Barbara Feigin, 84, a 1955 graduate of what was then Chehalis High School, earlier this week returned to the town that took her family in as refugees from Nazi Germany in 1940.
Feigin, a resident of Manhattan and a serial contributor to the Chehalis Foundation, toured the Chehalis School District Monday to brush up on the current state of the school system that launched her into a trailblazing, glass-ceiling-shattering executive in the male-dominated, 1970s-era U.S. marketing industry.
A graduate of Whitman College and a postgraduate business administration program run in part by Harvard University, Feigin told The Chronicle she was of a minority of students from 1950s Chehalis who went to college and is proud to empower the district’s current students to take advantage of their own post-high school opportunities.
“I think that the culture of this community has changed so dramatically into being much more education-centric than it was when I was a kid,” Feigin said, reflecting on her tour. “I've been so impressed with what's happened in Chehalis with this absolute change in culture and this really intense interest in education — not just in the schools, but in the community. It's just amazing. I think it's fabulous.”
Feigin is part of a group of Chehalis Foundation contributors from the Chehalis High School graduating classes of the 1950s, which this year will be offering 16 post-high school institutional scholarships of $2,000 each.
Jenny Collins, executive director of the Chehalis Foundation, told The Chronicle that her organization manages and tracks the contributions from the group of ‘50s graduates, which meets every year to review scholarship applications or give recommendations.
“They want a number of kids who are going to two- and four-year (institutions) and a number of kids that are going through technical education because they want all kids to have an opportunity,” Collins said. “So for them, it doesn't matter if you're going to be an electrician or you're going to be an electrical engineer. It's about an opportunity for all students to get some kind of accreditation where they can have a family-wage-earning job.”
Growing up, Feigin said her parents impressed upon her that education was the key to opportunity, something that was once hard for the family to imagine with Nazi Germany’s anti-semitic policies gathering like a black cloud to strike down its hopes of prosperity.
“When I was 2 and a half years old, my father, who was Jewish, decided very late in the game in July of 1940 that he had to get our family out of Germany,” she said. “My mother was not Jewish and I was sort of in-between — they hadn't decided what I should be, and they wanted me to decide when I grew up.”
Due to the inhumane restrictions on Jewish mobility under the Nazi regime, Feigin said it was very difficult for her father to get the appropriate documentation and funding to secure passage out of Germany.
At first, the family was told there was a ship out of Italy that could aid in their escape from the shadows of Europe’s brewing war, but by the time the family was ready to depart, there were already submarines in the Atlantic Ocean forming a travel blockade.
Instead, Feigin’s parents secured passage on a train from Berlin, crossing Eastern Europe through Russia and Siberia, before moving through China and Korea and disembarking in Japan.
She said it was “a 17-day journey in wartime Europe when everybody was terrified.”
They were stopped a number of times along the way as guards would come onto the train and look at everybody's papers, luggage and other belongings.
“They were not allowed to take anything out of Germany of value, so my parents came with $10 and 50 cents for our whole family, the clothes that we were wearing and whatever they could carry — including me because I was two years old and they had to carry me,” she said.
Eventually, the family crossed the Pacific Ocean on a Japanese ship called the Hikawa Maru, docking in Seattle in August 1940.
The Seattle Times published a photo of Feigin on the docks in Seattle sitting amid her family’s luggage on Aug. 4, 1940.
“And this was like coming to paradise,” Feigin said. “It was freedom. Freedom from Nazi Germany. Freedom from fascism. My parents were so thrilled, but they had no idea what would become of them, no connections, no work, no nothing.”
Feigin’s father began providing for her through performing yard work tasks in Seattle before being tipped off by a group of Quakers about an open position assembling stoves at the Sears Chehalis Farm Store.
The family then set out on the difficult job of assimilating into the community as wartime refugees. At first, none of them spoke English, but as time went on the community accepted them. Their quest for acceptance culminated in Feigin being chosen as the girl to draw the lot of one of Chehalis' war bond drawings in 1945, a designation that Feigin’s parents said proved she was an American.
Yet, not everyone was always accepting of the refugee family.
“Everybody knew about the war and the Germans and all that stuff,” Feigin said. “And these boys started chasing me and yelling, ‘You dirty Nazi.’ And I was terrified. I mean, they were chasing me and I ran into what was then the Texaco service station … and I locked myself in the bathroom. I was crying and terrified. And I kept hearing these boys yelling at me. And of course, they're yelling, ‘You dirty Nazi.’ And we ran away from the Nazis.”
When the boys went quiet for some time, Feigin tried to leave the bathroom but found herself locked in, so she escaped through a window above the sink and ran home.
“And, oh, my mother was just crushed, crushed that such a thing would happen,” Feigin said. “Here we were in the land of the free — how could this happen?”
With that being said, Feigin said, overall, she loved her time in Chehalis.
“My fervent desire was to become a really authentic American girl,” Feigin said. “I just wanted to be like everybody else. I wanted to have the same kind of sweaters, the same kind of shoes. I wanted to have friends, and all that happened. … I loved going to the football games and to the basketball games.”
When Feigin was a senior in high school, Douglas McClane, the director of admissions from Whitman College, visited Chehalis High School. McClane pulled Feigin aside and offered her a combination of a scholarship and work grant to attend the institution.
After graduating from Whitman, Feigin attended a program run in part by the Harvard Business School and, upon graduation, moved to New York to begin a career in marketing at Vicks Chemical Company, now part of Procter & Gamble.
Since women were barred from holding line-marking jobs, she took a position in marketing research, receiving ample praise for her work, which spanned about a year.
“And I thought, well, it's about time to go and talk about compensation and my career path,” Feigin said. “And I just remember, I went to my boss … and he said, ‘Well, what can I do for you?’ And I told him what I wanted and, and he just sat back in his chair and he laughed.”
When pressed about the reason for his mirth, the man — Tom Dunkerton — told her that Vicks didn’t have career paths for women.
“Women, women, he said … they get married and have babies,” she said. “And I said, ‘Right — I plan to get married and have babies, but I also plan to have a career.”
“He said, ‘If that's what you want, you have to leave.’ And so I did.” Feigin said. “From there, I sort of winded my way into the advertising business. I loved it right away. It was this combination of sort of strategic thinking and creative thinking. And it was very collaborative, which I love — a lot of smart people working to solve problems and so forth. I thought that was great.”
When she became pregnant while working for a company called Benton & Bowles, Feigin grew worried. A day came when she could no longer hide the pregnancy, so Feigin called a meeting with her boss, Valentine Appel.
Appel “had this little short crew cut, horn-rim glasses and always looked very tense — always had his shoulders kind of up near his ears,” Feigin said. “And I thought, ‘This is not gonna be good.’ So I went in and I said, ‘Val, I'm going to have a baby … and here's my plan: I plan to work until the baby's born, and then I'll come back a few weeks later.’”
When Appel told her Benton & Bowles didn’t offer maternity leave, Feigin leaned into her worth and pressed him to accommodate her situation, to which Appel said he’d have to speak with the higher-ups.
“Finally, he called me in and he said, ‘You've got it.’ I said, ‘I've got what?’ ‘You've got a maternity leave,’” Feigin said.
Even though Feigin was told she wouldn’t be paid for the leave, and that when she got back to work, it may be in a different position, she was ecstatic.
“And I felt terrific about that because it sort of paved the way for other people who came behind me,” Feigin said. “It was the first-ever maternity leave they had.”
Eventually, Feigin took a position at the prestigious Grey Advertising, now part of Grey Group, where she enjoyed a 30-year career working as an executive in strategic planning.
Amid a litany of other clients, Feigin presided over the development of a now-ubiquitous, then-revolutionary campaign for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“One of our famous campaigns for NHTSA was to get teenagers to stop driving drunk. And all the advertising had been about all the terrible things that happen: If you do drive drunk, you know, you get maimed, you get hurt, you get killed, you go to jail, et cetera. And none of this advertising worked to really get kids to stop driving drunk,” Feigin said.
“So we did a great big piece of attitudinal research to find out what makes these teenagers tick as it relates to drinking,” she said. “How could we talk to them on an emotional basis, other than focusing on fear?”
The campaign? Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.
“Teenage drinking fatalities dropped virtually immediately when they started running the program so that was a great thing,” Feigin said.
Collins told The Chronicle that Feigin’s campaign has saved countless lives, and touched hers along with all the students she went to school with, another way Feigin has supported education in the youth of today — and yesterday for that matter.
Collins said Feigin “has said to me on a couple of occasions that if she could just inspire one person,” she’ll feel like she’s made a difference.
“I mean, if you think of some of that, it's astounding because we all know that slogan,” Collins said. “She influenced the way that we thought about one of the most important topics that we should be concerned about in society. And that's the effects of alcohol on our youth,” Collins said.
Feigin glowed with pride as she spoke about the slogan, and signaled contentment with the mark her career has left on the world.
“I feel like a lot of times when you're in advertising, people kind of look down their noses at it and think, ‘Oh, that's kind of trivial,’” Feigin said. “This was a societal move forward — very, very important — so I feel very proud of having been involved in that.”
Feigin self-published a book called “My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom,” in November 2021.