The Significant People We Meet

At certain points in our lives, we meet people who are meant to be significant to us. Hazel Dicken-Garcia was one of these people for me.

It’s a little known fact that I never intended to go to the University of Minnesota. I was born in Wisconsin, and I was raised with the border rivalry that goes along with having half my large extended family living across the border in Minnesota. Aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides of my family proudly touted their status as alumni of University of Wisconsin, and I learned the lyrics to “On Wisconsin” practically before I could walk. When I was looking at doctoral programs, I didn’t seriously consider going anywhere else to begin with. But when I took the GRE, I was given the opportunity to send my scores to three places for free. On a whim, I chose the University of Minnesota as my third place, behind UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.

To be clear, I hadn’t even looked at the programs the U of M offered at this point.

I almost didn’t send in an application.

But on the advice of my husband, who is a big fan of not relying on any one path too much, I went ahead and applied to all three schools, and I specifically applied to Communication Arts at UW-Madison, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U of M. I wasn’t yet sure what direction my doctoral research would take me. I thoroughly enjoyed and engaged with the cultural studies theory I was learning under Karen Riggs and Mia Consalvo at UW-Milwaukee, and they encouraged me to apply to Comm Arts at Madison to continue that work. Given its proximity to Milwaukee, it was easy for me to visit Madison, meet with faculty, attend a class, and find an apartment. We were ready to sign a lease when I got a phone call from someone introducing herself as Professor Hazel Dicken-Garcia.

We spoke at length about the program at the SJMC and the kinds of things I could study there. She asked me about the research paper I’d submitted as my writing sample (“The Printing Press in London”) and whether I’d considered an appropriate conference venue for it. We had an interesting and engaging discussion, and before the phone call ended, I had agreed to at least visit the University of Minnesota before making a final decision.

So I made the arrangements to leave. I drove up from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities, picking up my mother from Chippewa Falls on the way, and submitted to a tour of campus, discussions with faculty, and exploration of the program.

I met Hazel in person, and within 15 minutes, I knew she was one of my significant people.

We talked more about the printing press paper, the kinds of research I had done to that point, my career as a reporter. We talked about my deep interest in history and how it might work into my budding interest in cultural studies and new media. And she encouraged me to submit my work, identifying several journals and conferences to which it might fit. She especially recommended the American Journalism Historians Association conference. By the end of our meeting, I knew I was meant to go to the Twin Cities and work with Hazel.

I called my husband from my mother’s home on my way back. As I was intending to pick up a lease for the Madison apartment we’d decided upon on my way back, too, he was understandably a bit blindsided by the decision. But one thing about my significant other? He’s always supported my career decisions. Always. And this time was no different.

I spent the night at my mother’s, and went to visit my ailing grandmother, Elsie, the next morning. I made her breakfast, and we visited a long while. She sort of rolled her eyes at the thought of me going to the University of Minnesota, but she appreciated that I’d be closer to my family. It was the last visit I shared with her. She passed away days later.

That grief is tied up with all those decisions that spring–the move to Minnesota, the research direction I took into the history of farm women–but it also ties into how I feel at Hazel’s passing. Hazel encouraged me. She supported my research. She offered critical suggestions and fostered my development as a scholar in ways I could never have imagined at the time I met her–when I knew she was a significant person.

I was one of her last dissertation advisees. The summer that I was writing up my research findings for my dissertation, I also started work on a quilt for Hazel.

Quilting is a tradition in my family. Elsie made us all quilts when we were small, and my mother and aunts picked up the habit, too. My mother helped me pick out the pattern for the quilt I wanted to make for Hazel as a thank you.

We chose an Underground Railroad quilt.

Much of Hazel’s work focuses on Civil War-era history, and the legend of the underground railroad quilt tied in quite nicely. It’s predicated on the notion that supportive families on the Underground Railroad used specific quilt patterns in specific ways to point slaves on their way to freedom. They’d hang a quilt out on the line, freshly washed, unobtrusive and innocuous, but the quilt pattern itself had meaning.

I bought the pattern book and worked my way through making each of the different samples. It drove me absolutely bonkers. It was, in fact, the last quilt I made. I made the patterns in flannels, so they were soft, and my mother quilted it with thick batting. The finished quilt was soft, warm, and perfect for wrapping around someone who was already struggling with her health.

When I gave it to Hazel, she cried. She drew it up around her shoulders and cuddled into it, and she told me she loved it.

Inside that quilt, in every stitch, I tried to show how I loved and appreciated her as a mentor, a friend, and a significant person in my life.

I would not be the scholar, or the person, I am today without her influence.

Underground Railroad quilts


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