Choose to live with intention

On Nov. 21, 2013, the Collaborative Family Law Council in the state of Wisconsin, along with family and friends, mourned the death of one of its founders, Kathleen M. Baird.

On Dec. 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon, father of modern South Africa, died at the age of 95 and is mourned around the world.

What do these extraordinary leaders share in common?

Kathy served as a mentor and role model for countless members of the Collaborative Practice community. She lived the principles of fairness and compassion, fully committed to the needs of her clients. She provided a guiding light for a peaceful passage through the painful waters of divorce for hundreds of families in our state. Kathy took an active role in her local community and she contributed to many not for profit organizations with her time and her dollars.

Nelson Mandela was a man of peace. He was a man of courage; a man of forgiveness. His message of reconciliation, not vengeance, inspired the world. Even after 27 years of unjust imprisonment, he forgave his captors and guards and invited them to his inauguration as President of South Africa with seats of honor.

Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Mandela was a world leader; Kathy, a local leader. Nelson Mandela lived passionately for those things he cared most about: equality for all people; providing for the poor; creating a peaceful world. Kathy lived passionately for those things she cared most about: her children and the children of families in distress; the disadvantaged. She loved the earth and the gift of garden life that emerged from the soil.

What difference do their lives make for us?

In a recent interview, Maya Angelou, poet, author, educator and civil rights activist, said when asked what it was like for her when Mandela was freed from prison, “My joy was overwhelming. I watched him smiling. I was so proud…I saw him walk out…That’s who I am…That’s who I can be….”

We have the opportunity to choose to live with intention. Mandela made a difference on the world stage. Kathy made a difference in our backyards. Each lived their lives awake to the needs of others. Kathy’s efforts did not make national news. She quietly responded. One of the people Kathy supported was a young woman from New Orleans who arrived in Milwaukee in 2005 after Katrina, looking to begin a new life with her children. When Agnes heard of Kathy’s death, she sent this message: “I am so sorry. Tell her daughter and sons I said their mother was a beautiful person inside and outside. I will forever remember her smile…I know her friends’ hearts are broken …I love her as much as she loved me and my kids…and a wonderful angel is called home.”

One of Kathy’s favorite poems is: “The Messenger” by Mary Oliver. I can imagine that it is a poem that Nelson Mandela would embrace.

Oliver wrote:

“My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old?

Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?

Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work…

Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture,

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart

And these body-clothes,

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren,

To the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all,

Over and over,

How it is that we live forever.”

Lessons learned

Nelson Mandela and Kathy Baird were kindred spirits. They understood the power of “standing still and learning to be astonished.” Mandela would welcome Kathy’s mantra: “Breathe Deep, Fly High, Seek Peace.” She would welcome his courageous capacity for forgiveness and his appreciation that authentic leadership requires the intention to serve others. “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead,” Mandela said.

Maya Angelou wrote in her tribute to Mandela: “No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again and bring the dawn…”

Kathy’s day is done. We trust the dawn will come…

And Angelou wrote: “Yes, Mandela’s day is done…We confess it in tearful voices. Yet we lift our own to say thank you. Thank you, our Gideon. Thank you, our David, our great, courageous man. We will not forget you. We will not dishonor you. We will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us and that you loved us…ALL.”

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

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