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At its most basic, the world consists of two types of people: those who wait for life to happen around them, who live in fear of major life changes, such as losing their job or getting a divorce; and those who make life happen, who view potential devastations as a chance to start over.

In her mid-50s, Anna McDermott is the second type, and that attitude got her to where she is today: retired atop a mountainside in Boulder, Colorado. I spent a weekend with her discussing her life and returned to Chicago feeling rejuvenated. A fiery woman with an unparalleled sense of curiosity, McDermott is petite with short, styled brown hair. Any hint of adventure—like when we considered trespassing into blocked-off Native American ceremonial grounds—brings a mischievous smile to her face.

“If she’s after something, look out,” says Maureen McDermott, Anna’s sister and best friend growing up. “It’s an on/off switch thing. It’s either full bore or I’m not doing it.”

Into the fire
A winding road wraps like a ribbon around the mountain McDermott calls home. Follow the road up, and a wooden cabin emerges, half hidden behind towering evergreen trees. Through its red-trimmed windows is a postcard image of a western home: A “Cabin Sweet Cabin” sign hangs from a wooden beam with dozens of cast iron antiques, tapered candles and ceramic jugs nearby. There’s also a shaggy black dog, Chabo—slang in Mexico for “pal”—curled up on the couch, awaiting his owner’s arrival.

McDermott retired recently as CEO of a multi-billion dollar General Electric company called Access Graphics. On a mild January day, she and I are driving up the mountain. As we climb higher, she points through the trees at patches of bald land turned ashy gray and brown from fire.

An ever-present threat on the mountain, multiple fires in the past decade alone have threatened the mountain life she built for herself. In 2000, the Walker Ranch Fire came within 300 yards of McDermott’s front door. Over Labor Day 2010, Four Mile Fire—the most expensive wildfire in Colorado’s history—destroyed 169 homes in the canyon area near McDermott’s home. It tore across 6,100 acres, setting all of Boulder on edge as firefighters struggled for 11 days to contain the blaze.

“Where would you have gone?” I ask.

“Oh, probably Canada.”

She makes it sound easy, abandoning the life she has dreamt of since childhood. However, I soon learn that McDermott handles anything life throws at her without hesitation or fear—including fires both literal and figurative. A transplant from Ohio, she followed her childhood dreams and moved to Colorado in 1973. In the 40 years since, she has seen both sides of that dream—going from a blind, homeless single mother to a highly successful and independent businesswoman.

Just like the pioneers who traversed the plains in covered wagons a century before her, McDermott knows what it means to struggle. Yet, she regrets nothing. “It’s a waste of thought and energy. Why spend one second regretting? Good and bad are only perceptions.”

She believes that every decision and every life event has gotten her to where she is today—including fire.

Pioneer dreams
When I first met McDermott in the lobby of the Boulder hotel where I was staying, she rose from the chair where she had been waiting and smiled. I do not typically hug people at first meeting, but McDermott exuded immediate warmth, and we embraced. She offered to take me up the mountain to her home and stopped along the way at vistas so I could get a view of the town below and the surrounding land.

The flat land and gray days of 1960s Ohio inspired McDermott toward a different life. She felt from childhood that she was meant for something else.

At 13 years old, McDermott opened an atlas and landed her finger on a random city west of the Mississippi River. “I’m going to live right there,” she said, picturing herself in a cabin beside a rolling mountain spring. The place happened to be Boulder, where the Great Plains surrender to the Rocky Mountains.

Her sister Maureen remembers, “There was something about the mountains that I couldn’t totally grasp, because we’d never seen them. I couldn’t relate to whatever the pull was. But she felt it, and she followed it, which was fantastic because too often we are afraid to do what we really want.”

Old western films and shows monopolized television stations at the time. Those stories of pioneers creating lives out of nothing, facing natural and manmade dangers intrigued McDermott. “It was the mountains, and it was all the space—so lawless and dangerous. I liked that,” she says.

In 1972, she dropped out of college after one semester at Ohio University. The time had come to make her dreams a reality. Boulder had more than 300 sunny days a year—one-third more than the number of sunny days in Ohio. She bought a one-way ticket to Denver, not knowing anyone there, and became the only one of her four siblings not to graduate college.

“I might be the only GE CEO without my masters,” she adds, running a hand over Chabo’s back. She is telling me the story from her living room couch. Chabo heaves a sigh next to her.

McDermott had taken a temporary job at a company that made word processing equipment in her early 30s. She worked from home until her two children—son Casey and daughter Cally—were old enough to take care of themselves after school, and was full time within three months of deciding to go back to work. Over the next five years, however, the company floundered. It dropped from 6,000 employees to 125.

This was a different sort of fire. Instead of flames eating away at the trees on mountainsides, McDermott found herself battling the uncertainties of a downsizing company creeping in around her.

She was not about to await any such fate. She had the foresight to realize that regardless of how many people lost their jobs and how much money the company bled, its owners would want to collect on its debts. She transferred into Credits and Collections and survived, beat out thousands of others in the male-dominated business, not only as a woman, but a woman without a degree.

Some people might gloat about the non-conformity of that success, but McDermott is more grounded. When I ask if she felt she had cheated the system, her face twists into genuine confusion.

“I didn’t cheat the system. You can do whatever you want. The moment you think you’re disadvantaged, you are. You just have to make shit happen. Add value every minute,” she says.

Trial by fire
McDermott identified with the west from before she even set foot on its land—the rough terrain, but natural fragility; the relative lawlessness, but steadfast determination of the people. She didn’t wait for anyone to show her the way.

When she arrived at the Denver Airport in 1973, she met two male students from Colorado University and hitched a ride with them 30 miles north to Boulder. To support herself in those early years, she took on waitressing jobs and cleaned houses. She sold encyclopedias, and met the man she would marry—and eventually divorce.

They had two children together and started their home in a canyon in Boulder. The house had no running water, and because drilling a well was beyond affordable, McDermott alternated between fetching water in town and from neighbors. “That was my first taste of getting to live in the mountains,” McDermott says.

Yet, it was far from any ideal she had imagined. Her husband traveled constantly, leaving McDermott alone with the children. She wanted a divorce, but they had little money and no insurance—factors she would have liked to change, but couldn’t. After years of failing vision, degenerative cataracts had left McDermott legally blind. She could not drive to a job or anywhere else.

McDermott talks about this time in her life as the most difficult, but remains matter-of-fact. These were the obstacles she faced. It didn’t occur to her to mourn her hardships. Life carried on with every one of Cally’s cries and Casey’s needs.

“But how do you do that? How do you be a mother to two toddlers without being able to see?” I asks. “I didn’t know any different.”

However, she did know that her children needed her. She began the search for a doctor who could perform a new surgical technique that would enable her to see again: lens implants. One doctor agreed to do the surgery and let McDermott pay him $25 a month to cover the debt.

Her sister, Maureen, came from Ohio to help care for the children while McDermott recovered, but more trouble lied ahead. In the middle of the night after the surgery, Maureen woke to smoke filling the basement around her. She rushed upstairs to wake everyone. In nightgowns, they fled from the house and looked back with enough distance between themselves and the blaze to see the doors and windows explode.

“It wasn’t just the fire; it was the layering effect of everything going on in her life. She’d just had her eye surgery, her marriage situation, layers and layers of challenging things,” says Maureen. “But she did what she had to do, and did it in a way that was stronger than the average Joe.”

McDermott stayed calm and led everyone to the nearest neighbor’s home. When her husband returned a few nights later, all that remained of their home was a chimney. He had no idea what had happened to his family. In the early ’80s, they had no way to contact him after the fire.

She eventually reached her husband and explained what had happened. His role in her life, though, was over. With her vision restored, she could get a driver’s license, a job, and file for divorce. “I think sometimes you have to have a train wreck before you get on the right track. As challenging and unfortunate as the situation was, it got her on a different track. She found out what she was made of,” Maureen says.

Through it all, McDermott never considered returning to her family and her roots in Ohio. Colorado had become part of her—everything from the coyotes howling at the end of her driveway to the men who greeted her with shotguns when they thought she was trespassing on their land.

McDermott began selling homes for a local builder. She rented a house for herself, Casey and Cally. “I was heartbroken leaving my kids everyday,” she shares. “I had to make money, but I wanted to be with my kids. That was my first priority.”

Maureen remembers a sentiment that her sister repeated during those years: Were the children baked? Had they matured? “When they’re leaving, graduating from high school and going out on there own learning all sorts of lessons, if you haven’t done your job, they’re in trouble. So are they baked? Have they gotten all of the instruction you can give them during those formative years?”

The solution: a home daycare and snack foods business that enabled McDermott to stay home with her children. She had grown adept at finding a balance amidst her shifting priorities.

That skill has helped her throughout her life. “Anna is a visionary. That’s what made her so great strategically with her professional career. She really captures the essence of that word in so many different ways,” Maureen says.

McDermott waited until the children were old enough to navigate after school on their own before she turned to the corporate world. She interviewed at a company in downtown Boulder called Access Graphics, which sold printers and plotters.

“It was crazy. There were people running all around, throwing paper everywhere, and ringing this giant bell,” McDermott says. The chaos called to her.

So when Access offered a job, McDermott accepted. One morning early on, she came in to more than 100 messages on her answering machine. The 50-person company had just signed a deal with Sun Microsystems, a giant among computer server manufacturers. The Access CEO had listed McDermott as contact.

Here again was a fire in a different form—the flames of hundreds of callers threatening McDermott’s stability. Would she buckle under the pressure? Would she let the overwhelming amount of work bring her down and take her over, just as the fire had taken her home?

McDermott never hesitated. The same attitude that guided her through the challenges in the rest of her life now worked to her advantage in business. “If there’s a problem, you work on solutions and make decisions. If you see something that needs to be done, you do it. Don’t ask,” McDermott says. “I’ve treated every company as if it was my company.”

If papers needed mailing, she mailed them. If clients had questions, she answered them. She brought her work home with her at night, too, spending hours in the bleachers at her children’s sports practices, poring over papers.

Sun did $100,000 in business that year with Access, one of the smallest of Sun’s 12 distributors. But as McDermott climbed through the ranks, the company’s relationship with Sun blossomed. Over the next decade, McDermott took over in sales, marketing, operations, credit, and finance. She led Access in becoming Sun’s largest distributor—a 1,000-fold growth. She also moved her family into the 1,000-square-foot cabin, where she lives in today.

The once-small company, owned by Lockheed, had grown to 1,600 employees with operations in eight countries. At the peak of the Internet boom, it was making $3.5 billion annually. This attracted attention from executives at General Electric. The company acquired Access.

Once again, I ask McDermott, How? Where did she get the confidence that let her walk into work everyday as if she owned the company?

“It wasn’t confidence, it was determination,” she tells me. “If you keep raising your hand to take on more work, eventually they let you have it all.”

In 2004, that is exactly what happened. Access Graphics named McDermott President and CEO.

Looking to the future
Over the next four years, with Casey and Cally out on their own, McDermott spent 45 weeks out of the year traveling for work. In 2008, at 54 years old, she decided she needed a change.

“When I retired, I said I wanted my mind to grow. I wanted to use it in different ways,” she says. “Because that’s what knowledge is—it’s lending your mind to a different perspective.”

Part of that journey has involved McDermott teaching herself quantum physics (“I knew I would need it eventually,” though, for what remains unknown.). She is also writing a women’s western novel with friend, Gretchen Grund Wiegand.

Wiegand, a painter and former massage therapist from New York, developed a unique friendship with McDermott. They have dozens of stories to tell from decades spent on the mountain—a place where people revel in their isolation, but trust that neighbors will come through for them when nature—or man—presents challenges.

McDermott and Wiegand schedule weekly meetings to work on the book. “I’m a process person and bring great discipline. She’s wildly, out of her mind creative,” McDermott smiles.

Titled Call to the Circle, the book begins with three 18-year-old women who feel drawn to a mountain very similar to the one McDermott has called home throughout her adult life.

“It’s going to be a bestseller,” she tells me. “I want it done in July. I want it done and out there.”

And with any new fires that cross her path, any new lives she decides to try out, she makes sure to keep calm and find balance with her constants. Later tonight, we will go out for tequila with her children in Denver. Then she will return to her cabin with the red-trimmed windows. The next morning, she’ll wake up and before anything else walk Chabo along the mountain lake across the winding road from their home.

The Fire Inside
Positive magazine | March 2011

e: katie@katiescarlettbrandt.com

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