Professor of Communication
Grace Fala's grandfather, an Italian immigrant from the Abruzzi region, worked as a lamplighter in the streets of Philadelphia, helping people find their way through a place that could be warm, cold, welcoming, alienating and adventurous all in one.
Grace provides much the same function at Juniata. Those that seek her out can get advice, a sympathetic ear, an oration on the innate superiority of Philadelphia's Phillies, Eagles, maybe even the '76ers, and an education in communication--all methods to illuminate the pathways students navigate toward adulthood.
Tracing her own path to wisdom, however, was not without some twists and turns of its own, some dark, some joyful, a few that were alienating. But the entire experience was, and continues to be, an adventure.
Grace grew up in a huge, all-encompassing Italian family, almost all of whom lived in Philadelphia. When she was in grade school, her own family moved to the suburb of Southampton, where they became known as "the relatives who live in the country." Her father, who fought in World War II, was a ballistics technician and her mother, who brought up seven children (Grace is the fifth) who earned college degrees, was a freelance violinist (pursuing her career after her children grew up).
One of the first lights in Grace's life was music and she started asking for a piano at age four. The piano was not to be, but she got a drum, and she immediately started making up songs. "My first song was called 'Let's Make Love,' although I didn't know what that meant at the time," she laughs.
A few years later, her mother bought her an old guitar and the two women played together and eventually formed an act. Grace and her mother would play church halls, birthdays and other events.
Sports also held a special place in Grace's heart and one of her first dreams was to be a professional baseball player. "My dad was a Little League coach and I remember asking him why I couldn't play," she recalls. "I knew I was better than most of the kids on the team and I couldn't understand why I couldn't play."
That sense of frustration and of pushing against what had always been done transferred over to Grace's next career choice-Catholic priest. "I was mesmerized when they stood up for the homilies," she says. "I had this affinity for an audience and I thought, I can do that." Although in her heart she knew she could not become a priest, she knew she wanted to make a difference in people's lives. She began to run for offices at school, she read philosophy and theology--to the point that her family started to call her "Phyllis" (as in "Philosopher").
"I liked my Catholic tradition, not for the restrictive rules of the church but the beauty of the theology," she says. "The rituals of the church--the bowing, kneeling-- is about humility and the key to communication is humility."
Eventually, Grace fell away from the church because of its restrictive attitudes, but she found outlets in college and in music. She paid her way through West Chester University playing guitar and singing, while still playing gigs in Philadelphia with her mom.
She also tried to reconcile with her faith. For a year she spent weekends at a convent of Sisters of the Holy Redeemer but the fit was not good. "I'm a second alto and they were all sopranos," she says. For a time, Grace was vehemently against the church, but has since reconciled, when she realized that individuals within an organization can hold values different than the larger group. "I was using a hammer to get my point across but eventually I found that a paintbrush is much more effective."
If a thread of connection runs through Grace's life it is spirituality, yet that word should not be used in the religious sense. She sees it as a connection between an individual and others, be it an athlete and a crowd, a musician and an audience or a teacher and a class.
"Because of all those experiences, I feel really comfortable in a classroom," she explains. "But now I get to spark those passions instead of experiencing them."
All this came together for Grace after she came to Juniata. She had been on a pilgrimage to many of the religious shrines in Europe, accompanied by her mother. During the tour, an incident arose that brought back many of the frustrations she felt as an athlete, as a musician, as a woman of faith and as a woman confident in her sexuality.
"My mom, trying to comfort me, said 'You gotta do what you gotta do' but what she was saying is that 'you have to be who you are," she says. "And from then on I've been OK, that's when I went from being the hammer to being the paintbrush."
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