds, and that I haven’t been on the Camino. She spoke to my needs, my hopes. Isn’t it nice to know you can write something that resonates for perfect strangers?

 Since their retirement, Kate and her husband, Philip, a former U-M law professor, have been spending a month in Paris most years. On sabbaticals, they hiked some memorable treks in the U.K. and New Zealand and walked a portion of the pilgrimage trail in France. He has also volunteered his language skills at the Camino trailhead at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, assisting pilgrims in German.

He’s come a long way. Thirteen years ago, when Kate announced that she would walk the Camino, Phil was neither enthusiastic nor encouraging. (Their two children, Chris and Kate, cheered their mother on.) On the very last night of her two-month journey, eager but chary about her husband’s reception, she found this welcome fax: “Well done, valiant warrior, brave pilgrim. Congratulations on your accomplishment. Safe journey home. Much love, Philip.”

Kate is a quiet, delightful presence. She engages with warmth, charm, and intelligence, whether addressing a crowd of fellow lawyers or holding a private tête-à-tête. Her smile is disarming. Tall, fair, willowy, with green eyes and amber hair, she carries herself with a natural elegance. She looks ageless, but she recently became a grandmother. Both of her children are highly accomplished, but Kate distances herself from their success. “I take no credit for my children’s achievements, though I am so happy to see them finding their way,” she said. She is humble but not passive.

She invokes a Spanish proverb: Se hace el camino en caminando. She says that the best English equivalent is: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” This past May, in honor of her 70th birthday, she returned to the Camino and walked hundreds of miles. 

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Posted on August 31, 2015 .