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`Punch Doll' Springs Back to Help Others

Ex-Midwesterner Judy Mayotte has bounced back from adversity many times. Her life feeds her compassion for those displaced by war.

September 24, 2006|Laurie Goering | Chicago Tribune

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In 1993, Judy Mayotte was working with villagers displaced by Sudan's civil war when a relief plane dropped an airlift of emergency food.

The pilot misjudged the target area. A 200-pound bag of grain smashed into Mayotte's leg, breaking it in 10 places, damaging her knee and dislocating her hip. Days later, doctors amputated her lower leg.

"Fortunately, the leg knocked off was my polio leg," the gray-haired former Chicagoan, now 69, said with a laugh. "I've always been lucky."

Mayotte, now helping create a master's degree in peace, leadership and development at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, has made a remarkable career of bouncing back from disaster. Pushed out of her troubled home as a child, she became a nun and an international expert on the displaced. Stricken with polio, she learned to walk again. Widowed after leaving her order and marrying the love of her life, she became an acclaimed television producer and author. Injured in a war zone, she became a determined advocate for peace.

"She's like a punch doll. She's indomitable. Against amazing odds she keeps coming back," said Kathy Beal, a longtime friend and fellow former nun in Washington, D.C. "She considers herself very fortunate."

Mayotte, who is slight with wire-rim bifocals, a quick laugh and unrelenting energy, bustles around her Cape Town apartment shoving a walker in front of her. More than half a century after contracting polio she is suffering delayed nerve damage and muscle weakness, but that -- and her missing leg -- hasn't slowed her down much.

As a board member of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, she is helping shepherd an exchange program of Milwaukee's Marquette University aimed at developing leaders in touch with Third World social issues. She is also teaching a class on grass-roots leadership and community development at the University of the Western Cape, drawing students from African conflict zones ranging from Nigeria's Niger Delta to post-genocide Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The idea, she said, is to find a way to stop conflicts before they start. After working with refugees and the displaced in Cambodia, Somalia, Afghanistan and other trouble zones, she is convinced that more attention to "soft issues" -- poverty reduction, environmental protection, women's rights, sustainable economies -- is the key to greater international security and peace.

"I believe if we're able to change the way we think, this war-and-weapons mentality we've lived with for generations, things can be different," she said. On her kitchen table sits a framed African proverb: "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

"She's an on-the-ground working saint," said John Callaway, a longtime Chicago public television journalist who worked with Mayotte in the 1970s.

"God smiles looking down at her," added Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. "She's a wonderful advertisement for God and goodness."

But her upbringing was bleak. Her mother called her "the world's worst child who ever drew a breath," Mayotte said, and threw buckets of cold water on her when she cried. Her father, a prominent businessman and country club member, drank heavily and was sometimes abusive. When Mayotte was old enough to go to school, her parents shipped her off to a Catholic boarding school in Wichita, Kan., where they lived.

There, "I went to sleep without being afraid for the first time in my life," she said. The little girl with shattered self-confidence thrived on the security and sense of belonging. In time, she converted to Catholicism and announced that she wanted to become a nun, over her enraged father's objections.

But before joining an order, the 18-year-old college freshman came down with polio, the same year Salk's vaccine arrived on the market. She refused to listen to those who told her she would never regain the use of her right side. In two years, she had learned to walk again.

At 21, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Roman Catholic teaching order that took her to schools in Kansas City, Mo., and Milwaukee and provided her with an introduction to social justice issues as the nuns volunteered with the homeless. But the Catholic Church's controversial Vatican II reforms in the early 1960s shook her sense of belonging. In 1967, at 31, she left her order.

"It just wasn't right for me anymore," she said. "It wasn't the same church."

Adrift and penniless, she focused on finishing a doctorate at Marquette University and took a secretarial temp job at an electric firm in Milwaukee to make ends meet. There she ran into Jack Mayotte, the company's regional boss, who eventually became a friend and, four years later, her husband.

"He loved me just for me. He was amazing," she said with a broad smile. "He had such a love of life. He played the saxophone. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He knew every ice cream store in town."

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