Monday, July 8, 2013

Kitty "Keen Eyes" Fleischman

Kitty Fleishman knows something good when she sees it.

“You just have to follow your nose through life,” she says good-naturedly, yet it’s her eyes that have really blessed her.

Given a ‘bird’s eye’ view through airplane flight, Kitty’s love for flying machines is evident. At age five, her first Detroit-Florida flight was spent sitting on her dad’s lap as he pointed out what they saw on the ground beneath them.

Kitty discovered another use for airplanes, later flying with a Michigan friend in a ’37 Aeronca Chief, toilet paper bombing other friends’ houses.

“You can really wrap those trees, let me tell ya,” she laughs, “You can really nail ‘em! I can't fly, but I'm one helluva bombardier.”

Starting career life as a schoolteacher, Kitty taught in Michigan for five years, but always wanted to go out West. As a kid, her hero was Dale Evans and, as a child, she’d worn cowboy hats on her back, affixed with a string around the neck, just like Dale.

An airplane brought her West in 1977, flying her to Alaska where they were hungry for experienced teachers who would stay longer than just one school year—or less—since the rough environment did not sit well with most. Many teachers arrived in Nome and never got off the plane, or took a taxi into town, and took it right back to the airport.

“There were fights in the halls and rough stuff daily, often with knives,” Kitty says.

The students had a chance to take extra curricular classes weekly, so Kitty began to teach a photography class, a subject she loved. Wanting to work for the local paper as a photographer but too shy to ask for a job, a friend of hers who knew the owner of the local newspaper, got her an interview.

Albro Gregory, editor and publisher, stood and smoked as Kitty proudly displayed her collection of photographs. He flicked through them, then tossed them aside and said, “I don’t need any (profanity inserted) ‘photog.’ What I need is a writer!"

Shy at the time, but stubborn nonetheless, Kitty told him, “If you’ll let me do your photos, I’ll write for you, too.”

She worked for the Nome Nugget for a couple of years, while continuing to teach. She and Albro got along famously. During her third year in Nome, she remembers a night she was playing foosball at a local watering hole on the seawall with some friends. Midway through the game, a red-headed man walked in, she took notice, with the thought instantly popping into her mind, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Not a believer in love at first sight, and shocked because she'd just that morning decided it was time for a divorce from her husband, Kitty,  stunned at her out of character reaction, immediately berated herself because she wasn’t even on the rebound yet. She and the man named Gerry, however, quickly became friends.

Kitty was given tenure as she began her third year of teaching in Alaska. In a way, that horrified her. “I realized then that if I didn’t leave, I’d die there, or be like some of the burnouts around me. I knew I couldn't stay.”

Offered a full-time news job in Wasilla, she leaped at it, and was to start the first of the year. Three months later, she arrived on a red-eye and after staying in the Anchorage airport overnight, then called the paper to have someone pick her up.  The editor said, “Didn’t anyone tell you? We have 35% unemployment here.”

The job evaporated, which began an extremely lonely and difficult time in her life, but Kitty was determined not to return to Nome. Renting a car, she drove around town looking for an apartment. Having gone through both newspapers' want ads, she was in the "V" listings in the phone book when she found a decent apartment where she could have her little dog, Hobo. She and Gerry had been writing to each other, but were not a couple. When a sizable earthquake hit on Easter morning, she didn't know a soul locally, so anxiously called her parents to assure them she was all right. They were in Michigan and hadn’t heard anything about the tremors. It then hit home just how isolated she really was.

Six months later, Gerry came up to visit her, on a mission to find out why she'd quit writing and calling. He stayed a short time, then went to Nome for the summer to mine gold. At the end of the season, he came back to Anchorage for a few weeks before going home to Boise. Two months later, she flew to Boise to see Gerry for a week. It didn't go well, and she returned to Alaska, certain she'd never see him again.

At Christmas she took her little dog, Hobo, to Boise to be put to sleep because Hobo had a ruptured disc in her back, and an Anchorage vet said she'd never recover. (In Alaska, human bodies aren't buried in the winter. They're warehoused until spring. Animals are taken to the dump, and Kitty wouldn't consider such an ignominious end for her beloved friend and companion.)

Intending to have Hobo buried near the Boise River, a vet in Boise decided that Hobo actually had a pretty good chance of recovery. Woman and dog fled the vet's office, and Hobo explored the desert near Kuna Cave that very afternoon, walking for the first time since her disc surgery.

Kitty and Hobo both returned to Anchorage.

In February, she sent Gerry a ticket to come to Anchorage for his birthday. During the visit,  Kitty came home from work one night to find Gerry packing her belongings. He asked her if she'd come to Boise, so they could give it a try. He had all of the right requirements: He loved her, loved her children (she had two she’d adopted), and he loved Hobo. What's more, Hobo, an excellent judge of character, loved Gerry.

They packed her little pickup truck and trundled down the Alaska Highway in March, braving ice, snow, and her fears about giving up what had been the best job on earth.

Once there, Kitty kept busy, which seems to be her natural state. Married in ’82, by ’83 Kitty and Gerry considered moving back to Alaska because of the lack of work in Idaho. When preparing to tell Gerry’s dad and step-mom about the move, they found out that step-mom Wilma had cancer.

“If we left, they’d have had nobody here,” Kitty said. 

They stayed.

In 1984, Kitty and a partner started the Idaho Business Review. By 1988, Kitty, still working to get the fledgling newspaper on its feet, was diagnosed with ‘an incurable’ form of cancer, and was told she had only a short time to live. Her doctor advised, “Do whatever you haven’t done yet, things you’ve always wanted to do.”

Trying to make the best of a bleak forecast, Kitty and Gerry went out to lunch on their tenth anniversary, acutely aware that each day was precious. That’s when it happened. Kitty spied a little red ’67 Porsche 911 on a corner, wearing a "For Sale" sign.

“Gerry. I want that,” she breathed, knowing there was no way. They had taxes to pay, very little money, and the paper was struggling. Gerry and Kitty bought the car anyway, using three different credit cards.

“I’m a Detroiter by birth. People don’t drive Porsches there. I didn't know Porsches from Guernseys, but I fell in love…what can I say?” says Kitty.

Owner of a local sports car goodie store, friend Ben Chow kept inviting the Fleischmans to the Porsche Club races at Bogus Basin. Kitty scoffed, "Yeah, Spandex, Latex, and Rolex. Not us!" They finally went to the Bogus Basin Hillcross and, not knowing anyone, sat with their little cooler and dog, O’Malley, at the end of the parking lot.

That day, O’ Malley turned out to be a conversation starter, and they left with new friends who made a wonderful impression. The hill event led to racing in autocrosses, the parking lot races with cones. There were a lot of good times, happy car trips, and friendships. Instead of working seven days a week, weekends became special times for the Fleischmans.

A couple of years went by, and Kitty’s health situation became more desperate. A friend, Beverly Mountain, mentioned she’d seen a Family Circle Magazine article about clinical studies for cancer, saying Kitty ought to check into that. Her St. Alphonsus Cancer Center doctor told her the information was on target, and he helped her get into the clinical study. Her blood values immediately showed improvement, and she was on the drugs for three years before they declared the disease as officially in remission. "It's a point of pride that I only missed a day and a half of work in the three years I was on that trial drug."

Told she’d never see 50, the now-65 year old has enjoyed remission for about fifteen years. It all started with following her nose to the car that led to the friendship, the magazine, and the clinic (at St. Alphonsus) that saved her life.

She still drives her Porsche, BLU MAX, to this day, and has lots of stories about racing, and about being a woman of years driving such a sassy car. Last Christmas, suffering with arthritis, she was getting out of the car at the grocery store, while a smirking woman approached her and asked, "I'll bet you didn't think about how hard that car would be to get out of when you bought it, did you?" Kitty answered, "I was a bit more limber 17 years ago when I bought it." The woman's jaw dropped, and she gasped, "THAT car is 17 years old?" Kitty told her, no, the car was 19 years old, but she'd owned it for 17 years.

Kitty and her partner sold the Idaho Business Review in 1999. The paper still runs today. After the sale, Kitty continued to work for the company that bought the paper for two more years, but that involved a lot of out of state travel. “I hated being away from Gerry. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to be back in Idaho,” she says.

While in Idaho over Father’s Day, Gerry and Kitty took Gerry’s dad and his youngest uncle on a train ride. The siblings talked about their father mining gold in Hell’s Canyon before the turn of the last century. Neither Gerry nor Kitty had ever known he did that. The wheels turned in Kitty’s head, and were further sped up while talking with a friend about his antique business. He had boxes and boxes of old photos.

“How can people just give those up?” Kitty asked him, and was told since there were no names on them, they were considered ‘junk’. Kitty thought this was terrible.

She wanted to find a way to save the history. The idea for the magazine was conceived. Shortly after that, the IBR did a special section that was like a little magazine. Kitty looked at it, held it, and the light clicked on. IDAHO magazine was soon to be born.

“We needed to get Idaho’s stories told while people were still around, and that’s what we are doing. With many of our stories, people passed on between the time they were written and got published. There have been a lot like that. Idaho should be excited about telling its story. When you think about what it takes to make a living and make a life here, and the people who were first doing it and what it took for them…they should be telling these stories, for their children, and for the state!” Kitty says emphatically.

A far cry from that lonely time in Alaska, Kitty can now walk along any downtown Boise sidewalk and see a friend or two. Here since the 1980s, she’s had plenty of time to become passionate about being an Idahoan. "Idaho is my hometown. I've traveled and spoken in just about every corner of the state, and haven't found any I don't like."

For the past twelve years, her IDAHO magazine has been tying people and the stories behind them together for the rest of us, with subscriptions in all fifty states, plus Canada, Guam, and Afghanistan. When digital versions become available later this summer, the publication will be able to fulfill the requests they receive from all over the world.

Kitty Fleischman, most undoubtedly, knows something good when she sees it.

She is still passionate about flying, car racing, dogs, and Gerry, and not necessarily in that order.

For someone who says she is well past legally blind without her glasses, that’s one keen pair of eyes, Kitty Fleischman.

 *For more adventures in Idaho, (with recipes between the stories!) get the "Appetite for Idaho" book here.

And visit the Appetite for Idaho Facebook page, with new stuff to do posted every weekday!

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