Enhancing Literacy, Honoring a Father

Diane SchetkyAs a psychiatrist who has worked in Maine's prisons, Diane Schetky knows that illiteracy is more than just embarrassing. It can ruin lives.

So when her father, a publisher and great supporter of libraries, died a few years ago, Schetky sought to honor him in a way he would appreciate: through a fund for literacy at the Maine Community Foundation. In 2003, with the help of family and her father's friends, she created the Andrew Heiskell Memorial Literacy Fund, which has, thus far, focused on Knox County where she now lives. It was a natural endeavor, Schetky says, linking her own passion for books, poetry and writing to her father's lifelong love of the written word. The fund also happens to serve some of the deepest needs of Maine.

Schetky's father was largely an autodidact, a man who enrolled at Harvard Business School—-then left because he hated it. He read voraciously, talked charmingly, at 30 became publisher of Life Magazine then rose to become chairman of Time, Inc. He also devoted years to New York City civic efforts, helping to found the Urban Coalition and Common Cause, and serving as chairman of the board of the Enterprise Foudation working with the homeless and improving housing. His commitment to education was apparent in his long tenure as a trustee at Harvard.

"My father took such joy from his work with various philanthropies," says Schetky, "especially after he retired." At that point, the New York Public Library--the venerable reference collection where generations of scholars, students, writers and artists came to research topics both arcane and current--was in desperate decay. Heiskell undertook a massive fundraising campaign, restoring the library to the great institution it had once been while chairing the board of trustees for 10 years.

The lesson that followed Schetky was her father's satisfaction in using his skills and talents to make a difference. At Sarah Lawrence College, she studied studio art and took pre-med courses. Upon graduation, she decided she could do more to help others as a doctor than an artist. Schetky attended Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, ultimately getting her M.D. degree and completing residencies in adult and child psychiatry. After many years of private practice in Rockport, she went on to become a forensic psychiatrist.

"Literacy is connected to my criminal work," Schetky notes, seated in her window-filled home outside Camden. "So many criminals are high school dropouts--and their job opportunities are so limited." Nearing retirement, Schetky spends time each week helping to encourage literacy while running a bereavement group as a hospice volunteer at Maine State Prison in Warren.

"I often do writing projects with the guys, writing poetry, stories, condolence cards and encouraging them to read passages aloud," she says. "There are so many who can't read, can't write." Each week, inmates share the struggles that led them to crime, the impact of being away from their families, the loss of friends and family members who die while they are in prison, as well as dealing with prior unresolved losses in their lives. "My thesis is that through shared pain, people develop the capacity for empathy, which is so lacking in prison," says Schetky.

"The group gives them a safe place to start to reach out, which they do." Just as Schetky believed that a literacy fund in Maine was the best way to honor her father, she was clear that the Maine Community Foundation was the organization to administer the fund. "They have such a good reputation," she says. "Besides, I like the notion of community building and keeping money in Maine."