The underlying success of Deborah (Smith) Mayer's career is the number of lives she has touched and, through the programs she's established, how that number continues to grow.
A self-admitted class clown, Mayer, or as her friends call her, Debby, was a good student but loved playing practical jokes. "I took life quite lightly and with a lot of humor," she said. Then Minnetonka High School teacher Pat Edblad, who appreciated Debby's sense of humor but not always in class, moved her into a more challenging sociology-psychology course. "Right then I realized that here's someone who's seeing past all my jokes," Mayer said. "It was a sociology-psychology class and it altered my life's path."
That path began as a juvenile probation officer in Florida and later Texas, where she spearheaded programs for at-risk girls and youth with mental or physical challenges. In the 1970s, most juvenile programs focused on boys. Debby filled a need to help girls and their families with intervention and prevention programs, addressing social, educational and psychological issues. Later, discovering that there was a high percentage of repeat offenders among girls and boys with disabilities, Mayer received a research grant and published her findings in Federal Probation magazine, bringing light to the issue. In addition to the tough work that went with the job, Debby volunteered many hours to help families who were in dire straits.
Her next career phase was teaching, working with gifted programs, alternative education and special education. Combining her knowledge of criminology and education, Mayer developed programs to help disenfranchised youth and gang members. She also found time to coach both tennis and Special Olympics. After 15 years of teaching, including a Teacher of the Year honor, Mayer earned two master's degrees in Educational Administration and Counseling, and held vice-principal, principal and district administration roles. As Director of Student Welfare and Attendance, Debby created an attendance incentive, called Attendance Promotes Excellence (APEX), which has been adopted by states across the nation. She was also the liaison between school districts and law enforcement organizations.
In one of her last cases, Debby intervened on the attempted murder of a second grade girl. The mother of the girl was attempting to kill her because she was the only witness to her mother setting her sister on fire. Mayer, along with the police, district attorney's office and the highway patrol, was able to capture the mother, who was later convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison. Ultimately, Mayer played a pivotal role in saving the little girl's life. "I was proud that during my tenure, I didn't lose any kids," Mayer said, humbly.
Debby admits that sometimes it was a long walk from the dark side to the sunny side of the street. She continually aimed for balance, relying on her humor and lifelong love of sports. She's always been a member of a fitness club and enjoys tennis, golf, biking and swimming. And as if that isn't enough, she adds adrenaline sports like skydiving, kayaking, caving, bungee jumping, scuba diving and race car driving. This girl doesn't hold back! "I try to wake up everyday with an attitude of gratitude and take it from there," Mayer said.
Since retiring in 2003, Debby has kept busy by volunteering for her retirement community's crisis response team and landscaping committee. She also serves as an excursion leader, provides counseling services and teaches a class for older residents called "Living Well, Accentuating the Positive". "If I sign up for something that's all about me, I also make sure to sign up for something that's all about someone else," Mayer said.
Debby credits her wonderful life to her parents, brother Doug Smith '63, former minister Dr. Harold King and a group of dear friends she's had since seventh grade who have remained close all these years, celebrating birthdays and pivotal events. Through it all, her teacher-mentor Pat (Edblad) Forrest has been a big part of her life, supporting Mayer in good times and bad, including the death of her best friend Julie (Newquist) Webster '65 in 2006. "I would not be getting this award if it weren't for several amazing and supportive people in my life," said Mayer in a self-effacing style. Yet there are hundreds of people who are thankful that their lives have been touched by Debby Mayer.