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Doyel: A thank you to my brilliant, caring sister on Thanksgiving

Gregg Doyel
Indianapolis Star

We don’t need an excuse to say thank you – well, we shouldn’t – but sometimes an excuse comes in handy, doesn’t it? Like, me, right here. I’m looking for an excuse, a quantifiable reason, to say thank you to Kathryn Farrago. So I’m googling “Siblings Day,” assuming there is such a thing. Maybe there is. Maybe it’s coming up soon…

Well, yes and no. Says here, there is National Brothers and Sisters Day. But it’s not until May.

And this can’t wait six months.

Gregg Doyel and his sister, Kathryn Farrago

Kathryn’s my sister, obviously. Different last name, though not for any of the reasons you’d think. You’ve got to hand it to us Doyels, and us Farragos: Nothing normal about those names.

Nothing on the calendar, either, to make it OK to devote an entire story to my sibling. Only thing happening this is week is Thanksgiving, which —

Wait a minute. That’ll do just fine.

This year, on Thanksgiving, on the long list of people, places and things I’m grateful for, I’m most grateful for my sister. My hero.

This one’s for you, Kathryn.

Brilliant student rewarded by UNC

She’s never had her moment, my older sister. Not really. Certainly not from me, and I’ve handed out moments like Halloween candy. Written about my dad several times, right here at the IndyStar. Written about my mom for Mother’s Day. On Father’s Day? Back when I was at CBSSports.com, I devoted a story to my sons, Macon and Jackson, and here at the IndyStar I wrote last year about Jackson’s relationship to his cat, Marms.

Shoot, I’ve written about my cat, Theageek. And dog, Indi. And a dozen other canines in the Chatham Arch neighborhood. Even my therapist got a story!

I’m like Oprah, handing out cars: You get a story, and you get a story, and you…

Kathryn has never had a story, but that’s typical. She’s always been behind the scenes, a longtime administrative assistant at IBM (now Lenovo). In the old days, back when my mom was working at Ole Miss, people lumped her and everyone else who did that sort of work – important work, supporting someone higher up the organization chart – into the word “secretary.” That word’s not nearly descriptive enough for someone who manages the travel and calendar and, basically, full-time work life of a high-ranking executive. Along the way, the world started using a better, more descriptive term: administrative assistant.

Anyway, the best admins are mostly anonymous. And Kathryn Farrago, like her mom before her, is one of the very best. They're often the smartest people in the room, but they don’t act like it. They might not even think about it. But they are.

Kathryn scored in the 1400s on her SAT and was second in her class – salutatorian, you call that – at Oxford (Miss.) High School in 1986. How’d I do, in those metrics? Mind your business, but let’s just say: You could’ve spotted me 200 points, and her SAT score still beats mine. Let’s not discuss class rank.

Kathryn received a full academic scholarship to the University of North Carolina, and if you know anything about UNC, you know it’s almost impossible to be accepted there, much less be paid to attend. But she’s unique. She majored in chemistry and would have done amazing work in that field, but life happened, you know? She was working with hazardous materials, and decided maybe that wasn’t the life for her. She married, then decided maybe that wasn’t the life for her, either. Along the way she changed her last name, not wanting her husband’s name or her maiden name. A fiercely independent woman, Kathryn wanted her own name. She chose Farrago.

With her ex’s help all those years ago, her credit went into the dumper. Smartest woman I know, Kathryn declared bankruptcy. Hope she doesn’t mind me telling you that, but her story isn’t one of failure. It’s one of success.

And then, over time, it became one of heroism. A big word, heroism. Can’t just throw around that like candy. Got to back it up.

Watch me.

My sister, my hero

Here’s the thing about parents: They get older. Over time they stop taking care of us, and eventually comes the day when we’ll help take care of them.

I say “we” loosely, as if that’ll be me. It won’t.

My sister’s got this.

Talking about my mom here. She’s fine, my mom, but she was born during World War II. Even vintage cars break down over time, you know? Mom’s lived alone for decades – when I called Kathryn “fiercely independent,” she takes after her mother – and hopes to live alone the rest of her life. My mom’s “Mother” and “Daddy,” my grandparents, lived to be 93 and 87. My mom has a long way to go, and she plans to go it living alone.

But Kathryn wants to be close to her. Just in case. Just because.

Right now, Kathryn lives in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, near the confluence of UNC, Duke and N.C. State. My mom has been in Columbia, S.C., since the 1990s. That’s a four-hour drive, one Kathryn’s made hundreds of times. For fun, for holidays, for support. She’s done the work I couldn’t, or maybe I should say, wouldn’t.

When I think of my sister, I think of a line from that beautiful Dan Fogelberg song, “Leader of the Band.”

My brothers' lives were different

For they heard another call

One went to Chicago

And the other to St. Paul

My life was different. Divorce took me and my dad 1,000 miles away when Mom and Kathryn were still in Oxford. I’ve lived in seven states since then, including six years in North Carolina, where oddly enough Kathryn and I lived six houses apart.

Anyway, I’ve been a long way from Kathryn, and my mom, since moving to Ohio in 2003. All those drives Kathryn made to Columbia, S.C.? I should’ve – and could’ve – made half of them. But didn't. Don’t get me wrong: I love my mom fiercely and have made the drive to Columbia from Ohio, and now Indiana, many times. But nothing like Kathryn has done.

“I’m closer,” she always says, as if her four-hour drive from North Carolina to South Carolina is a trip to the convenience store.

She’s about to get closer still.

Again, my mom’s fine. But she’s in her 70s, and there will come a time when she needs the kind of help she’d never ask for. And she’s never asked for what you’re about to read:

About 10 years ago, Kathryn decided she would retire in Columbia to be near Mom. Understand, Kathryn’s whole life is four hours north, near Raleigh. Friends, even a god-daughter. They’re in North Carolina, where Kathryn has lived since 1986. Her goal was to move to Columbia after retiring at 60 – from credit-killing bankruptcy to retirement at age 60 on an administrative assistant’s salary; a marvel, my sister – and that’s nearly a decade away.

But life is happening in Columbia. The vintage car, it needs some work. Kathryn told me this week she’s moving up her schedule, planning to move to Columbia within two years. The pandemic has shown her, and her boss, that she can do her work remotely. She’s already looking for apartments in Columbia, because that’s who she is: smooth and efficient, making the hard stuff seem easy. She’s a world-class admin.

And a world-class daughter. Which makes her a world-class sister, because she’s willing to sacrifice everything – her life is in Raleigh – to be closer to my mom. Just in case. Just because.

Imagine how grateful I am, here in Indianapolis, to have this dream job and to know I can keep doing it – living out this life I’ve chose and come to know so well. That’s another line from “Leader of the Band,” and yes, I’m aware, Fogelberg wrote that song for his father. But I hear the lyrics and think of my sister. Especially these, which I’ll tweak only by changing the pronoun:

She left her home and went her lone and solitary way

And she gave to me a gift I know I never can repay

For you, Kathryn, my sister, my hero, on Thanksgiving.

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