| Willie and Vivian Larkin fell in love 34 years ago when they were college students at Tuskegee University. Both were bound for careers in academia that took them far and wide. And yet, they made a solemn vow to each other when they were married to keep each other -- and their family -- first in their lives and then worked hard at it during subsequent professional transitions in their lives.
As we talk in Willie's office at UW-Extension where he is the chief of staff of UW-Extension, it is readily apparent that Willie and Vivian are best friends in addition to being married to each other. Once they made the decision to move to Madison from Auburn University wherr they had both been professors, the planning began. Vivian would stay behind at Auburn until she achieved her tenure there, while Willie made the quick transition to the UW-Extension.
They decided to buy a condo for Willie to live in until Vivian moved here and they could find something more permanent. While there were additional costs associated with maintaining two households, Willie didn't look at it as a difficult economic hardship. "If you look at the difference in the salary I have here compared to down there, it could allow us to maintain two homes," he said. " I looked at those as investments. It wasn't like it was expenditures that you would never see again."
Early in their marriage, the couple decided that Vivian had more financial skills and so, she took care of most of the household business. "She gave me a budget and all of that and then she went back to Auburn," Willie said. "And then she would come back and forth. It started out every other week and then it went to monthly and then it got to the point where it would be one month, three months. But we communicated every day via the telephone and e-mails."
It was important for Vivian to come to Madison versus Willie coming back to Auburn because their future was in Madison now and Vivian needed to get accustomed to Madison. "Part of my coming to Madison was my need to get a feel for the place and become acclimated as opposed to me arriving and not having a good feel for Madison," Vivian said. "Also I felt it was important for me to make some contacts. So as I came, I would meet people. I tried to find out what was in the area that would benefit me in terms of my profession if that was something I wanted to pursue."
The Larkins were used to talking to each other each day about their lives, their jobs and their family. Being separated by 1,000 miles made it important for them to talk even more. "A thing I took for granted was that I could walk into the house after a hard day and I had someone to talk to, to sound off with and tell about my experiences and check my reality and my thinking about what happened and how I should handle it," Vivian said. "And when I got home, he wasn't there. And having that conversation on the phone is not the same thing. You don't really get the same kind of feedback. You lose something in the translation when you're talking on the phone or when you e-mail. And because we did not grow up in the technology age, more or less, it was certainly a challenge."
When Vivian came to Madison, it was a very precious time for them and there was much to do. "When we would get together -- I think our normal speech pattern is pretty Southern and slow and methodical -- we started talking faster," Willie said. "We wondered why we were talking so fast and realized we didn't have much time. We had from Friday to Sunday and we were trying to get all of this stuff in and trying to catch up. And we were speeding our conversation up to the point where we probably missed understanding. We said what we needed to say, but I'm not sure we always -- in a very high quality way -- understood what we were saying. Then when it was time to get on the plane or get in the car to leave, you're lingering and looking at the watch and try to postpone the departure as long as you can. Then reality kicks in and you say 'You can't miss that plane.'"
And while Willie was learning a demanding new job, it was important that it not take up all of his internal space and that it not occupy all of his time. "If I go to Auburn and I'm visiting her and my mind is up here in Wisconsin and I'm thinking about a job or a task I've left undone, then that visit isn't going to be the best visit," Willie said. "She's going to be able to detect that I might be there physically, but mentally and emotionally, I'm somewhere else. So you have to work real hard to make sure there is some genuineness and some authenticity there. And whenever you do get home, you put that behind you just a little bit."
On some levels, the transition was easier for Willie because he was preoccupied with getting up to speed on his new job and Madison was were their future life would be. "It was less lonely for me because this job is a really high pressured job with lots of things that have to get done. Coming from a Southern state to the Midwest and learning a new job, getting to know new people and cultural processes kept me very engaged and busy. So I didn't have as much time to think during the daytime about it. Now the lonely times came when I would come home. I would walk into that condo and I would be there by myself. The funny thing is that at our Christmas Party, I won this big bunny rabbit. I took the rabbit home and instead of putting it in the closet or the backroom, I put the rabbit on the sofa in the front room. I would walk into the house and that big old rabbit would be there. And I found myself -- I know I didn't lose it or anything --talking to the rabbit. Or I would be sitting there watching TV and say 'Did you ... oh, well, never mind.' I watched a lot of Westerns on Saturday morning -- me and the rabbit-- and then watched football during the evenings. I was probably less lonely initially at work, but lonelier when I went home."
And Vivian was still living in their old home, still living their old life that had less meaning because Willie wasn't there. "During the 15 months, it was a very lonely time," Vivian said. "I was lonely. I had the dogs, of course, and we spent a lot of time together. They got more walks than they usually got. Again, we don't have family there in the Auburn area. So I got a lot of support from co-workers and friends. But still, they don't know where the line is either. 'Vivian, we don';t want to overwhelm you. We don't know when to call you or when to bombard you.' So consequently, they check on you every now and then with good intentions. And I had the same feeling. I didn't want to be too needy or overly conversational. So you have to strike a happy medium. During the last six months, I found it to be a lonely time. And that's probably when it was stressful figuring how it would end and when it would end."
During the transition, Willie was tempted to ask Vivian to move to Madison early -- and he knew she would come. But it was important for him to respect her life and the decisions she had to make. "But then when she got here, my question is 'What would be her thoughts if things didn't work out right or she didn't like the community?'" Willie said about asking her to come early. "We are very careful to listen to each other and not really give prescriptive advice."
While the initial plan was for Vivian to remain at Auburn to get her tenure in March 2008, it's importance faded with time and the need to move ahead in their new life became more important to Vivian. "Auburn wasn't home anymore because there wasn't anyone else there but me," Vivian confided. ";It was time to move."
In some ways, there seems to have been an unspoken bargain reached between Willie and Vivian when they moved to Madison. Willie would continue to grow professionally at the UW-Extension and Vivian would take her time while she was 'retired' to figure out what she wanted to do with her time.
The most important thing that the Larkins did, in Vivian's opinion, was that they continued to live every day with each other even though they were separated by 1,000 miles. They kept their relationship alive and didn't put it on ice until the transition was completed. "The worst thing would be to put your relationship on hold," Vivian emphasized. " I think the relationship is very important. You have to work hard at that. You work hard at getting the person before you are married and then in the marriage you have to work harder. And then when you are talking about a transition, you have to work even harder. You have to put forth a lot of effort. And I think it was the effort and the open communication that is the best advice I can give. The effort is in terms of keeping the relationship going and open communication is to make sure that each party's needs are getting met and that no one feels left behind. One of the things that I remember Willie explaining so well is 'I need to make sure that you don't feel left behind here at Auburn.' I was glad he said that because, in fact, I did feel left behind. Once he said that, it brought a reality to me that he's really not leaving me behind and he is very aware of what is happening to us. So I felt comfortable that we were going to make this move together emotionally. It was still about us and not about him."
And the Larkins remain as much in love as they were 34 years ago.
|Willie and Vivian Larkin
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 2 of 2