By Mary Schafer
Alumna Mary Finn Shapiro’s Path Winds around her Humanities Background Continue reading…
Mary Finn Shapiro (humanities ’78) stands in the Wells Fargo building in downtown Minneapolis amidst the bustling lunchtime crowd of people carrying deli take-out, cell phones, and shopping bags. In front of the huge red stagecoach that dominates the building’s lobby, Shapiro is talking to a photographer about cameras: the incomparable quality of the single-lens reflex; the camera stores Shapiro’s father owned; the Hasselblad’s superior image quality and durability.
These two have never met before—the photographer is here to take a picture to accompany this story—but their serendipitous conversation provides a clue to how Shapiro has steered her life: she makes a connection here, unearths a link there, follows an interesting lead that way, and life unfolds as a surprise rather than according to a strategic plan.
Take, for example, that stagecoach in the foyer. As a Wells Fargo symbol, it has no doubt generated plenty of conversations. But as Shapiro considers it, its Wild West connections remind her of her father and a family vacation in the Tetons. Shapiro was in sixth grade and so immersed in Archie and Veronica comic books in the back seat of the car that she didn’t want to be bothered with the view. After her father died in 1992, she went back west to run in Montana’s Beartooth Pass race in her father’s honor. She placed third in her age group.
Shapiro is an intellectual property paralegal for Wells Fargo & Company, a job that’s not even a distant cousin to the humanities degree she got 30 years ago. “But part of the person I am—the interests, the values, the stuff I don’t normally give voice to—these were nurtured and fostered during my years at the University," she says. “My experience in the humanities is something I would put high on the list of what has formed my life."
She took her first humanities class, an Enlightenment course taught by the relatively new faculty member Richard Leppert, in January 1974. “I thought, ‘Here is something I could really care about,'" she says of the class, adding that Leppert gave her both the affirmation and the "comeuppance" she needed to expand her interests and set her standards high.
Eventually, Leppert became her undergraduate adviser. “Without him, I would have been a humanities major," she says, “but not such an avid one. That’s why I tell my kids, 'Get a mentor.'"
A Well-Lived LifeIf Shapiro’s life has a serendipitous quality to it, it may be, she says, because "my personal life has always driven my professional life." Two marriages, three kids, the challenge of single motherhood, and avocations that have ranged from running to writing have all shaped her professional choices. Early on, she thought about graduate school and was for a time a graduate assistant for Leppert, spending months digging through dusty archives in London libraries doing research for his book. Since then, her winding path has taken her to positions with the University of Minnesota Foundation and a paralegal certificate, which led to her current position at Wells Fargo.
She’s serious about her work but is still likely to see that, if you’re reflective about the kinks in the road, they will steer you toward the well-lived life.
"I strongly believe in regrets," she says, "not to wallow in them, but to learn by looking back on your decisions."
And then she looks back, pulling up a memory of the summer she was 12, when her parents took her sister and her to see their first opera. "We had to leave because the two of us couldn’t stop laughing," she says. "We just howled. On the other hand, I went to a Monkees concert a few weeks later, sat in the front row, and screamed my head off."
Over the years, Shapiro has come to love opera. But you get the impression she still might go see the Monkees.