Vallie M. Szymanski is a cultured, sophisticated woman who has achieved much, traveled far and experienced the world in ways most of us never could. Yet, when she visited her friend Carolyn here in Hayward back in March 2018, she fell in love with the Northwoods. Vallie moved here just seven months later.

She was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and lived with her parents and her brother on the island of Eleuthera, Bahamas, in the town of Hatchet Bay. Her father was a veterinarian and had a job at Levy Dairy Farm. She said her mother took a boat to Jacksonville six weeks before her birth because her parents did not want her to have dual citizenship. 

During the Korean Crisis in 1952, her father was called into duty in the U.S. Air Force (he was in the reserves during World War II as they needed more veterinarians in the United States supporting the war effort). Growing up, she and her brother lived in Wyoming, Washington state (Larson AFB), Scotland (Prestwick AFB), France (Chateauroux AFB), Texas (Sheppard AFB), Illinois, where her father was the liaison between the Air Force veterinarians and the U.S. Army Corps of Veterinarians, the Philippines (Clark AFB), where her father was the head veterinarian in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1967 and was responsible for the military working dog program in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The final stop was Maryland, at Andrews Air Force Base, where her father retired but not before overseeing the in-flight sanitation of Air Force One. 

“His role in the military as a veterinarian was that of a public health officer, which can be a typical role for veterinarians. In Europe he was responsible for the in-flight sanitation for MATS (Military Air Transport Service), and his countries of responsibility included England, France, Germany, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Spain. My brother Jack and I were very close as only military children can be as they bounce around the world. My parents were very clear about roles as a military family — wherever we traveled or lived we represented the United States of America and would always act with the greatest respect for our host countries. It was a great life — it could be a little hard when you are child, but the people we met and the lessons we learned can never be forgotten. Sadly, my brother Jack was killed in a car accident 25 years ago,” Vallie said.

What is your education and training?

“After graduating from Lake Forest High School in Illinois, I earned a B.A. in French and Spanish at the University of Wyoming. I was hired by Pan American World Airways as a ticket counter agent in Washington. D.C. I received extensive training in the areas of sales, marketing, world geography, international tariff and ticketing. That served me well when Pan Am sold their Pacific routes to United Airlines in 1986 and I joined United as international instructor, promoted to international supervisor and finally senior manager of international market relations in the worldwide sales division.”

What are the cities where you lived and what did you do there?

“I lived and worked in Washington, D.C. — Pan American World Airways, ticket office agent; Detroit, Michigan — Pan American World Airways, cargo agent; Schaumburg, Illinois — Pan American World Airways, reservations agent; Hanover Park, Illinois – Pan American World Airways, Rate Desk agent; St. Charles, Illinois – United Airlines, part of the “PAC” Reservations team AKA Pan Am Pacific Acquisition Team; Atlantic Acquisition Team: Latin American Acquisition; Worldwide Sales Division; Member of the 9/11/01 Emergency Response team; International Tourism key decision maker; International Business Partnerships, key decision maker. Foreign assignments while working for United include: London, UK; Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. At United I also managed major sales events that supported inbound international tourism and special events that recognized United’s top customers like the Sonoma Showcase of Food and Wine in Northern California.

I retired from United Airlines and became the executive director of Chicago Sister Cities International for three years, whose mission is to promote Chicago as a leading global city by developing programs in the areas of cultural arts and tourism, global education, government relations and international business for the benefit of the citizens of the City of Chicago and its sister cities.”

And what about your own family — husband and children?

“My husband Joe passed away in November 2016 of cancer. Our children were our many dogs and cats over the years. I now have my two Afghan hounds (Ahkie and Kristah) and my two black cats (Ronnie and Whitney3) here with me in Hayward and they love it. My brother Jack’s family lives in Maryland and I visit them from time to time and hope they make a trip to the Northwoods in the very near future.”

How did you get to Hayward, why and when?

“I first met Carolyn Ascher and her family through my friendship with Rick and Susan Roman, OCSA — Ovarian Cancer Symptom Awareness co-founders. She ultimately became an OCSA board member and has been enthusiastically involved with all of our initiatives. When my husband Joe passed away from cancer in 2016, she was there, holding my hand in every step of that very painful journey. She invited me to Hayward for a weekend in March of 2018 and I fell in love with the Northwoods and the rest is history. I moved here in October 2018.”

What was your first impression of Hayward?

“My first impression was the majesty and beauty of the Northwoods. I spent the weekend at the Ascher home on Teal Lake and then we drove into Hayward and had lunch at the Angry Minnow. I was smitten with the charm of the town.”

What do you do in the OCSA organization? How did you get involved and what do you hope to achieve?

“I am the current executive vice president and co-founder of OCSA. Throughout my tenure at United Airlines and Chicago Sister Cities, I met and worked closely with Rick and Susan Roman, the owners of the Signature Room at the 95th in the John Hancock Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. We became very close friends, and when my dear friend Susan was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, Susan and Rick and I knew we had to do something. Together we co-founded OCSA, with a focus on the human animal bond in 2009. 

We reached out to Susan’s oncologist, Dr. Julian Schink, Chief of the Gynecological Division at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. He advocated the importance of education and early detection and the communication of the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer to women, their families and the medical community.

As I mentioned earlier, my father was a practicing veterinarian in the military so the human/animal bond and appreciation for the important role of veterinarians in public health was part of my upbringing. So in 2012, it felt natural to partner with the veterinary community through St. Charles, Illinois-based veterinarian, Kurt Klepitsch, and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association (ISVMA) executive director, Peter Weber, who both believed that the veterinary community could be valuable partners in educational outreach regarding the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer. 

OCSA works to expand public awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer in an effort to contribute to the early detection of this deadly disease, and by doing so, save lives. We educate women and their families on the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer that are often ignored and can all too quickly turn into advanced stages of cancer that are very difficult to treat. Our tag line is ‘Fighting Ovarian Cancer with Animal Passion’ and our core mission is delivered in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences, but none are more important than the partnership we have with animals. We believe in, and champion, the human-animal healing experience by presenting information about the symptoms of ovarian cancer to groups of veterinary students and those working within the veterinary professions. The call to action on our brochures is, ‘You Take Care of Your Pet, Your Pet Takes Care of You, You Need to Take Care of Yourself.’ 

Also, since arriving in Hayward I have had the great honor to meet and work with Sawyer County Animal Control Officer Sherrie Shelton and Deanna Persson, president of the Northwoods Humane Society. We are working in collaboration with NHS to underwrite a Purple Van Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic on July 3 and one in September. Both clinics are sponsored in memory of OCSA advisory board member and pet writer Darlene Arden, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2017. 

We have joined the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce and are thrilled to continue our participation with the American Birkebeiner Foundation. We will have a booth at the Trail Run Festival and will sponsor a runner on Sept. 28. And we are delighted to have a booth at the Birkie Expo 2020 and we will once again sponsor the two young skiers, Cassidy and Riley Gould.”

Your personal goals, pastimes?

“Moving to Hayward has given me the opportunity for a new beginning without my husband. He was my best friend and we were married for 40 years. The beauty of the Northwoods and the kindness of everyone I have met have inspired me. I have had the opportunity to volunteer at the Northwoods Humane Society thrift shop and shelter. I am in awe of all that they do to save the animals and to keep them healthy and ultimately place them with their new families. I have spent time getting to know the leadership and some of the members of the Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce and I know that I can make a difference in the community if I choose to do so. How refreshing is that? And let’s talk about the Birkie—what a fabulous time of year that is—everyone is so dedicated and having so much fun together.”

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?

“I am pretty sure it was when my husband Joe and I took a trip to Munich, Vienna and Budapest. We first met and stay with friends in Oltsdorf, Germany. It was a business trip for me and we proceeded on to our meeting in Vienna. Everything was great and we had a lovely time. On the last leg of our trip, we were going to visit longtime friends who were assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest. We took the hydrofoil on the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest and arrived on time at the boat station in Budapest. As we were standing in line waiting to go through Hungarian Customs, my husband turned to me and asked if I was sure his passport was current. I said, ‘of course!’ I had checked it before we departed the U.S. and we had no problems getting on our flight to Germany at O’Hare International Airport, and then German customs officials stamped our passports upon arrival in Frankfurt. Well, what I didn’t realize was that when I checked our passports I didn’t have my glasses on and my husband’s passport had indeed expired. Me, little Miss Know Everything about international travel missed it! And the border guard in Hungary was the only one who caught it. Lucky for us, our friends were at the U.S. Embassy and we were able to spend the weekend getting Joe’s passport renewed.”

Do you believe in miracles? 

“I believe in miracles and I think Joe had a hand in my entire move to Hayward . . . from the sale of our home in Illinois to my new home here in Hayward— everything, and I mean, everything happened at the right time with the right things happening when they needed to. And then you top it off with a very kind and welcoming community and you just have to believe in miracles. And besides that, I survived the winter and still want to live here. Life is good.”

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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