She arrived in Happy Valley as a Penn State freshman in 1972, and she’s never left. She married her college sweetheart, gave birth to two children and now dotes joyfully on three grandchildren.
But even though she brims with pride over those loved ones, Lydia Abdullah has never limited the exercise of her motherly gifts to her own family. In fact, Mrs. Abdullah has also showered empathy and hugs on others throughout the Centre Region. That’s why she richly deserves selection as my “Happy Valley Mother of the Year.”
Although I admit my own limitations in choosing among our community’s many fabulous moms, I am nonetheless proud of the three honorees:
Sue Paterno, the 2019 selection, served as a truly remarkable partner to her husband Joe during his record-setting tenure as Penn State’s head football coach. Sue raised five children, all of whom graduated from Penn State, and she personally tutored at least 60 of her husband’s athletes so they could achieve their academic potential.
Kim Sublett, honored last year, is the mother of nine children—three biological and six adopted—who range in age from 25 to five. Kim is married to Stacy Sublett, a pastor at Calvary Church, and she serves as the Kids Director for Calvary’s Harvest Fields congregation.
Then, of course, Lydia Abdullah is my choice for 2021, a selection that is affirmed by two key observers. Harold McKenzie, her pastor at Unity Church of Jesus Christ, says that she is “very caring, very committed to her family—to Gary as well as to her children. She has a strong love laced with wonderful grace.” Her husband of nearly 46 years, Gary Abdullah, says, “She has a high degree of empathy, off the charts. Her empathy is like ESP, like a superpower that other people don’t have. The reason that she ends up being the hugger is that she has seen the need for the hug. That operates in the home, in the church and in Old Main.”
NURTURING COMES NATURALLY
Lydia worked for her alma mater over a span approaching 42 years, handling various roles in accounting, finance and budgeting. She retired as director of diversity and inclusion for Penn State Finance and Business. But despite her long and successful career, she always had a bent toward mothering.
“Wherever I’ve been,” she says, “I’ve become the mother figure. When I first came here to the university, there was a guy who stuck the name, ‘Mumsy’ on me, and that followed me through my college years.
“At church, I’m known as the hugger. If you need a good hug, go see Aunt Lydia. It’s not always about what I say, but a lot of it is just letting people know that you feel what they feel. I’ve got the arms to hug and the chest to lay your head on, so I had to accept that my physical makeup was a part of my calling.”
According to Gary, Lydia’s superpower of empathy made a big difference on campus.
“For years and years,” he says, “when the kids and I would come to pick her up from work, her door would be closed. And there would be somebody in her office who needed to talk to her about a professional situation or a home situation. I think there was often more bearing of souls and nurturing going on in Old Main than in Houserville (location of the Abdullahs’ home). She did a whole lot of mothering in the professional setting, which makes sense because even when they’re at work, people still have problems.”
WAITING FOR HER OWN KIDS
Despite the fulfillment Lydia experienced from nurturing adults and other people’s kids, the delayed arrival of her own children proved painful.
“I had trouble conceiving both of my children,” she says, “and that came at a time when so many of our friends and family members were having babies so easily, it seemed. And that is such a heart-wrenching thing to a woman. Society just bangs it in your head—’What’s wrong with you?’”
The Abdullahs began using a fertility drug and kept praying. “Gary comes from a family of 12 children and there were five children in my family. I knew I wasn’t wanting to do that. My dream was maybe three kids, but God blessed us with a boy and a girl and I’m saying, ‘You know what? We’re good.’”
The “good” began with Gary Andre Abdullah’s birth in 1981 and was completed with Donna’s arrival in 1987. Lydia now had the chance to apply her nurturing instincts to her own brood, and she looked to her own mother and Gary’s mom when she needed some extra inspiration.
“My mother had a rough childhood,” Lydia says, “with no father in the house and abusive stepfathers. I always wondered how she loved so much. If someone needed a place to sleep or a place to eat, she always welcomed them.”
As for Gary’s mom, she faced the enormous challenge of raising 12 children.
Notes Lydia, “All I can think of is 14 years of diapers—and they weren’t disposable back then. As I look at the fruit of her mothering, they’re all good, upstanding people. I decided if she could do it for 12, I could do it for two.”
TEACHING TOUGH LESSONS
But, of course, the young Abdullahs were children of color who were being raised in the very white environment of Happy Valley. What was that like, Lydia?
“I can remember when each of our children were first confronted with the n-word. Andre was in middle school, and when he came out of the showers after some kind of game, someone had thrown everything from his locker into a puddle of water. So he started asking around—’Who did this? Why did you do this?’ And then someone called him a n—–. Our daughter was in elementary school when someone left a note for her that called her a n—–. You don’t forget those painful moments.”
So, Lydia, how did you teach your kids to handle such dreadful situations?
“You don’t act in kind. You’ve gotta love, you cannot hate. The Lord tells us we’ve got to love one another, you know, so we find ways to love them through the Lord.”
ADJUSTING FOR PERSONALITIES
Of course, the Abdullahs sensed the importance of tailoring their parenting to fit each child’s personality. And that was especially true when helping them deal with racial prejudice.
“For our son,” Lydia says, “the need was to calm him down. He was ready to fight, so we helped him realize there would be a lot of people to fight and there must be a better way.
“He is a commanding presence; his nickname in college was ‘DaGeneral.’ We had to guide that strength within him but help him realize that there’s a good way to do things and say things. Today his job deals with diversity and equity issues (Gary Andre is an assistant dean of Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications), so he needs to speak truth to power but also be receptive to hear from other people.
“As for our daughter, it (racial prejudice) just seemed to roll off her back. She didn’t take it as deeply to heart. She just figured it was some idiot person and she kept on going. She’s much more quiet, so you didn’t always know what was going on in her head. Today, Donna is able to dispense wisdom because she’s taken the time to keep her mouth shut, her ears open and her spirit alert.”
FOLLOWING HER OWN PATH
While raising her kids several decades ago, Lydia encountered various views on the roles of women and mothers. But to her credit, she knew who she was and how she wanted to live her life.
“Lydia was intentional in walking out her role as a nurturing, ‘motherly’ person when it wasn’t fashionable or even accepted,” Gary, a retired writer/editor for the College of Agricultural Sciences, says. “I remember when she got negative reactions and veiled comments when she was seen as being too supportive of men in authority. I’m sure her reputation and walk as a Christian woman cost her in her professional career. And so, when we celebrate Mothers’ Day, it’s important to acknowledge that being motherly isn’t always encouraged or praised.”
Meanwhile, Lydia’s status as a working mom raised a few eyebrows in the Christian community.
“I’m the first one to confess that I could not have been a stay-at-home mother,” she says. “It was not in me. When I was working, God had a purpose for me at Penn State that I could not have done at home. But that was not the ‘in’ thing, since every Christian woman was supposed to stay at home with her children.”
Today Lydia gratefully notes that her family’s involvement with Unity Church of Jesus Christ made a huge difference.
“Our church is very close-knit,” she says, “and you could depend on others. Both of my kids started out in daycares that were founded and run by members of our church.”
EMBRACING HAPPY VALLEY
Although she’s honest about Happy Valley’s warts—especially its racial climate—Lydia is a big-time booster of State College. And no wonder. From her early days as a Penn State freshman, she felt safe in this town.
“That was something, the freedom we had here as opposed to being in Philadelphia,” she says. “I was able to walk the streets at night and go where I wanted to go.”
Although Gary and Lydia both hail from Philly, they met at Penn State and they are anchored in Centre County. Both of their grown children still live here along with the Abdullahs’ three grandchildren—Sanai, Malia and CJ.
Come Christmastime, the Abdullahs’ neighborly hearts shine brightly when they decorate the towering evergreen tree on their property.
“It has become a community event,” Lydia says. “We have the lighting when Gary flips the switch, and we have hot chocolate and cookies. It brings everyone together.”
Come vacation time, they don’t usually travel to Philly, New York or D.C. Rather, they take a very short drive to Reynolds Mansion in Bellefonte in order to enjoy peace and quiet, lovely grounds and great food.
“It’s right around the corner,” Gary says, “but it’s different from the day-to-day life in State College, and the people are wonderful.”
Should Lydia ever need to prove her loyalty to our area—and she doesn’t—she could simply point to her countless past and present civic commitments: Board of Directors, Centre Moves; Board of Directors, Foxdale Village; Board of Directors, The Renaissance Fund; Board of Directors, Tri-County Habitat for Humanity; Board of Directors, Centre County United Way; Board of Directors, People Centre’d on Diabetes; Team Leader, Penn State’s United Way Employee Campaign.
But as deeply rooted in our community as the Abdullahs have become, they are frequently reminded of their minority status. Fortunately, not all such reminders are negative; some provide Lydia with a chance to exercise her nurturing nature.
She smiles as she recalls a little boy she met in an ice cream shop.
“He was just staring at me, and he said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody that looks like her, Mommy.’ That wasn’t offensive, but it was an educational moment. So I started talking to him and said, ‘If you want to touch me, that’s okay.’ Here was a child maybe 5 or 6 years old, and he’d never been around a Black person.”
WORKING AGAINST INEQUITIES
According to Lydia, racism in the Centre Region can be observed in two forms.
“We suffer from institutional racism,” she says, “where there are certain things in place that make it hard for people of color—in housing or job advancement with our major employers. Secondly, we have overt racism. There are still stores you can go into today where they’ll follow the Black person around. We still have people walking down the street, and someone yells out from a car window, ‘Hey, you n—–!’ And as recently as three weeks ago, someone defaced the mural at the MLK Plaza downtown.”
“I’ve been here since I was 17-years-old,” Lydia says. “I have seen changes. But they’re cyclical. We’ll go 6 feet forward in some activity, policy or program. And then we do something real stupid and go 5 feet back.
“I really feel the most dangerous factor is people not being aware. There are those who have intentionally closed their eyes to the problems. And those who just don’t have a clue. But if people don’t want to accept that there are issues, we’re not going to get around to fixing anything. If I told you that there’s water bubbling up in my backyard, it wouldn’t help if you said, ‘Well, it hasn’t reached the house yet.’ Somebody’s got to figure out the source of this water coming up from the ground.”
Lydia strongly believes that State College’s racial environment can best be improved through spiritual means. “Unless we are able to tackle this spiritually,” she says, “we’re going to stay where we’re always at. I’m not sure there are enough of us Christians in this community who are seeing racism or other forms of oppression as spiritual wickedness. It’s going to take a major spiritual advancement to keep this community on the right track.”
OFFERING A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE
If you speak frankly with “Aunt Lydia” about our community’s racial climate, you’ll capture two strong themes. You’ll hear appreciation for the things that make the Centre Region a wonderful place for her and her family. And you’ll hear her yearning for a new and improved Happy Valley, one that offers more warmth and equity for folks of all races.
As for the positives, Lydia beams about life in Houserville—being surrounded by good neighbors, taking photos of the sunrises and sunsets, watching the deer who come to the back yard. “That’s the Happy Valley experience,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had that in West Philadelphia.”
And she notes that other African Americans see the good in Happy Valley.
“We have watched people who went to school with us in the ‘70s, who spent years saying how horrible it was here,” she says. “But now to hear them when they come back, they say, ‘Oh, this is a great place. How can I get my kids in school here?’
“So there is something good here. And I don’t want us to knock off the shine we do have but to build upon it. As a mother, I know that you dislike it when you see the dings and the cracks in your children. But you do what you can to smooth those over or bang out a dent. So we have a lot of mothering to do in this community. A mother recognizes the ills, the bruises and the ugly spots, and tries to find a way to heal them. And we have to do that.”