Cathleen Dubault worked for Warner Norcross & Judd for 36 years before leaving to work in the nonprofit sector. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Cathleen Dubault had sipped wine in Rome and dined on guinea pig in Quito, Ecuador, but the Milwaukee native realized she still had problems navigating through Norton Shores, even after living there 10 years. It was a signal she needed to make a change.
“Two years ago, it occurred to me I did not know well at all my adopted city or its people,” said Dubault, who in 2000 was the recipient of the YWCA Tribute Woman of Achievement Award. “I would get my husband on the phone and ask, ‘How do I get there?’ It’s become a learning experience to get to know my community.”
Her desire to forge stronger ties with the Muskegon area acted as a catalyst to end a 36-year career at Grand Rapids’ law firm Warner Norcross and Judd, where she most recently served as director of lawyer recruitment, a job where she led senior- and partner-level recruitment, new associate recruitment, summer clerkships for law students and managing relationships with partnering organizations.
“I loved working at Warner Norcross and Judd,” she said. “That was the hardest decision I had to make.”
Also challenging was deciding where she wanted to land a job in the Muskegon area. Dubault knew she wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and whittled it down to three: the Muskegon branch of Kids’ Food Basket, Muskegon Museum of Art and West Michigan Symphony.
“Nonprofits are the best way to get plugged into a community,” said Dubault.
Eventually, Dubault opted to work as West Michigan Symphony’s part-time business development manager, a position she assumed in March with a dual mission.
The first is promoting the symphony’s new performance space, the 124-seat Olthoff Hall in the Russell Block Building in downtown Muskegon. This is where the symphony will offer smaller, more intimate concerts. It also houses ticket operations, administrative offices and equipment storage. Dubault will work to rent the hall for meetings and other events such as wedding receptions.
The other half of her new job is to develop business relations with the symphony and members of its business partners program, which acts as a vehicle for collaborations and a community resource for innovative programs.
“We are looking for innovative ways to involve the community with the symphony,” said Dubault. “We’re looking for opportunities for collaboration between businesses and the symphony.”
There is a bit of irony with the new job. She had to bone up on classical music — in part, by reading Scott Speck’s “Classical Music for Dummies,” which contends the more a person knows about this genre of music, the more a person will love it.
Dubault goes a step further.
“Most people know classical music more than they realize they know, because of the TV and radio commercials,” she said.
Some of that is because of — yes — Looney Tunes’ Bugs Bunny, who was known to conduct an animated symphony with comical results. She also cites Disney’s “Fantasia” and Tom and Jerry cartoons that used classical musical.
“When I was listening to (Bugs Bunny cartoons), I didn’t know the names of the classical pieces, I just remembered the music later when listening to the (West Michigan) Symphony,” said Dubault.
Dubault is poised and articulate, but with an adventurous side.
A few years ago she dined on guinea pig in Quito, Ecuador, where the cavy is a mainstay meal and where — wait for it — she weighs in on whether it tastes like chicken.
“It’s like a national dish there,” said Dubault. “It did and it didn’t taste like chicken. It was a dark meat and it had a lot spices on it, and I had it with beer.”
She doesn’t hesitate to reveal her favorite flavor of ice cream that she has when she attends Tigers baseball games at Comerica Park in Detroit. It’s vanilla loaded with chocolate-covered pretzel baseballs and a thick fudge swirl, made by Hudsonville Creamery & Ice Cream Co. She takes in a game with her mother an average of twice a year when the Tigers play the Yankees.
“You see all kinds of stuff at the stadium that you don’t see when watching it on television,” said Dubault. “On the electric board, there are all kinds of stats you don’t see on television.”
She had to go online to find out what it meant when a backwards “K” appeared on the board. It means a batter has struck out watching the third strike go by, while a forward K means the batter struck out swinging and missing.
“It’s one of those things big baseball fans know,” said Dubault.
Growing up, Dubault and her siblings reveled in catching crawdads and grayfish and other assorted amphibians and reptiles.
“I love grass snakes and toads,” said Dubault. “If my dad was mowing the lawn and saw a grass snake, he would impress on us what a wonderful creation we live in.”
She only has a handful of things on her bucket list. Among them is to go parasailing and gliding.
“And I’d like to go back to Italy,” she added, referring to a trip she took in 2000. “We went to Florence, Venice, Rome and Spello. Their olive oil is like liquid sunshine. When I came home, I actually was homesick for Italy.”
Last year, the Grand Rapids-based Kids’ Food Basket opened a Muskegon branch where Dubault serves on its task force and where she and other volunteers assemble an average of 500 sack suppers for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Muskegon Heights, which include a meat-and-cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, a vegetable, a granola bar and a juice box. The servings equate to 800 to 1,000 calories.
That caloric intake is crucial because most of the kids who receive a sack supper also receive federally funded breakfasts and lunches that collectively amount to 1,000 calories. But growing children require 2,000 calories a day for proper brain development, which plays a critical role in their ability to focus on teachers’ instructions.
Dubault wonders out loud what the children would do if it weren’t for Kids’ Food Basket.
“I’ve never gone to bed hungry in my life. I can’t imagine that.”
She asks a question she believes all should consider.
“At the end of my life, did I give joy and did I get joy?”
She counts her daughter, 31-year-old Kate Vellenga Meriwether, a urologist-gynecologist in Albuquerque, as the biggest influence in her life.
“Becoming a mother is the best job training in all the world,” said Dubault. “When I put my baby in a car seat, I was thinking, ‘You’re kidding. You’re putting me in charge of this kid?’
“You’re making decisions that are not egocentric anymore. It requires you to figure out how you’re going to make their lives better.”
Dubault believes her life was enhanced — and her eyes opened — when, as a teen, she worked the graveyard shift as a waitress at a truck stop in Ionia for three summers. She said the job tends to make a teen mature quickly.
“As a waitress, you’re dealing with different people, creating customer loyalty and maintaining a calm composure.”