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Suzanne Pogell

Mar 12, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous

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“Our teaching is student- and learning-centered at Womanship,” explains Pogell. “We help the learner gain confidence in herself by learning and advancing the actual skills in her own way. We know you need to go at your own pace to make the connections and to understand how to put it all together. You want to get on the boat to start sailing, not spend hours looking at diagrams on a blackboard.”

Short in stature but tall in accomplishments, Pogell has a face framed by silver hair and her eyes sparkle as she shares the tenets that have guided her. In 1978 she moved to Annapolis, a divorcee with a 10-year-old daughter, to become the director of public information and public participation for the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Bureau. During her tenure she spearheaded the creation of the Chesapeake Information Resource Center (CIRC), with the aid of a $100,000 Citizen Participation Grant from the National Science Foundation; was a member of both the White House Public Participation Task Force under President Carter and President Clinton’s Women’s Business Council; served on the executive committee of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay; and was a commissioner on the Annapolis Environmental Conservancy.

Eager to enjoy her new home’s proximity to the water, carrying on a love affair with Chesapeake Bay nurtured since her childhood in Baltimore, she decided to take a 2-day sailing class with her sisterEmily Rody, a Baltimore lawyer. On a hot August day with no wind, “We tacked and jibed so often that I came away thinking you sail a boat by flapping its wings” says the woman who went on to found her own sailing school in 1984.

Pogell’s colleague at the Smithsonian, Vivian Harquail, now a longtime friend, invited Pogell and four other women onto her 36-foot boat, Blue Fish, for a week with the Cruising Club of the Chesapeake. That week changed Pogell’s life. With three very experienced sailors on board—who, nevertheless, were sailing on their own for the first time without their husbands aboard—Pogell, a novice, didn’t anticipate doing much sailing herself. “But suddenly Vivian said ‘Suzanne! Take the winch!’ And there I was, part of the team that was making this boat go! It was not just exciting,” says Pogell. “The experience of sailing the boat in concert with my crewmates, plus the physical power I felt the first time the wheel responded to my touch and the boat moved forward, made me a partner with the wind and the water. I was already in love with the water and now sailing had enhanced the connection.”

Born Suzanne Miller, Pogell grew up in Baltimore. She credits both her parents as strong influences in her life. “My mother was a wonderful pianist who played by ear at an early age and won a scholarship to the Peabody conservatory. She was liberal to the bone, amazingly foresighted, a real visionary.” Her father, who owned a women’s sports-clothes business, she describes as “the rock of Gibraltar. He is the one who gave me the backbone to manage on my own.”

Having earned a bachelor’s degree from Goucher College, Pogell served a brief stint on a lead poisoning project at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. Then her first career was as a social worker in foster care and special services for the Baltimore City Department of Public Welfare. “I learned what poverty really does to people,” she says. “It deprives them of both the resources to help themselves and the opportunities, avenues, information, and training to identify and make use of them. My work at the DPW also honed my analytical, outreach, and managerial skills and just about everything I have done since has drawn on that experience.”

Married to a research biochemist, Pogell lived in a number of cities in the United States, Argentina, Denmark, and Japan. She speaks Spanish and French and has a working knowledge of Danish, Portuguese, and Italian. She says she enjoys reading and comparing the English and original Spanish novels of her favorite Chilean storyteller, Isabelle Allende.

While living in Argentina she was drawn to studying international relations and intergovernmental policies, with emphasis on Latin America. “My husband’s research fellowship enabled him to be the first foreign scientist to work with Argentina’s two Nobel Laureates following the overthrow of Juan Perón,” she says. “And I was struck, during that time, by the sharp contrasts I saw between Argentina and the United States, in the quality of services, infrastructure, civil and human rights.”

She began her master’s studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and completed her degree in international relations and public policy, with emphasis on Latin America, at the State University of New York at Albany. While living in both communities she was an active supporter of civil rights legislation, participating in integrating public facilities and institutions and working for job training for the disadvantaged. For the League of Women Voters she lobbied for one man, one vote in the Tennessee Legislature.

On first coming to Annapolis from University City, Missouri, to take up her position at the Smithsonian, Pogell experienced unexpected resistance as a woman on her own. “The first accountant I called said it was unlikely my salary would be sufficient to afford his services. When I first attempted to buy boats for Womanship, I was told I needed a male cosigner.” In response, with other essentially disenfranchised female professionals, she helped organize the Annapolis Women’s Network. Coordinated by Michael Cohen at the YWCA, “for many years it served Annapolis professional women with an opportunity to network, find out what they needed to know and whom to go to for services,” she says.

“The League of Women Voters provided a wonderful training ground for people like me—in my case, particularly in the areas of legislation and other issues relating to the environment,” says Pogell. She is one of the founding members of the Spa Creek Conservancy, where she currently serves as chair for outreach, education, and training. She talks passionately about the Conservancy’s new Rain Barrel Lesson project, to teach city residents and business owners to install rain barrels and use them to reduce and filter the storm water that runs off their roofs and down their gutters. “Storm water runoff is our watershed’s major environmental challenge,” she says. “By training people to use rain barrels not only are we affecting the quantity and quality of water flowing off our buildings and streets but we are building a community of informed and actively involved stewards of our waterways.”

In the fall of 1981 Pogell was appointed director of public relations, publications, and the audiovisual laboratory at Anne Arundel Community College. “I found the work at AACC gratifying,” she says, “because I could stick my finger in just about every pie in the county. I could reach out to this diverse community with information, events, and college offerings appropriate to their particular ages, educational and occupational needs, and aspirations.”

While at AACC and raising her daughter Pogell was pursuing her love of sailing. “One March evening when the air was balmy,” she recalls, “I was driving home over the Severn River bridge when something suddenly struck me. ‘It’s time to go sailing,’ I heard myself saying. But who was going to invite me, I wondered . . . ‘No,’ I told myself, ‘I can do it myself.’ Then I began to wonder how many women out there might have no idea about sailing and how great it could be for them!”

At the end of November 1984 Suzanne Miller Pogell headed down to the U.S. Virgin Islands to see about starting a sailing school. On December 28, 2007, Womanship celebrated its 24th anniversary.

Developing the curriculum and the collaborative teaching approach she envisioned was a gradual process because Pogell wanted to incorporate the input of instructors and students as they learned. Her approach uses the boat and the sailing environment as the classroom. She knew it was important to give her students a complete step-by-step learning experience that would enable them to gain skill and nurture their confidence. “Nobody Yells”—the famous motto inscribed on the Womanship T-shirts given out to students and instructors—quickly became a symbol of the relaxed environment conducive to learning that Pogell strove to create. “From the outset I wanted to get students quickly and comfortably in charge of their own learning,” she explains. “I saw our job as one of consummate professionals explaining the principles of sailing; demonstrating the specific skills and tasks; and, in a supportive setting, facilitating individual and group learning and the ability to lead.”

Over the years Pogell has developed a variety of courses geared to women only as well as to couples, families, social groups, corporate teams, and groups of breast cancer survivors. Sailing out of 16 U.S. and international ports, Womanship’s onboard courses teach all the skills you need to be able to sail and take charge of a cruising sail boat. Daylong seminars and working sessions in a boatyard teach everything from how to select a boat to how to maintain and operate the engine. Pogell has written and directed an instructional video and book, Sail Yourself Safely Home. She has written a number of articles for regional and national magazines and she is a popular speaker on the topic of women and sailing.

When asked what she considers her proudest accomplishment, Pogell responds, “I’m never satisfied. I just feel very good when I know something I’ve done helps affect the quality of other people’s lives.”