Social Impact Authors: How & Why Danuta Pfeiffer Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Edward Sylvan
I hope LIBERTAS reminds us where our strength, hope, freedom, enterprise, endurance, and initiative was born, what it all meant then, and what it can mean for us now. We need that reminder.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danuta Pfeiffer.
Danuta (Soderman) Pfeiffer was a national radio and television broadcast journalist, columnist, and talk show host for 35 years. She is the author of 4 books; her first book, Watersafe Your Baby in One Week, was the first book on teaching water survival skills to infants, and the first to be endorsed by the American Red Cross. Once called the “most visible woman in modern Christianity today,” she was known as the popular co-host of The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. (Her new book, Chiseled, can explain that.) Danuta soon returned to her liberal roots expressing her progressive views on radio stations affiliated with Air America. She was the inspiration behind the Men of the Long Tom Grange Calendar, America’s first international nude spoof calendar that raised over $650,000 for the Junction City School District. She is the founder of the Oregon Country Trails, Oregon’s only branded, agri-tourism system, representing businesses and attractions in rural Oregon. She served two years on the Oregon Travel Experience Board, appointed by Governor John Kitzhaber, and chairs the annual Long Tom Grange Daffodil Drive Festival. Danuta and her husband Robin own and manage Pfeiffer Winery and Vineyards in Junction City, Oregon — one of the most reputable vineyards in the state, and one of the first wineries to be solar-powered. Their wine isn’t bad, either. Their 2007 Blue Dot Reserve Pinot noir was the only pinot to be served during a private presidential dinner. Today, she and Robin can often be found sharing their love of wine with friends and family at their winery, swimming in their country pond with their yellow labs, or sipping wine and watching for the first bats to fly at sunset at the top of their vineyard.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in England just after World War 11. My father was a Polish soldier and my mother was an English nurse who cared for his battle scars in London. We moved to Canada where my father continued his profession as a sculptor, fashioning beautiful bigger-than-life statuary for churches and cathedrals. When I was five, we immigrated to the U.S., living in northern Michigan where my father became a ski pro and consultant at various resorts. I learned to ski between his legs and became part of the ski patrol when I was 12. Due to my father’s seasonal occupations, we moved a lot and rarely settled in one place very long. I owe that experience to my resiliency in life.
My mother was the strong one in the family. She held us together working as a nurse when my father couldn’t find work. For one summer, while my father built our cabin, we lived in a tent in the woods. Our 4-poster bed was made out of trees my father didn’t want to cut down. We ate venison when Dad went bow and arrow hunting, or road-kill deer when he didn’t have the heart to shoot a doe. We picked beans and cherries for a living in the summer and gleaned potatoes under the snow in the winter. It sounds harsh, but being poor lent to a Huckleberry upbringing.
I put myself through college, Marin Junior College and the University of Colorado at Boulder, by teaching babies to swim and wrote a book on my technique, Watersafe Your Baby in One Week. That technique is now used everywhere in infant swim classes. I earned a degree in Journalism with an emphasis in Radio and Television and a minor in Philosophy.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Actually, there were two books that rescued me. I was the co-host of one of the most dominant television evangelists in the world. During my five years on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson, I began to question the program’s staunch political evangelical, fundamental form of Christianity. The erosion of my beliefs was amplified when Robertson ran for the Republican nomination for president against George Bush. I left the show and Christianity.
I was in a frightful state, my journalistic career was in shambles, (who wanted to hire a burned-out former television evangelist?), I was broke and my marriage to an alcoholic was on the rocks. I was hollowed out, a spiritual disaster with no God, no job, no purpose. It was perfect timing for a change.
I stumbled across Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book, Women Who Run with the Wolves. Estes cut right to the heart of me with statements like, It is worse to stay where one does not belong at all than to wander about lost for a while and looking for the psychic and soulful kinship one requires.” She wrote of the need to seek the wild, feel the mud between the paws, go into the woods, and howl, that to yearn for a deeper life is a door.
So I took her advice and embarked on a 2,000-mile bicycle ride from Canada to Mexico to clear my head and howl.
A while later, seeking to repair a battered spirituality, I came across the Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and then, his interviews with Bill Moyers. He explained how religions are the myths that bring language to our inward mystery. That they all try to tell us the same thing.
Campbell taught me to lead an authentic, heroic life filled with knowledge and to realize the most important thing of all is the experience of being alive and sharing it.
And so, with mud between my paws, and my soul tuned to the rapture of being alive, I thrived and became whole. My life changed, spiritually, geographically, romantically, dramatically, in all ways possible. I became a panpsychist, (all matter has consciousness), moved to Oregon, met and married Robin, my soulmate, started a winery, and began to take my writing seriously.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
The most interesting mistake was becoming a worldwide evangelist. It was an accident, really. I hadn’t applied for the job. I was supposed to head up the news bureau in Jerusalem for CBN, the Christian Broadcast Network. At the time, I was the co-host of a popular morning show in California, Sun Up San Diego. I had become a Born Again Christian at the time. CBN had heard of me and offered me the position as Bureau Chief with the possibility of my first interview being with Pope John Paul ll. What journalist in their right mind would say no to that?
But I never got to Jerusalem. While waiting for my ticket to the Holy Land, CBN asked me to fill in on The 700 Club for three days while they looked for another co-host. To my surprise, when I went in for my travel documents, I was informed through a memo pinned to the bulletin board that I landed the job as co-host!
As I say in my memoir, Chiseled, “Before I learned the words to Amazing Grace, I had become a spiritual drug dealer imbued with the halo of power and celebrity, associated with the brokers of money and politics. . .and I am embarrassed by it all.”
On the bright side, I learned that nothing happens in life without meaning — my brother met and married the line producer of the 700 Club and I have a wonderful extended family and three gorgeous nieces. These subsequent events, family, and relationships would not have existed without my evangelistic detour.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
LIBERTAS is my first work of historical fiction set in the mid-19th century. It was a time when America was wrestling with slavery, people stretched themselves beyond endurance, Mormons were seeking a new Zion, steamships sailed around the horn from New York to San Francisco, wagon trains lumbered across a continent littered with graves, and America itself was striving for its own Manifest Destiny.
It was a hell of a time. Freedom was hard-won, physically and mentally. The Oregon Trail was a test of will. America’s fortitude was hewn on the backs of those immigrants who made it. I hope LIBERTAS reminds us where our strength, hope, freedom, enterprise, endurance, and initiative was born, what it all meant then, and what it can mean for us now. We need that reminder.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Many fascinating stories in LIBERTAS were adapted from actual events. One of the most interesting was the midnight tsunami that hit Buffalo, New York in November of 1844. It is called a seiche, a tsunami effect that occurs in an enclosed body of water, in this case, Lake Erie. Nobody saw it coming. Whole steamships ended up in the middle of the city. A third of Buffalo was inundated in 20-foot waves. It happened when the wind pushed the water to the south end of the lake, changed direction, and hurled the water back at full throttle. One marooned ship in the lake sent a horse off its deck with a note begging for help pinned to its mane. It’s quite a scene in the book.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
My husband Robin is a water witch — he can find water by using a willow stick. He hired a backhoe and began digging in the spot where the willow stick indicated. Halfway through the dig, plowing through clay, then mud, muck, and eventually gurgling water, the backhoe wrenched up a full set of horse tack — reins, collars, bridles, all inset with brass. “Nobody buries brass,” Robin said. He then told me a legend of previous owners of the land. The story goes the father had two sons. They were stacking hay on a horse-drawn wagon on the steep south-facing slopes of the property. The horses were startled by something, reared up, and tipped the wagon, killing one of the sons. The distraught father shot the horses where they lay, buried them in a pit. The family left the property and never returned.
That story stuck with me and I began to wonder about the backstory to that event. At the same time, I learned of the racial history of Oregon and the Black Exclusion Law. I was surprised to learn that Oregon had more KKK members in 1927 than any other state in the Union!
Few people know this part of our Oregon history. Over time, those two stories melded and I dug into more research, and eventually, LIBERTAS was born. The story encompasses a great deal of the United States history, including the migration over the Oregon Trail and the struggle of early pioneers in the West. So it had to be told in three stages — A Pocket Full of Seeds became the name of the trilogy with LIBERTAS as Book One.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Educate. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more maneuverable we become in solving society’s racial and economic inequities. Understanding our history is step one in gaining a foothold in our future.
- Act. Armed with understanding, we can amend our personal behaviors toward those who do not look, talk, or live the way we do.
- Empower. Extend our social circles to the greater community by voting in local and national elections. Empowering our representatives to do the right thing: passing the Voting Rights Bill, ending Citizens United, fighting for climate change, the Build Back Better Bill, immigration reform, tax reform, and so much more.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a void one slips into when no one is watching. It is an unoccupied space made viable only to the person who fits the vacuum at that time. When others argue and wring their hands and proclaim the impossibility of an idea, the leader is the one immune to the chatter and sees the possibilities of things that could be. That lone and quiet voice emerges above the rancor and suddenly, everyone is listening. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Christine Lagarde, Jacinda Ardern, are among multitudes of leaders who were able to navigate the murky world of impossibility and bring change to an entire world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Take care of yourself first before you can care for another. I spent many years dedicating myself to my first husband, a severe alcoholic, and sacrificed my mental and physical health, and my career and nearly perished in the exercise. There’s a reason that airlines advise putting the oxygen mask on yourself first.
- Friendship is vital. Growing up, I attended 18 different schools before graduating from high school due to my father’s seasonal work as a sculptor and ski instructor. I never had a lasting friendship as a child. Today, I value friendship highly for the emotional, and joyful support it provides and the ability to give back in return, especially in today’s busy and unpredictable world.
- You are worthy as you are. My father was not an Olympic skier or a Polish war hero and my ancestry is not linked to Polish royalty. These were stories my father told us. In my memoir, Chiseled, I explain how, as children, my brother and I navigated our lives by his stars, and failing his high expectations, we punished ourselves. Later, learning that my father manufactured his past, I was able to find my own true value.
- Learn to say no. As a young woman, I sacrificed my own time and needs when asked to take on positions in local organizations, charities, a state commission, non-profits, and other service venues. I had a reputation for good ideas and leadership qualities, but I ran myself ragged. I discovered, in many cases, my value in that role was not equal to the time I lost.
- I can’t sing. I still can’t.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, has been a huge inspiration in my life. In an amalgamation of his understanding of the meaning of life, and my own experiences, I wrote in my memoir, Chiseled, “To experience wonder is far more satisfying than having faith that wonder exists.” This goes to the heart of me and puts my hopes, dreams, aspirations, loves, losses, challenges, and victories in perspective. We exist for the experience of being alive. That is all. That is everything.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to share an afternoon over a bottle of our Pfeiffer pinot noir with Michelle Obama. She understands the power of knowledge, the impact of personality for good, and how to make impossible things happen. I think we could be great friends.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow me on Facebook, Fans of Danuta Pfeiffer
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!