May this article haunt Madison's capitol

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Illinois Chicago]On: 01 December 2014, At: 21:24Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Smith College Studies in Social WorkPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wscs20

    May this article haunt Madison's capitolShirley Camper Soman A.C.S.W.Published online: 17 Feb 2010.

    To cite this article: Shirley Camper Soman A.C.S.W. (1997) May this article haunt Madison's capitol, Smith College Studies inSocial Work, 68:1, 83-85, DOI: 10.1080/00377319709517517

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  • MAY THIS ARTICLE HAUNT MADISON'S CAPITOL

    Shirley Camper Soman, A.C.S.W. *

    The ghost of Sophie Siebecker is haunting the Capitol in Madison,Wisconsin. So are the ghosts of Helen Hall, the collective ghosts ofOld Bob LaFollette and Young Bob LaFollette, the economists S. J.Perlman and R. J. Commons, the third Chief of the crusading UnitedStates Children's Bureau Katherine Lenroot, and a host of otherdecent, compassionate, knowledgeable citizens of what used to be thegreat, great state of Wisconsin.

    Other spirits of the past are haunting many state capitols today, aswell as the houses of the U. S. Congress. Foremost among suchhaunters are Wilbur Cohen, an economist and former Cabinet Secre-tary of what was H .E .W., and Dr. Martha Elliot, a pediatrician and thefourth Chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau. Together, these eminentpeople before they became eminent sat on the Capitol steps in theearly 1930s and designed the details of the Social Security Act,including public welfare.

    When my beloved much older brother endorsed my becoming anundergraduate at the University of Wisconsin too many long, longyears ago, he pointed out that the state and the University had anoutstanding tradition of concern for the less fortunate. Happily, Itraveled from Boston to Madison, at the chronological age of 18 andthe emotional age of 11 (the time my mother died) without knowinga soul in that school, city or state. My experiences there, however,were enlightening, enduring, and ennobling.

    Which brings me back to Sophie Siebecker. In my junior andsenior years, I took undergraduate social work courses. Wisconsinwas the only college in the country to offer these courses. Helen Hallwas the pioneering professor who originated the program and ran it.One of the requirements was 10 hours of fieldwork, which includedweekly home visits. My placement was in the Madison FamilyService Agency, where Sophie Siebecker was executive director.

    She was a small, tidy sort of woman with a serious demeanor. Icannot remember any time when she laughed. She was quiet andbusiness-like, a no-nonsense type. You were expected to conform to

    * Shirley Camper Soman, M.S.W., A.C.S.W. is a free-lance writer, journalist, andlecturer on children and families. Her work has been published in The Christian ScienceMonitor, The Washington (DC) Post, and a host of other newspapers and nationalmagazines. A slightly different version of this paper was published in the Wisconsin StateJournal on September 12, 1996, under the title "Taking compassion out of welfare."

    Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(1), November 1997.

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  • 84 SHIRLEY CAMPER SOMAN

    her instructions, and you did. One of her instructions one day was tovisit a very middle-class woman and her beautiful, blonde, illegiti-mate teenage daughter but to ask no questions, to bring a smallcheck (supplement to public welfare), to offer the agency's servicesif any more were needed, and to forget and never repeat what she hadtold me about the daughter. She had only given me these instructionsso I would not ask any questions. Even now, many decades later, Ifeel compelled to avoid writing any of the horrendous details of theirlives. Sophie Siebecker, in her quiet way, was a most effective andmemorable person.

    She was memorable in another way. One day, I had visited a homewhere dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and another where thethreadbare carpet had not been vacuumed, and a third where anunshaven man was still in his pajamas at three in the afternoon.Outraged, I came back to the agency to forget the field of social work,in which I was supposed to accept people who didn't even wash thedishes, sweep the rug, and dress or shave.

    "How can they let themselves live like this?" I asked the rhetoricalquestion of Mrs. Siebecker. I knew the answers, of course. I was 20years old and had seen the world. And people like these were simply"lazy." Sophie Siebecker listened to me quietly and then she seemedto grow from her height of five feet, to seven or eight feet tall.

    "Shirley, you can't even imagine what these people have gonethrough," she began. "If you or I had had to live through half of whatthey have experienced, we would not have survived. In view of whathas happened in their lives, it is absolutely miraculous, and showstheir incredible strength, that they can get up in the morning, fixsomething to eat, usually get dressed and try to live through theirtime with some dignity. Every day, I marvel at the endurance ofpeople who have suffered enormous losses, enormous trials andstill survive."

    I was hooked. She went on to describe some of the events of thelives of the people I had visited: the childhood abandonment, thechildhood abuse, the adult abuse, the closed doors, the slammed-shutdoors, the lack of opportunity, the physical and emotional wounds,the mental illness, the ailments and deformities and disabilities, thelack of training and lack of money, the litany of all the evils the fleshis heir to.

    I went on to Sophie Siebecker's graduate school the SmithCollege School for Social Work in Northampton, Massachusetts,another great, great state. Before I got there, I worked as a case aide

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  • MADISON'S CAPITOL 85

    in the Milwaukee Family Service Agency, under the directorship ofanother compassionate, competent, and wonderful woman, JuliaCrow. I visited many families, many on welfare as in Madison. Iworked with the children of these families bright and beautifulyoungsters into whose overburdened lives I was able to bring somejoy. By then, I was grateful for the chance to learn and understandhow what is popularly called "the other hal f lives.

    Among the main things I learned was that public welfare is a curseand a blessing. It subjects people to a life filled with petty and majorindignities, it puts all recipients in the situation of being held incontempt and it provides them with the sustenance to keep going,to try to find the way to a better life for themselves and especially fortheir children. Welfare kept them and their families alive and often,it kept them striving for a better future. It still does.

    Sophie Siebecker is famous in my family my children haveheard the story many times. Even more valuable is what I havelearned through years and years of visiting homes of the poorestpeople all over the country and indeed in other countries as well. Forwhat I have learned is that no one who has not been touched by thespirit of a Sophie Siebecker should have the right to decide aboutother people's lives even if those lives cost money most of us thinkwe can't afford. For the simple fact is that "there but for the grace ofGod go I." Or any one of us, including Wisconsin's Governor,Tommy Thompson, and any of the hard-hearted men who woulddeprive poor and unable people of the bread and children of theirlives. They, and all of us, can try to live up to Sophie Siebecker'sunderstanding and her compassion.

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