ALAMOSA — Aligning the course of her life with Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Liz Thomas Hensley shared her personal story of struggles and victories during the October “Lean In” lunch in Alamosa.
The Adams State professor and city councilor gave her presentation in the same building she had once worked as a server and bartender as she worked her way through college as a nontraditional student raising her two daughters on her own. The former Grizzly Inn now houses the SLV Health Education and Conference Center.
Liz Hensley remembered reading Dr. Suess’ book “Oh the Places You’ll Go” to her daughters and crying because “each step was something I could relate to.”
Her life began in a traditional family setting as one of six children raised in the San Francisco Bay area. Her father instilled in his children a lifelong love of sports as well as the belief they could do whatever they wanted to do in life, “and he really encouraged education.”
She added, “We were a big family. We had a good house, food to eat but not a lot of extras.”
She started working at age 11 with a newspaper route.
When Liz went to high school, she attended college prep, which was very beneficial later in life when she went to college as a nontraditional student.
When she was 18 her father died suddenly. Her mother suffered from an ongoing illness, which worsened with her husband’s death.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 1: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go …”
“I felt I could go anywhere,” Liz recalled.
She went to a technical school for computer programming and already had a job as an assistant manager when she graduated from high school. She met her husband Steve, an “awesome person, a good person,” but with a mental illness that he self medicated with alcohol.
“In one sense my life was going great because I started a new career, but on the other side things were collapsing, probably a lot sooner than I was willing to see it,” she recalled.
“The ‘fixer’ in me kept thinking we will figure this out.”
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 2: “You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”
Liz was approached to be a salesperson, selling clothing to department and specialty stores. She had been in retail and done very well, so she took on the challenge, and her business took off. But while her professional life was going well, her marriage was not.
Liz tried to make things work for 14 years, but nothing was changing. Her husband had also become abusive and violent.
“It was not a situation I should stay in,” Liz said.
It was to a point where Liz, who now had two daughters, Erin and Samantha (“Sammie”), needed to leave the area.
At this point, the clothing industry was also changing. Liz left her husband and moved with her daughters to a new place and new job in Los Angeles, California.
“I was starting over,” she said.
Six months later the apparel mart where she worked in downtown Los Angeles closed suddenly, and when Liz went to work she found a padlock on the door.
All of a sudden Liz had no job, no money, and she was soon evicted.
She found herself and her two daughters homeless, living on unemployment, having a hard time finding a job.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 3: “You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch. You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”
Liz was in a slump.
“When you hit that bottom, it’s hard to get back out,” she recalled.
She was working odd jobs here and there but not making enough to pay first and last month’s rent.
“We started living in motels,” she said.
Her daughters were attending school in Arcadia, which was a school district outside of LA. The catch was that the students had to live within the Arcadia district. Liz was not about to uproot her daughters from their school, so she would stay in a cheaper motel outside the district for two or three weeks and then move into a motel within the district for a week so the girls could continue to attend school there.
“The girls were troopers,” Liz said. “They were awesome.”
At one point the roof over their heads came down to a bingo game.
Liz had $50 in her purse, and no more income for a few days, and she had to pay for the motel. Before her mother passed away, when she was sick she loved to go play bingo, and Liz had gone with her mother to bingo games.
“I went to bingo praying I would be one of the winners so I could pay for the motel. I won $200. I think someone was watching over me,” she said. “It was the most stressful bingo ever.”
Liz had kept in touch with a friend from high school, Linda Hinton, whose family had moved to Monte Vista. Linda suggested this might be a good place for Liz to start over.
“I thought ‘what have I got to lose’? We sold everything, paid off everything.”
Liz gave each of her daughters one cardboard box and told them they could only take what they could fit in that, because they couldn’t afford to ship anything.
The two girls, a dog and Liz drove her T-Bird from California to Colorado, “and I started over.”
Her first job in the San Luis Valley was working as a server at Hungry Logger. She then moved up to bartender and then bar manager.
Liz worked in various South Fork restaurants and bars, but since the restaurant business was busier in the summertime and slower in winter, Liz was having a hard time making it.
She got a job at McDonald’s in Alamosa. She was initially embarrassed, having never worked fast food before, but her daughters were delighted they had access to Beanie Babies, which were part of the kids’ meals at the time.
Liz came to the point of having pride in working at McDonald’s because “I was supporting my family.”
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 4: “You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
Liz and her daughters were living in Del Norte, and Liz was hanging out with people who were not necessarily a good influence, so she decided she needed to make another change. She and the girls moved to Alamosa, and she applied at the Grizzly Inn where she got a job as a server. She very quickly moved up to bar manager.
Many college professors and students came in, and somebody asked her why she didn’t go back to school. She went to Adams State and applied. Even though it had been 20 years earlier since she had taken college prep courses, they came in handy, and she did not have to take all of the introductory courses.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 5: “Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!”
“I went for it,” Liz said.
Grizzly Inn Owner Nacho Martinez was very supportive, and Liz was able to keep working while she attended college.
She also had support from her customers and her daughters.
“That couldn’t have been easy for them,” Liz recalled. “My focus was how do I make our lives better.”
In addition to going to school and working at Grizzly Inn, Liz worked for Great Lakes. She would go at 4:30 in the morning to de-ice the plane, check people in and get the plane off.
Liz’s career goal when she went back to college was to do something professional. Her junior year some of her professors suggested she think about becoming a college professor.
Liz realized that in all of her jobs she had enjoyed training people and helping people learn new skills. She decided to pursue the goal of becoming a college professor.
Also about that time she met her now-husband Lynn Hensley, who was her “polar opposite, very, very different,” but very supportive of her. He provides a good balance in her hectic life.
After achieving her undergraduate degree, Liz advanced to her MBA, which she earned through Arizona State.
When Chili’s came to Alamosa, Nacho Martinez encouraged Liz to take the manager’s job, which she did.
She worked at Chili’s while still working on her MBA followed by her Ph.D. She earned her MBA from Arizona State University in 2007 and her Ph.D. from Capella University in 2015.
“Oh the Places You’ll Go” Quote 6: “And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)!”
“The rest is history. I got my job at Adams State, finished my Ph.D. Things have really snowballed,” Liz concluded. “Just as much as they can snowball downhill, they can snowball uphill.”
She said she enjoys her job as assistant professor of marketing and MBA director at Adams State University.
“I love to work with students. I love to see them succeed,” she said.
She remains a “fixer,” and her mind is always thinking of ways she can solve problems. She has not fallen into self pity when she has had problems but has figured out ways to solve them and “staying positive, persevering and thinking outside the box.”
She has also brought those skills into her role as Alamosa city councilor where she has served since 2015.
As Dr. Seuss invited, “Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So … get on your way!”