Unusual careers

By Diana Brement, Jewish Sound Columnist

What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in a place like Pakistan?

Margaret O'Connor with her husband Christian Richards.

Margaret O’Connor with her husband Christian Richards.

If you’re Edmonds native Margaret O’Connor, you are working as an “academic exchange specialist in the South and Central Asia branch for the office of academic exchanges in the bureau of education and cultural affairs at the U.S. Department of State.” (There goes my word count.)

Interested in international relations and foreign policy, Margaret majored in Poli-Sci and Jewish studies at Indiana University. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the root of her interest. She was “really intrigued by how those negotiations happen and how policy decisions are made,” she says. (We had our interview very early in the current conflict.) She was also inspired by her mother’s family, refugees from Nazi Germany.

After college, Margaret volunteered with Avoda, a service corps based in Washington, D.C., where she now lives. She also returned to Israel to study at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Israelis and Palestinians work side by side.

“I find grassroots peace very important,” she says, and wanted to link that to her interest in policy.

She went to Johns Hopkins for a master’s in conflict management and international economics, focusing on “what brings people to the table instead of fighting.” The Fulbright program “really aligned with my values [and] provides tangible benefits for people,” she says.

The program arranges international student and teacher exchanges with U.S. citizens, and brings overseas students to study in the U.S., particularly in graduate schools.

Margaret first worked in Afghanistan and says “there’s a real need to provide quality education” for the people of both countries. Currently, the U.S. sends very few students to Pakistan because of safety concerns, but Pakistanis make up the organization’s largest group of students coming here. Recruiting women is an important part of her job, which comes with its own set of challenges, she says.

Travelling to Pakistan about once a year, she works closely with local partners to recruit participants and run pre-departure orientations to prepare them for travel and “what culture shock really means.”

Margaret calls the Fulbright program “a really important way for the U.S. government to engage,” a “big part of public diplomacy” that builds good will and mutual understanding.

Security is always an issue in Pakistan. “There are a lot of places that, as a foreigner, I can’t go,” she says. She does not wear a headscarf, although she brings one with her, and doesn’t discuss her religion.

Margaret grew up at Seattle’s Temple Beth Am and graduated from Edmonds-Woodway High School. She is a triathlete and met her husband, Christian Richards, at a running store in D.C.

“He asked me to go on a bike ride and then insisted we get bagels,” she says.

• • •

Mary Lynne and Marvin Reiner were at a family camp at Seabeck when I called. It was just after dinner and they were nice enough to take time to talk to me. They’ve been attending this camp with their four children, 14 grandchildren and now one great-grandchild, for many years.

Marv grew up in Aberdeen, where his mother and father, a watchmaker, had moved during the 1920s. With the Depression, he opened a general store which Marv turned into a sporting goods business. (He had a Honda motorcycle dealership, too.)

In the 1970s the couple bought some land near Olympia for reforestation. From the act of planting trees came the idea to have a Christmas tree farm and Marv launched another business, one that is still going strong as he moves into his ninth decade.

“It’s been good exercise for me…I enjoy getting out,” he says. He also enjoys the quiet. “The trees don’t talk back.”

It takes seven to 10 years for a tree to mature, so the business didn’t start overnight. Once they began selling, they “found they had a commercially viable corner for you-cut trees.”

Marv retired from the Aberdeen store in the ’90s, turning it over to his son. The couple had moved to Olympia around the time they opened the farm, becoming active at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. Before moving, they were also active at Temple Beth Israel in Aberdeen, where Marvin served as president for 10 years.

At Black Lake Trees, “you cut or we assist,” says Marvin, who enjoys interacting with customers. Folks are “happy when they’re out buying trees,” he says. “They smile, they bring the kids.”

Even without a gift shop or horse rides, they continue to be popular.

“We’re down to third-generation customers,” Marvin says, calling it “a labor of love” and “not a way to get rich.”