Near the end of April, Tyra Manning will return to Oak Park and River Forest. She will be the keynote at the annual benefit for Thrive Counseling Center. Back in the 1990s, while she was the school superintendent in River Forest District 90 elementary schools, she served on the board of Thrive, which in those days was known as Family Service and Mental Health Center.
It will be full circle, back to two towns that, though now retired home to Texas, Manning still calls her “heart home,” the place that “treated me so well” over a span of nearly 20 years.
And so it will be in Oak Park that Manning can now tell the full story of her life — painful, complex, public and hidden, often solitary, always brave. That story unfolds in her new memoir, Where the Water Meets the Sand, a book that she began writing in 1984 and which is only being published now.
As one who saw Manning entirely from the outside, at the top of her game, as a person who proved it possible to elevate an admired school district to one of sustained excellence and innovation, her story is a revelation. I was given an advance copy of the book and on Friday had a long conversation with Tyra Manning.
All of us came to know, and the Journal reported on, an essential piece of her story during her closing years as superintendent. Widowed as a young bride when her husband Larry Hull, an Air Force pilot, was killed on a secret mission over Laos during the Vietnam War, it was during those River Forest years that his remains were finally discovered, later recovered, and eventually brought back to the U.S. The story culminated in 2006 when, after decades of intense focus on her part, Lt. Hull was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the book, she describes “being overwhelmed with gratitude” after finding many River Forest school board members, principals, teachers and friends in the hotel lobby on the day of the service in Washington D.C.
But it is the parallel story to her beloved husband’s death that makes Tyra Manning’s life story of loss and recovery so powerful and compelling. It had roots in her childhood, facing up to her dad’s early illnesses, his death at just 36, and the spiraling of her teenage years into drinking, failing grades at school and an early pregnancy ending in an adoption.
Her life was saved, she believes, by her courtship and marriage to Hull, the birth of their only child, Laura, their intensely shared commitment to his military service and her dream of going back to school and becoming a teacher.
“He adored me just the way I was. He saw me as a whole person for the first time,” she said in our interview.
But Hull’s departure for flight training and a guaranteed tour in Vietnam aroused intense fears that, like her father, her husband would not survive, and Manning was poised for a steep fall into mental illness.
Remember, this is 1970. West Texas. Small town. Manning alone, living in a trailer with her very young daughter, going to school, drinking too much, convinced her husband would never return. That’s when the depression, the anxiety, the eating disorder took hold. Bulimia, binging on food, purging food, in an effort to shake loose emotions that could not be confronted.
And then, in an instinctual response, having never heard of the concept, Manning began what we’d now call cutting. Using a small tool case of razors and bandages, she found greater emotional release in self-injury.
Looking back, she said, “I have no idea where the idea for cutting came from. It was an addiction, a compulsion. I had never heard of anyone doing it.” She recalled though “the humiliation” that came when she would inadvertently cut too deep and needed to go to the local emergency room and explain what had happened.
Her therapist in this early day, in this small place, recommended that Manning could get better, faster, if she took the then-harrowing step of admitting herself to what would have been known as a mental hospital, or, in less advanced circles, an insane asylum. That’s how she wound up at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, one of the most noted and progressive mental health facilities in the nation. Even so, she writes, after her mother dropped her there, following a brief admittance interview, the moment came and she was walking down a hallway with a nurse dangling a set of keys. “What have you done, you idiot?” she thought. “You just walked into a locked ward. You must be crazy. You deserve to be here.”
Manning spent eight months in residential care.
It was where she first talked openly about the profound impact of her father’s death, the way it was not acknowledged at the time even as the house filled with relatives and casseroles. Where she meshed her drive and her mother’s incessant admonition to “Straighten up. Act right,” with the truths of her illnesses and behaviors. Where she talked through her expectation that her husband would be killed in battle and where on Feb. 21, 1971 her revered psychiatrist, Dr. Roberts, came to her room and said, “Mrs. Hull, your husband has been killed. His plane crashed.”
On the ward, Manning gradually connected with other patients, realizing that “you can’t always look right and act right.” She said she “cared deeply” about her fellow patients and “found a compassion that has stayed with me. It made me more sensitive as a teacher, as a principal. Compassionate but with boundaries.
“What I learned is that people can get better and that you can’t write anyone off. When we have groups of people (in a mental hospital, in a school) we tend to develop pecking orders. But everyone has something to offer.”
She left Menninger gradually, shifted into what she called “move forward mode” and continued in therapy, stayed in school. She became a teacher, a principal in Topeka where several of the parents were Menninger staff who knew well her story and lauded her progress. Still ahead was a nearly-life-ending car crash, a serious relapse with alcoholism and all the challenges of raising a child, working and more schooling as she headed toward a superintendency. Manning notes in the book that she will mark 35 years of sobriety on July 1, 2016.
I asked her if anyone in River Forest knew of her complicated life story while she worked here. No, she said, though several former colleagues have now been brought into the circle.
“Some may be surprised and that’s OK. We all know someone who has been touched by this,” she said.
Coming back to River Forest and Oak Park to launch the book, though, feels right.
“I’ve longed for the day when I could do this openly. People see those who have struggled with mental illness and we have a special opportunity if we can share. There is still a stigma. For people who have gone on and come through, we shouldn’t remain silent.
“As more people talk about mental illness, it can give people hope and spur them to access treatment,” she said. “I have a strength and a hope to share.”
For more information, visit www.tyramanning.com/speaking-engagements.