His pictures from the other side of the world set me off on an unexpected path
By Wendy Walleigh for Next Avenue
Africa has had a special place in my heart ever since I was a little girl looking at my father’s World War II photos. Dad had been a 24-year-old Air Force cargo pilot in multiple countries in east, west and central Africa. And while on the continent in 1942 and ’43, he traveled to Egypt and Palestine.
He sent his photos of these locales home to my mother, who lovingly preserved them, mostly black-and-white, affixing them to the black pages of a photo album with sticky corner-frames. I liked to sit with him looking at these pictures as he told me the stories that accompanied them.
The photos were taken before I existed. Though my father remained in the Air Force for a couple years after Africa, my mother didn’t want to raise a “military brat.” They moved back home to Lynn, Mass., about 12 miles north of Boston. He returned to law school. Shortly after that I was born. It was 1948.
Born with the travel bug
Dad practiced general law in Lynn even after we moved one town over, to Swampscott. He always aimed to do the best and right thing for his clients — even when they didn’t know what they wanted. He took interest in giving back to the community so ran for Congress (lost), then was elected to Swampscott’s Town Council where he was a member for many years. Though he was a pilot and loved to travel, my mother refused to fly until I was in college. So our family travels were confined mostly to the Northeast, except for two (endless!) trips by train, one to Miami and one to the western national parks.
But Dad’s love of travel was imparted to me through my DNA. He encouraged my mother to allow me to fly to Brazil after freshman year with a college friend who grew up there. Since then I’ve traveled to about 50 countries in the world as well as most states in the U.S. — including a round-trip across the country in a VW camper in 1972. Even after his early death in 1974, Dad inspired me to travel.
His World War II album is the reason my husband and I decided to safari in Kenya and Tanzania during a work sabbatical in 1997.
Though my father had hoped I would take over his law practice in Lynn, my husband and I moved to California, catalyzed by our cross-country road trip experiences. Our careers were mostly in high tech in Silicon Valley. I was an executive in marketing and sales support while my husband, after a decade in a tech company, became a partner in consulting to tech clients. But in 2001, another part of my DNA from Dad, his community service, kicked in to motivate me to switch careers to focus on my areas of passion: education, entrepreneurship, youth and women’s issues.
Within months, I joined the board of Junior Achievement (JA) of Silicon Valley, and soon after was hired to be their vice president of marketing and development. In 2005, my husband decided it was his turn to switch careers. After research, networking, and volunteering on a couple of short-term international projects, he eventually connected with TechnoServe, an international economic development nonprofit whose tagline is “Business Solutions to Poverty.”
Retracing his steps
Even though I had always envisioned that in our later careers we might work abroad — maybe Paris, London or Hong Kong — we found ourselves instead in Africa working for TechnoServe. A month after submitting our C.V.s to the organization, we were in Swaziland for a six-month stint — me supporting entrepreneurship and youth programs and him consulting to small businesses. Afterward our adventure continued. In 2007 we went to Nairobi, Kenya, for a year. My husband focused on TechnoServe’s internal operations and I continued in entrepreneurship and youth programs.
Now we’re back in the United States, but we still travel. My husband still works part-time for TechnoServe (at minimum wage!). I’m back on the JA Silicon Valley board as well as mentoring first-generation college students and graduates on their careers. I also joined Los Altos Rotary to work on their Africa and other international projects. We’ve taken multiple several-week trips for work and pleasure to both Eastern and Southern Africa. Almost every year, we have continued to travel internationally to Latin America, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, or Africa.
That little girl looking at family photo albums never would have predicted she would one day trace her father’s path in Africa. Or at least part of it. Amazingly, my 24-year-old father saw more of Africa in his two years there than I have still.
Thank you, Daddy, for being such an inspiring role model.