Diamonds in the sidewalk
The Aug. 4, 1940, issue of The Seattle Times featured a photograph of Barbara Sommer Feigin ’59 as a toddler, sitting among luggage on the Seattle docks on the day she arrived in America with her parents. The photo caption read as follows: “Eighty-two German and Lithuanian refugees had their first glimpse of their new home yesterday when they arrived aboard the motorship Hikawa Maru. Upper (left to right) Karl Schlesinger, his wife Katherine, and his son Ernst, meet May Cummins, Mrs. W.A. Cummings, Mrs. H.E. Connor, Thelma June Connor, James Connor and Doris Cummings, relatives whom they had never seen before. Lower: Barbara Sommer, 2 1/2 years old, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Eric Sommer of Berlin, who was one of the children who made the long journey from Germany to Seattle by way of Siberia and Japan.”
Overseer Emerita Barbara Sommer Feigin ’59, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nazi Germany, creates scholarship and internship endowments for students who are recent immigrants.
By Edward Weinman
She landed on the docks of Seattle, a 2½ year old tugging on the jackets of her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S.
Barbara Sommer Feigin ’59 was a toddler when, together with her parents, she escaped from Nazi Germany on the last train out of Berlin in July 1940. They traveled across Russia then ventured through China, Korea and Japan, and sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Seattle, where her family was processed. Eventually, they found their way to the small town of Chehalis, Wash., where Barbara grew up.
Barbara understands what it means to be a struggling immigrant seeking shelter in the U.S. and the chance of a better life.
“I was a refugee with my parents,” Barbara said. “When they came here, they had nothing. They had $10.35 and the clothes on their backs, and that’s about it. But they felt passionately that, in America, anything was possible, and they always encouraged me to dream big.”
The former political science major did dream big. She completed a graduate program in business administration run jointly by the Harvard Business School and Radcliffe Graduate School. (This was before women were admitted directly to the Harvard Business School.) While she was in graduate school, Barbara met her husband, Jim, a Cornell graduate who received his MBA from the Harvard Business School. They both went to New York City to pursue their careers. Barbara went to Grey Advertising, Inc. (now Grey Global Group), where she eventually became a member of the executive management team.
Her success, she said, wouldn’t have been possible if not for the scholarships Whitman offered her – scholarships that changed the trajectory of her life.
“Whitman was a transformational experience. I honestly thought I would never have such an opportunity. There was simply no money for that in my family. Whitman made it possible for me by offering a financial aid package of scholarships and work grants, and when I put that together with my little savings from babysitting and strawberry picking and cleaning houses, it made it possible for me to bring this dream to reality,” Barbara said. “Whitman changed the course of my life.”
Discovering the past
Barbara only recently learned the details of her parents’ perilous escape from Germany and tumultuous journey to the U.S. And she can thank guitar legend Jimi Hendrix for her discovery.
One day, Barbara’s younger sister was telling her children that she went to high school with Jimi Hendrix. The adult children didn’t believe their mother, so she went to find an old yearbook up in the attic, and it was here where Barbara’s sister discovered their parents’ journal.
“I knew we had made this trip,” Barbara said, “but it was a difficult time for my parents, because they still had family in Germany. They were terrified (and rightfully so) about what was happening to them, so they just didn’t talk about the details.
“This discovery happened within the past year. It’s overwhelming suddenly to have learned what this was all like and what their feelings were, and how totally terrifying this race against death was.”
It’s her immigrant past that has inspired Barbara and her husband, Jim, to look toward the future by establishing the Barbara Sommer Feigin Distinguished Student Scholarship Endowment and the Barbara Sommer Feigin Internship Endowment.
The endowments will support at least one student with financial need in each entering class. The student will be chosen on the basis of his or her potential to thrive at Whitman. The recipient must be a U.S. citizen, but preference will be given to those whose families are recent immigrants or refugees. Preference will also be given to students interested in business careers in the for-profit sector.
“My husband and I thought it important to have other people who are in similar circumstances to what mine were make their dreams of a Whitman education a reality. That’s what inspired the whole idea.”
Barbara said she’s modeling this scholarship after her own experience. Whitman was a springboard for a creative life beyond anything she could have imagined. Grey Advertising, the company she excelled in, for example, has such a reputation that it’s occasionally mentioned in the Emmy Award-winning television drama “Mad Men,” which documents the world of advertising in the 1960s.
“‘Mad Men’ is fantastically well art-directed; I just love what it looks like. But I must have been very naïve. I wasn’t aware of all the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that take place in the show. I think that’s a little over the top, but I guess that’s television, right?”
Accomplishing big things
Barbara is driven. It’s what enabled her to survive in advertising during a time when men dominated the industry. She not only survived, but she thrived, becoming a recognized expert on the impact of consumer social trends on business issues. She was often interviewed by journalists at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, “Today” and “Good Morning America.” Barbara was also a longtime director of three companies listed on the NYSE, most recently including the VF Corporation, the world’s largest publicly held apparel and footwear company.
Barbara’s business contributions have affected millions of consumers. One of her first major campaigns was conducting attitudinal research on Kool-Aid, the children’s drink made famous in the 1950s. Before Barbara’s conceptual research, Kool-Aid would appear on the shelves early summer and be removed from supermarkets by the fall. The company assumed Kool-Aid was only a summer drink. Barbara, though, learned that consumers hoarded it so they could drink it year-round, and that while the beverage was marketed to children, parents drank it as well. Her research showed that Kool-Aid was seen as a low-quality beverage, so it was then fortified with Vitamin C so moms wouldn’t feel guilty about serving it.
Because of Barbara’s research, Kool-Aid changed its tack and became the third largest soft drink in the U.S., behind Coke and Pepsi.
“That was a fun project. Our research made something very big happen. In the world of Kool-Aid,” she joked.
Barbara also pointed out that she worked on a campaign for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that eventually led to the striking line, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
“Now that was huge. Drunk driving deaths went down,” she said proudly.
During those years, Barbara applied some of the principles she learned in the business world to address a major admissions challenge Whitman faced.
“We did a groundbreaking piece of research that helped the college create a blueprint that guided highly successful student recruitment and communications strategies. This was an important juncture in Whitman’s evolution, and it was enormously satisfying to me to help be the catalyst for progress.”
Follow your passion
Barbara has traveled to destinations all over the world, including her native Berlin, where she visited her parents’ old apartment and saw the spot where they had been married. Despite her successes and worldly exploits, Walla Walla and Whitman remain at the center of her life’s journey.
“I came from Chehalis, so Walla Walla was a big deal to me. Whitman gave me a spirit of adventure,” she said.
“You know, I used to walk down Boyer Avenue, and back then there was mica in the sidewalks. I remember writing a letter to my mother and father saying, ‘The sidewalks sparkle in Walla Walla!’ I had never seen anything like that. We had nice streets in Chehalis, but here they had diamonds in the sidewalk.”
Her adventure continues. She’s still active in business and resides in New York City, where she’s “enjoying all the cultural things the city offers.” She travels, and loves spending time with her family. Her three grown sons, Michael, Peter, and Daniel, and their families, including Barbara’s and Jim’s six grandchildren, all live in New York City..
“Life is full. Life is rich,” she said.
As she looks on the trajectory of her life, does she have any advice for the students who will one day attend Whitman on a Barbara Sommer Feigin Scholarship?
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that nothing has to be forever. Try things, and if they don’t work out, you don’t have to stay with them forever. You can make a change,” she said.
“Follow your passion. Try to figure out what you really love. And just go for it.”