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Professor takes loving look at life of Virginia Galvin Piper


February 23, 2009

The names "Piper" and "Galvin" are familiar to anyone who walks across ASU's Tempe campus, or reads a listing of the campus buildings: the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse. The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. The Piper Writers House.

Who were Paul Galvin and Virginia Galvin Piper?

Of the two, Paul Galvin is, perhaps, the better known. He was the first to design radios for cars, and he founded Motorola, which had a large and looming presence in the Phoenix area in the 1950s through the 1970s.

Virginia Piper was Galvin’s widow – and a woman who would leave her own mark on society as a philanthropist and inspiration to many.

Her story has been lovingly told in a new biography by Melissa Pritchard, ASU professor of creative writing, titled “Devotedly, Virginia: The Life of Virginia Galvin Piper.”

Virginia was married to Paul for only 14 years when he died, leaving her as a co-trustee of the Paul V. Galvin Charitable Trust.

She later married Kenneth M. Piper, a vice president of Motorola, and, after the Galvin Trust expired, established a trust in her own name. The Piper Charitable Trust, inaugurated 10 years ago, supports programs that support healthcare and medical research, children, older adults, arts and culture, education and religious organizations and has given $240 million in grants to date.

Pritchard, an award-winning author who has had who has had three novels and three collections of short stories published, was invited to write the book by the Piper Charitable Trust board. It was Pritchard's first biography.

"I primarily write novels and short stories, non-fiction essays and the occasional journalism piece," Pritchard said in an interview for a Piper newsletter. "The most surprising constraint I found myself working under after the research was done was being accountable for precise facts.

"In fiction, imagination reigns. One paradoxically works to make things up in order to get at emotional truths. With a biography facts reign, and suppositions, and interpretations serve those facts.

"I knew this, going into the project, but still, when I sat down to write the first pages, I was jarred by the imperative to hold to the known facts of Virginia Piper’s life, that any imaginative elaboration on my part would have to be based on a foundation of biographic truths. It was nothing I was used to."

Pritchard spent three years on the project -- the first doing research, the second writing, and the third editing and fact-checking.

She was given a list of more than 100 people who had known or worked with Virginia, who died in 1999 at the age of 87.

She interviewed most of them in person, and followed clues they gave her about where more information might be found.

Pritchard said family members, particularly Virginia's nephew Paul Critchfield, were helpful in providing photographs and other materials from their records.

During Pritchard’s year of research, the "Cinderella story" of Virginia Galvin Piper began to emerge for her.

It started with a chance meeting in a doctor's office:

“When forty-nine-year-old Paul V. Galvin walked into Dr. Greenwood’s office in the Pittsfield Building on Wabash and Washington in Chicago in the fall of 1944, the medical receptionist who greeted him could never have guessed that this man would transform her future,” Pritchard wrote.

"Nor could Paul have guessed the happiness Virginia would bring him after years of hard-won public success and a steady accumulation of personal sorrows.”

Not surprisingly, Pritchard formed a bond with Virginia as her research and writing began and continued.

Pritchard is often asked which of the stories about Virginia is her favorite. Pritchard has two.

"One is the story of Virginia Piper surprising her first husband, Paul Galvin, on Christmas Eve, 1948. She had quietly undergone conversion to the Catholic faith without him knowing, and in church that night, her Christmas gift to him was to stand up and walk beside him to receive communion, whispering, 'Happy Christmas, Darling,'" Pritchard noted in the Piper newsletter.

"The second story concerns a young medical student Virginia took a CPR class from, after her second husband, Ken Piper died. The student instructor failed her in the course, yet they became friends, and she financed his years of medical school. In her final illness, Dr. Jim Dearing, her friend, was her attending physician. The young man she had believed in and helped through medical school, was with her at the end."

Pritchard also is asked what she learned from the life of Virginia Galvin Piper. She says, "I’ve learned what a tremendous impact Virginia Piper had and still has upon people, both personally and philanthropically.

"I learned by her example that one person saying an active 'yes' to God can uplift and inspire countless others, that what you choose to do with the gift of your own life matters a great deal.

"And I learned that joy, a spirit of fun, does not contradict a life of faith or good works, that in fact true joy and cheerfulness spring from these."