Grounded in Success
Story by Diane McMahon
Photography by Amy March, Coastline Imagery
Carol Hayes leads me to a wide veranda-style, screened-in porch that runs the length of her house. We look out across a broad sweep of marsh to the May River. The cross breeze quietly moves the surrounding stillness. Driving over the causeway to this Xanadu is crossing a threshold into a magical timeless dimension.
We sit and Carol says, “I’ll just talk and you can decide what you want to use.” She is direct. Her voice is low and steady. After talking briefly she says, “My life was never driven by ambition.” Her entire demeanor is guileless. I believe her. Apparently, ambition and success hitched their wagons to Carol and let her do the driving.
She was first in her class at Hood College. She married, had a son, Stuart, and a daughter, Lisa. While they were still toddlers, her husband encouraged Carol to apply to law school. She recounts her bewilderment at how to proceed in finding a law school convenient to their home 65 miles northwest of Chicago. Finally, she looked in the yellow pages and found the University of Chicago. We both recall those “how on earth did we do it” years without computers and Internet. She was informed she had to take a test—the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). She smiles and tells me she scored in the top tenth of one percent across the country. I’m sure the University of Chicago Law School was thrilled to admit this genius as a future alumnus.
Not only was Carol balancing a 65-mile, one-way commute, two toddlers and a marriage, this was in the late 1970s during the gas shortage. The summer after her first year she interned with the top law firm in Chicago. In her second year, her husband was offered the directorship of the Historical Savannah Society. The family moved to Georgia and she commuted to Chicago, Monday through Thursday. She clerked for Federal Judge Berry Avant Edenfield in the Southern District of Georgia and continued with him once she graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and passed the bar exam.
After residing in Savannah for three years, Carol and her husband decided to move to Atlanta. She interviewed with King & Spalding, one of the Global 50 law firms in the world and the best in Atlanta. She became a corporate lawyer dealing with mergers and acquisitions. Almost immediately, she was put in charge of all acquisitions under ten million dollars. With characteristic understatement she calls it “baptism by fire.” Her career and reputation grew. The Coca-Cola Company wanted her to run their mergers and acquisitions department. She liked their corporate climate and she was willing to make less money. In actuality, she went on to make more money, eventually rising to the position of Corporate Secretary and Associate General Counsel of The Coca-Cola Company.
She has recited this abbreviated career history in her calm, matter-of-fact voice. I am wide-eyed. This supersedes “Wonder Woman” status. When I ask how she managed it all and suggest she must be a wizard at compartmentalizing, she shakes her head. “I don’t compartmentalize. My personal integrity means I’m the same person in every situation, whether it’s Warren Buffett (with whom she has had many meetings) or whomever it is.” She hesitates for a moment and looks directly at me and shifts and continues, “But vastly overshadowing all of this was during law school my husband and I found out that our son Stuart had cystic fibrosis. I had no idea what that was, but once I knew, there was nothing good about it.”
Carol was ready to quit school, but her doctor advised her not to. He told her that nothing had changed in Stuart’s life now that they knew. He also warned her one of the severe handicaps these children face is an over-protective, anxious mother. Carol continued with school and her career; nothing lessened her anguish. Stuart died when he was 35.
Carol recalls when she was young someone she knew experienced a tragedy. Her response was, “I don’t think I could stand that.” Her Great Aunt Margaret said, “Oh honey, you’ll stand it. It’s just a question of how you decide to do it.” Several years ago, Carol retired from her job with Coca-Cola to become a therapist. She went back to school at Georgia State and got her Masters in Professional Counseling. She works with women who have anxiety, trauma or bereavement. Because her successful career provided her with money, she is able to offer a generous sliding fee schedule.
She says, “So many people get time mixed up and that’s the source of emotional trouble. Wanting to change the past is guilt and I’m not a fan of guilt. Wanting to control the future is anxiety. It’s impossible to do either. I think if each person has 100 units of life and two units are miserable, there is no point in letting that spill into the other 98 units. So little that happens is really personal. “
It is hard to reconcile the powerful, high-level corporate lawyer with this wise, calm woman, but that is my failure of imagination. Carol’s life has been big and dramatic but she is as grounded and natural as the beautiful landscape she calls home.
Family: Carol’s daughter Lisa has 19-month-old fraternal twins—Catherine and Caroline. Three generations of Hayes’ women live together.
On feminism: “When you identify yourself as part of a disadvantaged group, you disadvantage yourself.” Favorite quote: “You might as well be yourself; everyone else is taken.”