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Humble, funny, and above all indomitable: Kathleen Fay is a local treasure

Story by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Kathleen Fay, longtime PTA volunteer, winner of California PTA’s prestigious Golden Oak Service Award, and current legislative advocate for California State PTA, is well-known around town for her indefatigable spirit and tireless work on behalf of students and their parents. 

She’s known for creating and implementing a number of wonderfully innovative programs, including LBHS’s Student Grant Program, which gives students a voice in suggesting ways to improve their campus experience, and provides funds to ensure their ideas become reality. 

And she’s known for volunteering endless hours with Little League, Scouts, AYSO, and the Patriots Day Parade, to mention just a few organizations that have benefited from her energy and her expertise over the last 18 years. 

This is what you don’t know about Kathleen Fay

But what most people don’t know about Kathleen is this: she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly two decades ago. Yet she has accomplished goals that would challenge even the healthiest among us. 

“I haven’t shared my diagnosis with many people – early on, I did tell some friends, but I couldn’t handle the pity in their voices every time they asked how I was,” Kathleen says, holding on firmly to her right hand, which shakes a little when she’s nervous. 

“Most of all, though, I didn’t want my young sons to find out. I didn’t want them growing up thinking that their mother was an invalid, that they must be careful not to rebel or challenge me. I wanted them to have a normal childhood.”

LLP Humble funny Kathleen

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Kathleen Fay

But when Robin Williams died six years ago, Kathleen began to think that at some point, it might be time to share her secret.

“I was shocked, stunned, when I heard a few people say, ‘oh, he had Parkinson’s, so no wonder,’” she says, becoming animated. “I realized that at some point, when my kids were older, I needed to spread the word that Parkinson’s is an obstacle, not a death sentence. The diagnosis doesn’t mean your life is over.”

And why go public now, at this juncture, with this interview?

Kathleen leans forward. “Because Stu is the person I would have asked for advice. He’d have helped me understand how the community might react to the news and how I should let people know. And if he trusted you and Shaena, then I knew I could trust the way you’d share my story.”

For a moment or two, both of us are silent, thinking how much Stu is missed, what a rare person he was, how he was the heart and soul of Laguna Beach for so long.

Kathleen sets out to retrain her brain

After four neurologists confirmed Kathleen’s diagnosis, none of whom knew what the others had concluded, she admits that she was upset at the confirmation and saw “a wheelchair in my future.”

But Kathleen isn’t one to feel sorry for herself for more than a few nanoseconds. Already fascinated by science, she began researching the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can often adapt well after an illness or injury.

“You don’t irrevocably lose brain cells and abilities because of a ‘bad weekend in Mexico’ as it was once thought,” she smiles. “The brain is very capable of developing new pathways.”

So that’s what this determined, resourceful woman decided to do: retrain her brain. She set out to use both sides of her body alternately, occasionally “surprising” her weaker right side with a task it wasn’t expecting. 

“Now I’m close to ambidextrous. Doing these exercises, plus meds, have kept me pretty stable, though nowadays I have to think where to put my steps when I walk,” she admits.

Being Kathleen, she has found an inventive way to meet that challenge too. She conjures up songs inside her head, matching her pace to various tempos, depending on whether she’s strolling, striding, or just plain walking. 

“I sing beautifully inside my head, unlike in real life, where I can’t sing at all. I even have to lip-synch ‘happy birthday,’” she says, displaying her talent for one-liners (of which more later). 

Her sons are music to her ears

Interestingly, Kathleen’s sons are the opposite of tone-deaf. Both are terrific musicians, among other talents, so maybe there are musical genes buried deep in their mom’s DNA. And naturally, given her creativity, they have the most interesting of names.

“Thor’s full name is Thornton, a family name, but as it turns out, he does have a few things in common with the Norse god of thunder – he’s a drummer, and he has long thick blonde hair,” she explains. “I named Drake after the Drake Equation.”

Which, she tells me, is a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. She’s a wonderfully wonky woman, I’m finding out, fond of delving deeply into science and policy issues.

LLP Humble funny church

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Kathleen is also the business manager at Laguna Presbyterian Church

Her sons are into sports in a big way, particularly Drake, who hasn’t met a downhill that he didn’t want to race down, on skis or anything that helps him move fast.

But, says Kathleen, “I’m not sporty. You can tell from the way I throw a ball that I’m great at reading.” 

See what I mean about being good at one-liners?

Passions of pre-PTA Kathleen: Finance and a fiancé

Passion one: “I loved economics in high school,” she says. “When I asked my teacher what careers that might lead to, he looked at me [quizzically] and said, ‘Hmm, I suppose you could teach.’ It stopped there. No other suggestions.” 

The teacher’s skepticism about a woman holding a job in finance didn’t hold Kathleen back. Before she left the corporate world to be a full-time mother and volunteer, she worked as a stockbroker and investment advisor.

“It was a man’s world in those days. There were just two women in the office. You had to have a thick skin, work hard – and know how to swear,” she says. “Which, I must say, I did rather well.”

Passion two, then and now: Her husband Tom.

Thirty-four years ago, during her lunch break, blonde, blue-eyed Kathleen, no doubt a knock-out, spotted Tom walking into a deli in LA.

“The minute he came in the door I felt the electricity,” she says. “I kept smiling at him, but he didn’t respond. Ordered my food, turned and smiled again. Nothing. In those days, it was unusual for me not to get some kind of response. I even gave a full ‘over the shoulder’ smile as I left…but nothing,” she says. 

LLP Humble funny couple

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Tom and Kathleen

“When I got back to the office, I called the owner of the deli, asked her to be discreet and find out who he was and where he worked. Well, she wasn’t in the least discreet. She told Tom I was interested in him and he gave her his business card. 

“That Friday I headed to the deli again, got his number, called him, we went out to lunch, then dinner, and the rest is history. 

“He said when he saw me smile at him, he just kept muttering to himself, what do I do, what do I do…”

Kathleen’s “inner squirrel” is busier than any bunny

Being busy and productive is very important to Kathleen – that’s why she loves her job, since July 2019, as the business manager for Laguna Presbyterian Church, where she’s an ordained deacon, and yet still spends hours upon hours in her role as legislative advocate for California PTA. She’s visited Sacramento twice already this month. 

“Reading legislation is my idea of a good time…really!” she says, and I don’t doubt her for a minute.

Here’s another one of Kathleen’s great one-liners, spoken as we discuss how full her life is. 

“I meditate, but I find it hard sometimes to focus,” she says. “Even when I’m watering the garden, my inner squirrel runs fast and hard on the wheel.”

Inner squirrel! Awesome!

Long before her Parkinson’s diagnosis reignited her interest in brain science, Kathleen was fascinated by behavioral economics as espoused by Robert Sepolsky, a famous neuro-endocrinologist and author. 

(For the uninitiated, and that includes me, here is the definition: Behavioral economics studies the effects of psychological, cognitive, emotional, cultural, and social factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions.)

Kathleen explains: “For example, advertising that an item was 99c and is marked down to 53c suggests that the item is of a higher value than it actually is. Kids need to learn to look out for these kinds of tricks, which can have an exponentially greater impact when used in the political sphere.”

So it is that one of her goals as PTA advocate is to lobby for the kind of education that gives kids a real-life understanding of how the brain processes information, and why that’s important. 

Fascinated by science, Kathleen is also a lover of the arts.

“The arts make us more fully human,” she says. “They enable us to express our creativity. Every teen needs to find a social and emotional anchor that makes them want to come to school, doesn’t matter whether it’s band, sports, or academics, as long as they feel they have found ‘their’ people. Often that anchor is the arts in one form or another.”

Kathleen and Tom adore Laguna Beach. She points to the Patriots Day Parade as an example of a quintessentially Laguna event. 

“Everyone is so happy to see each other, hugging, chatting, laughing,” she says. “We’re like a small Midwestern town plunked down on the coast.”

While Kathleen’s profile is high, and her skills greatly appreciated by locals, she is not in the least interested in elective office. 

“For me, achieving brings rewards, not being the center of attention. If all the world’s a stage,” she says, “then I’m happy to be a stagehand.”

More like several stagehands rolled into one, I’d say.

Humble, funny, and above all indomitable: Kathleen Fay is a local treasure.