Scott's journey to city hall started with philosophy, dance
Her Honor raises flowers – and no genteel, ordered garden, either.
Giant swaying bushels of peonies, froths of bleeding hearts and tangles of tulips dominate her yard, competing desperately with a wild burgeoning of thimbleberry brambles.
“Gardening,” says Stephanie Scott, Mayor of the Haines Borough, “is about being content with the chaos of the now because you can trust that it will be beautiful in the future.”
Scott is no stranger to chaos. Her life has taken sharp zags.She was living in a 10-foot-diameter yurt with no water or electricity when her first child was born. She faced down and won over a group of severely disabled deaf students who tormented and even stabbed a former teacher. She was twice selected as a Department of Education Christa McAuliffe fellowship recipient.
Scott cuts a trim figure, tiny really, with close-cropped grey hair and a ready smile. Her resourcefulness is reflected in a moderately successful business selling cut flowers from her garden with an innovative, subscription-based plan. It’s not exactly a living but at least her horticultural habit works to support itself.
Scott started out in New Jersey, born into a political family of practicing Quakers. “My father was once the Mosquito Commissioner of Monmouth County,” she says with a mixture of pride and humor.
Scott remembers her childhood on the New Jersey coast – sailing, beachcombing and water-skiing – as happy despite her mother’s struggle with alcoholism that kept her in and out of mental institutions. “The effect on my sisters was more profound than on me… I lived so much inside my head. I did not depend on my parents. I just recognized early on my mother’s frailty and my father’s loyalty.”
Scott left her life in New Jersey behind “as soon as I could,” but held on to her Quaker upbringing. Scott describes her connection to Quakerism as a culture and a way of life rather than a religion. “I don’t see the need for postulance, but I do see the need for silence and compassion and openness and curiosity.”
Scott’s high school years as a boarding student at the venerable Westtown Quaker School in Pennsylvania deeply shaped her. “It was life-changing.” She recalls an encounter with the headmaster who told her: “You never know who amongst you is carrying the word of God.” Scott said those words are thcentral to her life philosophy.
“What he was telling us is that you can’t discount anybody because you don’t know where the truth lies. You have got to stay open-minded and not approach with prejudice, not have your mind made up,” Scott says.
It’s an approach Scott believes is her strength as Mayor, and the reason for her winning campaign. “I think my strength is my eagerness to touch base and to communicate with all groups in our community regardless of stereotypes or position. My emphasis on conflict resolution and civility is what was desired (by the voters) at this juncture.”
Scott says her Quaker roots also help her to stay grounded in politics. “Part of being a Quaker is that you never have titles, you never demand respect, you can (only) earn respect. Nobody is better than anybody else. I can see how people get caught up in politics and it is a little dangerous. For me, it is a mental discipline to remember my ordinariness and that I am mostly ignorant and in a constant state of learning.”
“She doesn’t take anything personally,” says long-time friend Beth MacCready. “She has the ability to back up and see the big picture: that we are all human beings and we are all trying to figure it out.”
A Quaker professor led Scott to choose philosophy over journalism as her undergraduate major. Her minor was in dance. Scott’s father disapproved of her choices and cut off support, dropping her out of a comfortable middle class life and into student poverty.
After graduating from George Washington University in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, she attended the Boston Conservatory to study dance. She shared an apartment overrun with cockroaches and had prostitutes as neighbors. For lack of bus fare, she walked through the cold Boston winters.
“I remember going to the corner store and watching this guy peel off some money from a big roll of bills and all I had was enough money to buy a quart of milk and some bread. It was so hard.”
One her teachers at the conservatory “very kindly” told Scott she wasn’t cut out for professional dance. Instead, the teacher encouraged her to think about teaching dance and invited her to lead a movement therapy class for deaf children.
Scott says she was “fascinated” with her students and their development and when she was offered a scholarship spot in a master’s program to study special education, she took the offer and focused her study on the deaf and hearing impaired.
After earning a master’s degree, Scott took a job at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. “As a brand new teacher I must have cried every single day. I had no backup. I had no toolbox. I just decided I was going to trust and respect (my students).”
The students were considered incorrigible and unteachable. They were violent and had stabbed one former teacher. “I was determined not to be afraid. I believe that people respond depending on how you treat them, and if you treat them with fear these expectations are very powerful.”
Teaching brought Scott to Haines in 1973 with husband Bob Schwalbach.
Scott met Schwalbach in Vermont, at a maple farm where she was working during a break from teaching. It was love at first sight, and in typical early 70’s fashion, they left town in a Volkswagen with “a credit card, a dog, two cats, a guitar and lots of gallon jars of dried food.”
“At some point in time, we got tired of being poor,” Scott said. “One morning I got up and said, ‘You know, I have a master’s degree in special ed, maybe I should try to get a job.’”
They decided on Alaska, where Schwalbach had fought fires one summer and was eager to return. They pored over the maps and chose Haines because they planned to grow all their own food. “Living here was really his dream, his vision, and I am very grateful to him for having that vision because this is the only place I want to be.”
Shortly after settling in Haines in 1973, Scott and Schwalbach were invited to join a land trust: a group of families purchased land jointly at Paradise Cove and built their homes individually. This unusual agreement meant that each family owned their home but not the land beneath it.
Scott still lives in the house she and Schwalbach built. To build it, they carted supplies with a wheelbarrow while living in a 10-foot-diameter yurt with their first child. Now, the house has plumbing and electricity and an attached sunroom with giant slices of glass that capture light as it filters through trees.
Scott left her job as Haines’ special education teacher when she had children of her own, whom she homeschooled. “The pinnacle of my life was becoming and being a parent. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t aspire to it. But it was the best time of my life.”
But teaching always drew her back. “I never thought I would make a career out of being a teacher. I never regretted going to work. I had a wonderful time with the other teachers. I absolutely loved it. The years would click by.”
In the late 1980’s, Scott began a doctoral program at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, studying group and cooperative instruction. She had finished her coursework and passed her qualifying exams when her marriage broke up. Scott came back to Haines with her two younger children. “I didn’t want to stay in Tennessee. I just wanted to come home. I needed to come home.”
“She was devastated,” remembers MacCready, “She left a Ph.D. program where she was like a rock star to come back to Haines. This place grounded her. For Stephanie, getting busy and working again is how she pulled it together.”
“I do have regrets,” Scott says. “I regret the failure of my marriage. I regret not finishing my Ph.D. But that doesn’t define me. I love my life. It is just that some of the paths that I walked down turned out to have different endings than one would have anticipated.”
Last year, after years of public engagement, including time on the borough assembly and as staff to a renewable energy committee, Scott decided to run for Mayor.
“Nobody persuaded me. This wasn’t anyone’s idea but mine. In fact, I had people try to persuade me the opposite way. I had people say, ‘Why don’t you run for Assembly?’ (meaning) Why don’t you do something more within your reach? But I didn’t want to be on the assembly. This is a very different job… I told (former Mayor) Jan (Hill): ‘I want a turn; I just think I want a turn, now.’ This is not a career choice for me. It is a service choice.”
There’s a steep learning curve to holding the borough’s top elected position and Scott is thankful for the hours spent in statistics classes. She said she applies her training as a behaviorist on a daily basis: “I tell the assembly, ‘Just smile, because everyone will feel happier.’”
She finds her undergraduate focus in philosophy to be relevant as well. “The important thing that I learned studying philosophy is that it depends on your point of view; there is no right answer. All of these different philosophers explain how the world works and they are all so sure, and they are all so different. It becomes clear that there are many answers.”
“She is doing it exactly the way she has approached every other project,” says friend MacCready. “She studies it, she studies every issue completely, she puts her full energy into it. Whatever she does, she is going to do it 100 percent, that is a guarantee.”
Scott is enjoying her new position. “It’s a very creative job. I get to have ideas, make crazy suggestions. That’s pretty fun. I only wish everyone would wear name tags.”