COLUMBIA – Sarah Read is trying to smile more.
“A friend told me that I need to smile more because it always looks like I have my lawyer face on,” Read said, sitting in front of a press camera at her office.
3802 Bedford Drive
PERSONAL: Age 54. She is married to David Read; they have two daughters, Anna, 24, and Molly, 21.
OCCUPATION: Attorney, majority owner of The Communications Center.
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Arts degree in British studies, 1978; juris doctorate from University of Wisconsin Law School, 1981.
BACKGROUND: Earned certificate from the Harvard/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Public Disputes Program; volunteer facilitator for the Columbia Visioning Committee; consultant contracted by the city to draft the Visioning Implementation Report; board member of the Columbia Public Schools Foundation; member of the American Arbitration Association's Panel of Neutrals, which specializes in alternative dispute resolution; contracted by Columbia Board of Education for a training session on communications; past moderator for First Christian Church; co-founder and past and current president of Columbia Parents for Public Schools.
But pushing aside her attorney demeanor might prove difficult for Read, one of four candidates for the Fourth Ward seat on Columbia City Council. After all, Read planned through most of her youth to become a lawyer, and she has spent the past 29 years of her life practicing law, acting as a mediator and running The Communications Center in Columbia. The Center provides communication training and coaching.
A quiet youth
Growing up in New Jersey suburbs, in the shadow of New York City, Read decided to pursue a career in law based on guidance from her father, an international attorney. It was pretty clear where her interests lay early on. During her high school and middle school years, she actually enjoyed going to work with her father when she got the chance.
"I used to go hang out at (my dad's) office on school vacations, and people would let me sit in on meetings and stuff," Read said. "When they wouldn’t, he’d say, 'Go ride the Staten Island ferry' or 'Go watch the stock exchange.' One was an hour and one was two hours, so he could change it up if it was a short meeting or a long meeting."
The young Read also took advantage of her close proximity to New York by touring museums and other cultural attractions. She spent most of her days, though, "hanging around the house," reading or taking art classes, she said.
"I was told frequently that I was prematurely old when I was a teen," Read said. "I have always liked to work so I did a lot of that; reading, working, volunteer stuff."
That work paid off during her years at Montclair High School. Read was a member of the East Coast Model United Nations club in high school.
"My senior year, I led the delegation (representing) Algeria at the East Coast conference in Washington, D.C., and met with the Algerian ambassador to create their platform," Read said. "We led a Third World coalition on a particular issue."
Read applied to Yale University and was given one of only a handful of offers.
"Most of the schools on the East Coast, like Yale, had quotas by school," Read said. "I was a pretty good student. Not all A’s, but I did take (advanced placement) classes and did well on things like tests. I had a very extensive volunteer resume , so I probably got in on the well-rounded category."
Her father set her up for a future in law, buying Read her first business suit when she was 12.
"Law school was in the plan all along," she said.
The history behind the text
Yale gave Read every intellectual opportunity she could imagine. What she wanted, though, wasn't a political science or pre-law degree. Instead, Read pursued a degree in British studies. For a voracious reader, the British studies program had all the right components: history, English and art history.
"At Yale, you could walk into the Beinecke Rare Book Library and read; if you were doing a paper on Edgar Allan Poe like I did, and take out the original version, sit there and read it," Read said. "They had velvet-leaded weights to hold the pages down and stuff like that."
One of Read's favorite texts was an original illustrated Gutenberg Bible that was put on display several times while she was an undergraduate.
Read said that at the time, Yale was at the forefront of a shift in modes of literary criticism. English scholars began to view texts as isolated works, focusing on diction, syntax and various literary devices to find meaning rather than the historical background.
Read didn't like it.
"There is a great beauty to words and language," Read said, "but I am just much more oriented to the pragmatic, practical application."
Read was particularly interested in the World War I period. She wrote her senior thesis on the intellectual effects of the war as shown in art and literature.
"I was very interested in World War I because both of my grandfathers were in World War I," Read said. "One was in the Rainbow division that saw most of the major battles."
At Yale, Read was able to read a multivolume British study on the effects of the war. Part of that study, Read said, included a collection of letters the British government asked people to write about how the war affected them.
"There were very clear themes that emerged from that," Read said. "Basically, one of the clearest being, 'I’ve lost my faith in mankind and the future...' That was echoed in a lot of literature.”
For Read, studying the war era brought to life something that had always interested her: "The intersection of events and systems and how that affects (people's) lives."
"We live in a period of very great change compared to a hundred years ago; just think of the range of changes, even in the last 20," Read said. "It’s something that requires a lot of adjustment, and it’s often very uncomfortable for people, and that has an effect on how people react to things."
Meeting Mr. Read
"It was sort of hard to not meet a million guys at Yale because I was (in) one of the first classes of women," Read said.
The residential colleges at Yale were similar to MU's freshman interest groups today, Read said. The same groups of students would live and take classes together throughout their college careers.
"Everyone had a living room, and guys would just come and hang out in your living room because they wanted to sit and talk to girls, study and whatever," Read said. "Someone would ask if anyone wanted to go to a movie, and 10 people would say, 'Yes!'''
It was in that group of students that Read met her husband-to-be, David Read. The two really began to know each other when they were both enrolled in a religious studies class and began seeing each other more often.
"We had a lot of thought-provoking, interesting discussions where a lot of other people just weren’t that interested," Read said.
The Reads live a pretty quiet life together now. Aside from occasional summer travel, the two spend much of their time either at home or work.
"Most of the time, we aren't doing anything too Earth-shakingly exciting," David Read said. "On Saturdays, she vacuums the house."
David Read said his wife never really spends time relaxing because she always is finding something to do.
Sarah Read filled her time for a while by volunteering with the Vision Committee. Read said she was able to put her experience to work facilitating conversation in the development group of the vision process, which sought to learn what Columbians want their city to become over the next 20 years.
"The way Columbia has grown has strained the sense of community for some people, and it was a great way to get a broad dialogue going on some of the key issues we have," Read said.
A long commute
"She is most definitely a multitasker, usually thinking about a million different things at a time,” said Molly Read, one of Read’s daughters. Read even managed for years to balance a home life in Columbia and a law practice in Chicago. The 1981 graduate of the University of Wisconsin law school was a partner and energy attorney for Sidley Austin LLP. Read said she helped draft a law that restructured the energy industry in Illinois.
"I've been involved in energy policy for a very long time," Read said. "That and school policies; both (are) areas where I've had a lot of opportunities to study public disputes — how they can be resolved, how you can help people through difficult issues."
To deal with the long commutes to Chicago and the time away from her children, Read and her daughters made an effort to catch up with one another’s lives.
"When she was traveling we would each write notes to each other in a journal and then trade when she got home to see what the other had written," Molly Read said.
Of course, Read wasn't always absent. When she was home, the family made a big deal of having dinner together whenever they could.
"She is a great cook and also makes a home-cooked meal every night," Molly Read said. "No matter how busy everyone was, we always took the time to sit down, eat dinner around the table and catch up with one another."
For Read, cooking was a great way to relax. Even now, Read said she likes to cook in the evenings when she comes home from The Communications Center.
Dave Overfelt, an employee of Read's who also helps manage her campaign, said working for Read has been "a unique experience" because it allowed him to translate his education in sociology into something practical.
"Sarah is the hardest worker I have ever worked with, and at the same time, the work she does is of the highest quality," Overfelt said. "It was hard to get used to, but it has improved the quality of my work as well."
Read said she believes she’s qualified to serve on City Council because she has a lot of experience not only reading statutes but also drafting them.
“Not only have I been a mediator and a facilitator, just helping people talk,” she said. “I’ve also helped design collaborative processes and public engagement processes.”