Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Gifts from My Father – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Gifts from My Father

Posted on February 4, 2012 By

My adoptive father was an imposing figure and an educated man. He had many close friends in his inner circle and he was well-known in the mid-west and particularly Minnesota where he lived for most of his life. I affectionately called the Keans ‘Mom and Pop.’

Doc was in his fifties when he and Pearl adopted me. I was five years old at the time and fresh from a series of foster homes that I had shared over a three-year period with my five older brothers.

Our natural parents gave us up for adoption after our house burned down and their ill-fated marriage collapsed.

ellen_siblingsNatural mother, Baby Ellen and her five older siblings

The above group photograph is the only one known to survive those early years of our young family in northern Minnesota.

The local welfare system tried their best to keep us all together in a single foster environment but in the end they couldn’t. Eventually we were placed in separate homes. Philip went to live with his best friend’s family; Ken and Curt went together to a new foster home; and the two youngest boys were placed in a catholic orphanage.

The path I took was an improbable one.

A good friend of a local doctor told him about a 5-yr old girl that urgently needed a home. The doctor’s friend knew the social worker who was involved in a welfare case that at the time was being closely followed by regional newspapers. A few days later the social worker contacted the doctor who agreed for her to bring me to his home for a visit — a visit that stretched for hours, and included my all-time favorite lunch of corn on the cob and bacon.

I, of course, was smitten.

That first visit also went well with the Keans and things apparently progressed quickly behind the scenes. I soon found myself back with them in time to enter Kindergarten as their foster child. By that next January I was sitting on a local Judge’s lap answering his questions during formal adoption proceedings.

A Little Background

Doc Kean and his wife, Pearl, were married late in life. Pearl had never been married and Doc had had a previous marriage that ended with his wife’s sudden death, leaving him to raise a 5-year old boy [and only child] on his own. That son was already an established physician in New York when his father finally remarried.

It goes without saying that the introduction of a talkative young child into their lives was something neither of the Keans had anticipated. But it happened!

Keans_1950*Photo of Pearl and Doc Kean, taken in 1951
at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City

We quickly settled into our new life together.

I learned many things from Doc Kean, the inveterate educator, over the years. But one thing that stands out from all the rest is his insistence that, no matter what, I somehow find a way to make a difference; that is, to stand out from the crowd in some way and to also give voice to things that were important to me.

It was a tall order and one that I didn’t entirely understand until years later.

What Form Did This Take?

My initial foray into making a difference came in kindergarten when I became director of our school’s first-ever kindergarten band. A crisp black and white director’s uniform was made just for me and I had a long, thin baton as well as a very important and imposing director’s hat.

I remember looking back at the others in the band thinking “Was this fun or what!?”


Later that year I sat on Santa’s lap for my very first time.

It was during a pre-Christmas visit to Chicago that this happened. I was bowled over by all the tinsel and toys and Santa’s bright red velveteen suit and, god knows, I talked his ear off. I was jubilant; that is, until I suddenly came down with the mumps a day or two later.

ellen_santa1951*Santa and me in the Windy City

“There is always a little bit of bad with the good.” Doc told me as he held a cooling washcloth to my forehead. “You have to learn to take the lumps.”

Those were pretty big lumps I thought and right then and there I had an inkling that the road ahead was not necessarily going to be a smooth one.

That first Christmas with my new family came and went and I was awash with gifts enough for ten of me. The tree was gigantic and sparkled with hundreds of colored lights, joyful music played throughout the house, and neighbors came and went as I sat beneath that Christmas tree deep in thought.

I secretly worried about my brothers because I did not know where they were at the time. Our connection had been lost, and yet I felt that these presents should have been theirs, too, and all the rest.

When children came to my house to play with me I would send them home with these newly acquired gifts, much to Pearl’s chagrin. I didn’t feel any sense of ownership over them, and I really didn’t feel all that happy to have them.

That was my first big lesson.

Things Do Not Make Us Happy

I am a very giving person, however, I do not like the commercialism associated with Christmas. I prefer to spend time with friends instead.

The following are examples of the kinds of things that touched me deeply.

I made all my own birthday and valentines and Christmas cards as a child — big ones, you know, with over-sized handwriting in dozens of colors. And I loved to bring the Keans ‘breakfast in bed’ on their birthdays. On my 7th birthday we three were having lunch together when Doc asked me to go get a tool for him in the garage: huh, I asked? But he said it was extremely important and to just please do it. I came running back into the house yelling that someone had left their shiny new bike in our garage, and it even had training wheels! It didn’t occur to me that it was a birthday present for me. We laughed a lot over that as he pushed me on the bike for the nano second or two that it took me to find my balance and then I was gone…poof!…to show off my new bike to all my neighborhood friends. That, needless to say, was a present I loved.

Once my middle brother, Curt, gave me a doll. I had been living with the Keans for some time by then and Curt wanted to show me that he was thinking of me. He brought me a rag doll that he had made for me in school – he even made the corduroy pants and shirt the doll was wearing – and he painted a welcoming smile on the doll’s face. The cloth of the doll’s body was milk chocolate in color, probably made from some old socks he had found around the house. That doll I also loved, and it is still one of my most precious possessions.

My oldest brother, Philip, and I become great friends as adults even though we lived on separate coasts. We made it a point to talk weekly by phone and did so for years, laughing together and remembering, and sometimes worrying, about our childhood days and the people (good or bad) that had passed through our lives along the way. Philip was the historian, and we planned to write a book together about us six Johnson kids.

I had occasion at one point to invite Philip on a 3-week trip to South Africa with me. I had won an all-expense paid trip as first prize winner in a Washington Post photo contest, and I was stoked by thoughts of the unencumbered time that he and I would be able to spend together. He hemmed and hawed for weeks leading up to the trip because he said his health wasn’t particularly good and he worried about his ability to physically manage such extended travel. However, he relented and we had a wonderful time together. Little did we know that it would be our last time together. He died in his sleep months later and I was left to grieve for him with bittersweet images of black rhinos and leopards and lions and African elephants and Philip dancing in my head.

There is More

I was profoundly moved by unexpected events on yet another occasion when I had an opportunity to visit Doc Kean’s old ‘Duck Camp’ at Bowstring Lake. While visiting friends in Northern Minnesota I decided to find this place that I hadn’t seen since my childhood days. It was Doc’s favorite place and those were memorable days of fishing with Doc and learning the ins and outs of  duck and other bird calls and harvesting wild rice.


I found my way to the camp with help from a childhood buddy who got directions and permission for me to go out there.  I remember my heart beating ever-faster as I approached the old camp, not knowing exactly what I might find there.

Seeing the old camp at long last filled me with memories but the real treasure was what I found in the camp’s LOG BOOK that brought my past zip zip into the present.

There, on its pages, in handwriting that I instantly recognized, were words on page after page that told the world I had been there, on which dates, that I had caught x-number of fish, or shot this or that gun, and that I had been there, of course, with Doc.

That visit was a gift that keeps on giving.


Music For the Soul

A lasting gift from the Keans was the gift of music.

I tap danced up a storm as a child and I took all kinds of music lessons; not so much to become a famous musician but (according to Doc) to become a soulful grown-up. Music is an international language of love, he said. It’s meaning transcends all barriers.

I didn’t necessarily understand that as a child or even a teenager practicing J.S. Bach fugues my Steinway, but I know it now because music still moves me in ways that nothing else can.

When Pearl Kean died, years after Doc’s death, I had a grand piano placed on the altar of the Catholic church where her funeral was held. I stepped up to the altar and spoke with the friends and family members that had gathered. I told them of the gift of music that the Keans had given me, then I sat down at the Steinway in that beautiful old church of my childhood and played Autumn Leaves for Pearl and for them.

Another time I had an opportunity to take over a classroom of emotionally disturbed children near where I lived in Virginia. Their teacher had suddenly taken ill and I was to be her replacement, much to the chagrin of the children, of course. They missed their teacher and they balked at my sudden intrusion into their lives. The fact is, I wasn’t even a credentialed teacher but I had a masters degree in Special Education and, more importantly, school was about to start.

But I found my way, and I managed to reach these children through music. They learned to spell to music, to count to music, to march to music, to dance to music – indeed, everything that happened in that classroom of twelve fragile children was done to music. We even belly-laughed to music, and it wasn’t long before they loved me as much as they had loved their prior teacher, and that made me glad.

The lesson was that music is a tool for the good life.

Another Lesson is That Words Do Matter

Doc was a real stickler for words. He was an avid reader and proficient in five languages, and he expected me to an avid reader as well. Whenever I approached him about the meaning of a certain word he would send me instead to the dictionary. I’d shake my head and press him to tell me whatever I wanted to know right then and there, but he was unmoved by that and before I knew it books had become my best friends, too.

To this day I treasure books, good books – not necessarily any book – but books that inspire and force me to think big thoughts.

I learned that words forge friendships between strangers half way around the world and across the millennia.

During my years as a practicing family therapist clients often asked me what books they could read to help them through their difficulties. There were none, I said, save for literary classics and books about our natural world. Read those, I told them. Don’t read dreary SELF-HELP books. Read about the real world, about life and the passion of pursuit, and about the joys of exploration and self-discovery.

Read to Your Heart’s Content

In particular I learned from Doc to read authors, not just one book by one inspiring author; but rather every book that that inspiring person has written. As a result I learned how that author thinks, how they view the world, how they manage complexity and, most importantly, how they see themselves in relation to the world around them.

Eventually I could turn to the INDEX of a book and know whether it was important enough for me to read or not, just from the sources it referenced.

That was an important discovery that I took with me into the academy. Unfortunately Doc Kean died peacefully in his sleep as I took my tentative first steps down those hallowed halls of learning.

Mentors and More

In my graduate work I became enamored by the work of biologist Paul Weiss who at the time was professor emeritus at Rockefeller University. He had been honored with the Medal of Science for establishing the principle of cellular self-organization, among other pioneering breakthroughs.

I was studying living systems and his work was intriguing to me. It was from him that I learned that cells reassembled from different organs in the body can organize themselves into miniature copies of the donor organs without direction from a central source. This, to me, was systems thinking at its best and I was hooked.

Dr. Weiss wrote hundreds of scholarly articles and eleven fascinating books, ten of which I had already read but could not for the life of me find a copy of the eleventh. I contacted Rockefeller University where they kindly gave me his wife’s address and I immediately wrote to ask if she knew where I could get that book. Mrs. Weiss kindly sent a copy of it to me by return mail and thanked me for my interest in her husband’s life work.

Dr. David Bohm was an important post-graduate mentor of mine. His writings as an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist increasingly drew me in as I tracked his musings about wholeness and the implicate order. I read many of his related books and articles as I pursued my interest in a systems view of the world. It was during a time when my interests were progressing from biology to physics and finally to my all-encompassing study of the family.

And Then There Was Dr. Bowen

In addition, I had enduring personal input during those same years from Dr. Murray Bowen.

Dr. Bowen was a well-known pioneer in the study of the family. I will never forget the first time I listened to a Bowen lecture at Georgetown: I was there with my very first boss from the mental health system, Dr. Martin Palmaz, who just knew that this was a place I needed to be. I sat on the edge of my seat and couldn’t believe my ears as I heard Dr. Bowen describe the dynamics of a multi-generational family system. Talk about being stoked! My long years of association with Dr. Bowen’s work and the Family Center at Georgetown turned into yet another one of those gifts that keep on giving.

The Lesson of Thinking Big Thoughts

Throughout those professionally formative years I learned that big thoughts and big ideas are easily crowded out by the press of lesser things.

Daily life does this, and perhaps a kind of intellectual laziness also does this. It is easier to focus on what is required of the moment and to allocate life’s more critical questions to some more distant plane.

However, if it hadn’t been for the likes of those self-selected mentors of mine, along with so many other visionaries too numerous to note, including Ayn Rand, my own machinations about the world would be quite different today. They inspired me to think deeply about the world and to search until I uncovered great ideas that I could truly believe in.

Doc Kean would be proud of me, I think.

DrEllen_4x6_BW*Dr. Ellen in the field as an international photojournalist