Where All Possibility Lies
By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Mickey Babcock ’98 can pinpoint the exact moment when she decided to change her life. Serving as a volunteer for the Memphis Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association’s Meals on Wheels program, she called on a resident of the Memphis Housing Authority properties on a bitter winter day.
“She had every eye of her stove turned on and the oven door open in an attempt to keep warm,” Babcock recalls. “She set aside the meal I brought her and said, “‘Honey, it’s cold outside. Come sit by my fire.’”
Later that same day Babcock called on a high-profile client of her interior design business. The greeting was very different. “The fringe on these pillows is too short,” the client complained. “Take them back.”
“The juxtaposition between the two conversations set me to thinking,” Babcock recalls. “I kept asking myself, ‘Just who are the haves and who are the have-nots in this world?’ I knew it was time for a change even though I enjoyed the work and made a lot of money. It wasn’t satisfying on a deep level.”
The determination to chuck everything she had built is surprising, given how hard Babcock had worked to get where she was. A third generation Polish-American, she grew up in a family in which domestic disturbance was a constant threat and in which education for females was not a value.
“My father believed that smart women didn’t get husbands, which was his cultural norm,” she says.
This presented a particular problem for a child who discovered in kindergarten that she was intellectually gifted. The principal was called to the schoolroom when Babcock brought a magazine as her show-and-tell item and proceeded to read it to the class. By first grade she, rather than the teacher, read to her classmates at story hour. She skipped third grade.
But intellect was not the only quality that set her apart.
“I was not allowed to wear Pappagallo flats like the other preteen girls,” she says with a smile. “I had to wear saddle oxfords. My skirts were longer and I always smelled like garlic because of the food we ate.
“I would have given anything to fit in,” she muses. “I believe that framed my worldview of always respecting ‘the other.’”
When she was 12 her father’s company transferred him from the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe, MI, to Lebanon, TN, where Babcock continued her campaign to fit in with her peers. As she got older she concentrated on trying to convince her father to let her go to college.
“I had full-ride scholarship offers to two colleges but he wouldn’t let me go,” she recalls. Finally, with her mother’s help, she convinced her father to let her attend a state school. She picked the University of Memphis because it was farthest from home.
“I needed to spread my wings,” she says. “I arrived in town the year after Dr. King was assassinated, and there was so much going on!”
Babcock threw herself into countercultural activities such as war protests and a production of “Hair.” Her father insisted that she change her major from theater to journalism.
The following year she married Phil Babcock and the two of them purchased an antique business known as Grandma’s Attic. They quickly converted it to a purveyor of high-end English furniture and Mickey added a gift and interior design business to even out the cash flow. When the marriage ended after four years, her part of the settlement was the going concern now known as Babcock’s Gifts.
She remembers “a rude awakening,” a time when she came face-to-face with the need for capital and how harsh the business climate could be for a single female. She was 24 years old at the time.
Enter Herbert Rhea, a widely respected business guru in Memphis. Babcock knew him through his wife, Linda, a client of the interiors side of her business.
“Herbert spent hours and hours teaching me management principles,” she recalls. “He also introduced me to the companies that would be some of my most important clients—Glankler Brown, a large law firm, and NBC Bank. Herbert is a great part of the reason that I am determined to pass along the gifts I have received.”
In 1978 she sold the gift side of the business and kept the design practice, which she operated until 1998.
“My last project was the Memphis Country Club,” she says. “I finally proved to the little girl I once was that I could measure up.”
Always an avid volunteer, Babcock was on the ground floor of the formation of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and served as its executive director on an interim basis. That’s how she met philanthropist Mertie Buckman, whom she names as a major role model and where she was reminded of gender equality issues.
“I loved it but I didn’t feel credentialed,” she recalls.
That raised the question of returning to school.
A graduate of the Institute for Executive Leadership at Rhodes’ Meeman Center, Babcock recalls feeling drawn to Rhodes but at the same time intimidated by its reputed rigor. She began with the Search course and after two years was so captivated that she decided to dive in full time. Meanwhile she married Joe McCarty and met another major life influence, well-known attorney, adventurer and equal rights crusader Lucius Burch.
“Lucius and I had a deep soul connection,” she says. “We would have these three-hour lunches and he wrote me the most amazing letters. Lucius became my mentor and spirit father.”
It was natural, then, that when Memphis philanthropist Clarence Day began the Burch Scholars program at Rhodes in honor of Burch, professsor Michael McLean, its first director, turned to Babcock for assistance.
“It meant I got to be in on the early conversations about the connections between service and learning at Rhodes,” she recalls. “It also opened up a new window for me—mentoring. I loved showing the students my involvements—MIFA, the soup kitchen at St. John’s United Methodist Church, the Church Health Center, the residences of the Memphis Housing Authority. Those were the places where I had learned a lot of life lessons.”
In retrospect, Babcock believes that she didn’t give herself permission to do childish things until she was in her early 30s because during her actual childhood she focused on trying to please her father and fit in with her peer group. In her late teens and early 20s she was building and managing a business. Only after she had proven to herself that she could succeed in the “real world” did she allow “the fun part of my self to come out.”
The first outward sign was a pair of zebra-striped high-topped tennis shoes that glowed in the dark. Then she started a collection.
“The red ones are my happy feet,” she says of the shoes that have become her trademark and the symbol of her legacy at Rhodes. “They connected me to that zone we all have where we are as strong and as full of joy as we can possibly be, when we are exactly who we are supposed to be. I call them my taproot.”
As the legend goes, Babcock purchased red Converse high-tops for the first class of Burch Scholars, challenging them to “Walk Loud.”
“I decided to share them because they were my joy,” she says. “I was just trying to express myself.”
Apparently she succeeded, for to the students at Rhodes who follow in her path, the red shoes have come to symbolize their efforts to make a difference in the world.
Babcock says she had no idea that the shoes had achieved minor cult status until her first commencement as a trustee of the college.
“Stephen Ogden ’05 came up to me and gave me a hug and said he had been looking forward to meeting me,” she recalls. “He said there were nine students graduating in red shoes that year. I was absolutely floored.”
Last year, the Rhodes Alumni Board presented her with a special honor, the Footprints Award, to commemorate the impact of her example on generations of Rhodes students. She treasures that honor along with her Vision award presented by Women of Achievement in Memphis.
But Rhodes students are not the only one who have been deeply influenced by this philanthropic dynamo Burch dubbed the Polish Flash “because he said I hiked so damned slow!” she recalls with a smile. Her list of causes is a long one and now spans two vastly different states. For Mickey Babcock has now become as entrenched in the life of the state of Wyoming as she once was in Memphis.
Yes, Mickey Babcock found the life change she sought, though she eased into it gradually, beginning with a hiking trip with mentor Lucius Burch in 1983.
“I was getting ready to sign up for an Outward Bound trip when he said, ‘Come with us. We’ll give you an Outward Bound experience.’” What he gave her was a two-week, 100-mile backpacking trip through the Teton Wilderness Area. “I had never even slept in a tent,” she recalls. “I hated every minute of it and couldn’t wait to get back.”
She and her husband spent summers in Wyoming every year after that and built a house near Jackson Hole in 1994. Gradually, they began to spend more and more time there. The marriage has now ended but she has maintained her relationship with stepchildren, Jenny and Brian.
“They’re the best,” she declares, “both happy in their lives, both great people.”
As she struggled with the end of her marriage, feeling “vulnerable and diminished,” she also contemplated making her permanent home in Wyoming. The harsh climate was daunting, the locals were leery of outsiders.
“People who have been there for a long time take a long time to accept new people,” as she puts it. “You can’t just show up and expect to be part of the fabric of the West.”
But in the end, the attractions outweighed the reservations.
“In Wyoming there are qualities of fiber, strength, civility and capacity that don’t always get noticed,” she says. Besides, the legislature of the Wyoming Territory was the first government in the world to offer suffrage to women, and Jackson elected an all-female city council in 1920.
She sold her house in Memphis and took the plunge.
Building on her Memphis experience, Babcock decided to give herself an unusual 50th birthday present. That was the birth of the Equipoise Fund, which is now a key player in the march toward better conditions for women and girls in the Equality State.
According to the fund’s Web site, “The Equipoise Fund is all about helping women and girls of Wyoming find that quality of becoming evenly and joyously balanced: internally as individuals and externally through collaboration with other individuals and organizations that share a passion for self-sufficiency.”
Babcock grows animated when she talks of her vision of a new approach to philanthropy.
“We seek parity between the role of funder and our grantees and partners,” she explains. “We are there to serve.”
She also sees Equipoise as a natural complement to the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, which she once chaired and still serves in an advisory capacity.
“We are small and private so we can move faster, stir things up,” she explains. “I mean for it to stay small and nimble like Tinkerbell. We don’t have the capacity to solve issues, but we can bubble them up.”
A perfect example is the Equality Initiatives, a long-term project “jump-started” by Equipoise and now supported by a coalition of funders who have never worked together while focused with a gender lens. For example, a seed partner in the initiative is the Tate Foundation of Casper, which is governed by a group of Wyoming businessmen.
“They have never done anything like this, but they quickly grasped the potential of improving the quality of life,” Babcock says. “It has been an absolute joy to work with them.”
She will need all the help she can get, for the project’s goals are ambitious.
“We’re out to determine the needs of women and girls in Wyoming and how to address them,” she says. “Phase One will be to round up all the existing research and analyze it, put it in a matrix so we can see where the holes are, then fund the balance of the research. That will give us a road map of what needs to be done.
“Phase Two will be a high-quality media campaign. We want to enlighten people to the needs, not confront them.”
From there the project will market those needs to nonprofit organizations, municipalities and businesses with the goal of building a network of allied efforts to change conditions that have been identified as problematic.
“It’s a big effort, but I believe we can do it,” she says.
She would say that. It’s her role. She has a vivid memory of a mystical experience that occurred in the Katmandu Airport in the mid-’80s.
“I had been hiking in the Himalayas for 10 days so maybe I was suffering from altitude sickness,” she says, not sounding like she believes it for a minute. “All I know is, I heard a voice that was as clear as anything I have ever heard. It said, ‘Mick, you’re supposed to be a cheerleader.’” She shrugs. “I’ve spent the time since then trying to figure out how.”
Mickey Babcock has touched—and changed—a great many lives during the course of trying to figure out her own. She really can’t say what comes next, but it’s clear she has spent time and effort making herself ready for whatever it turns out to be.
While she has big dreams for her various causes and the world in general, what she wants for herself is rather simple:
“Equipoise. I define that as a state of grace, a place where I find myself, a place between opposing forces, a place of uncertainty where all possibility lies.”
"I love the story on Mickey. I have had the opportunity to work with Mickey at MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association in Memphis). She was a key supporter in helping establish the Opportunity Banc program to assist low-income women with developing home-based businesses. She is truly a treasure. She continues to be a guiding light for me." - Olliette Murry-Drobot