UU liFE on Fifth Avenue

Nina LA Co Museum of Art croppedUUFE’s Nina Wahl traces her path through five or six foster-churches, along Wall Street and Fifth Avenue, to UU liFE’s Five Big Questions.


UU liFE: Where were you raised, and how?

Nina: I was born into a colorful but dysfunctional family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was the youngest of what I knew then to be 4 children. I later learned that my oldest sister, who was my senior by 14 years, was my half- sister, born to my mother during her first marriage. I learned only in my early 50’s that there was another half-sister from that marriage…a detail my mother never mentioned.

My mother was born in England to American parents and raised in Catholic convent schools in Europe. Her parents were in Vaudeville and travelled all over the world. She taught us a few song and dance routines and, being the fourth child, I had to figure out a third harmony, as the melody and two harmonies were already taken.

My mother struggled with mental problems among other issues and disappeared from my life shortly after my sixth birthday. My father had been separated from my mother for some time, and he travelled for a living, so after my oldest sister left home, we had a series of housekeepers. When that didn’t turn out too well, my father, who was an agnostic, packed us off to boarding schools.

When I was 8, my 14-year-old sister and I were sent to a Catholic boarding school in town. Although my sister was already a Catholic, my father instructed the nuns that I was not to be converted. My brother was sent to a Catholic Military School in another town.

L: Nina in her original home just before going away to boarding school. R: Back out of boarding school at her first foster home.
L: Nina in her original home just before going away to boarding school. R: Back out of boarding school at her first foster home.

When the first holiday came (Thanksgiving), I learned that my father had sold our house and the contents, so I spent holidays visiting friends. By the end of the year, I left the school and went to live with some friends of the family who became my first foster parents. I attended their Presbyterian church, sang in the choir, and went to summer Bible school and to a Presbyterian summer camp.

My next foster home was not a happy one, but the saving grace was the church that family belonged to. It was a very liberal independent church, which was at one time briefly a UU church. I attended “Character School” on Sunday mornings and later joined the youth group. This remarkable church changed my life by exposing me to the idea of actually questioning religious thought and seeking my own spiritual path – as well as making me highly aware of the inequities of our world.

When I was in the 9th grade, I went again to live with my father in Shaker Heights, Ohio. My stepmother and I had a rocky relationship, and although she was raised Presbyterian, she was a bitter and cynical person and rejected the church as too “inclusive” and liberal. So I attended the Episcopalian Church with a friend and joined the choir. When my father moved us again to western Massachusetts, my stepmother decided that the Congregational Church would be the correct social thing to do, so my father and I were baptized together at her insistence. I was again active in the youth group.

My stepmother decided I was not smart enough for college and did not allow me to take the SAT tests. But I was accepted at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston on the basis of a portfolio. After the first year, I was on my own financially and struggled with low-paying jobs in Boston before moving to New York City, where my brother lived.

My brother encouraged me to take the entrance test for The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. I worked up to three jobs at once and finally got into Cooper Union, from which I graduated four years later. I had to attend the night school so I could continue to work to support myself, but my tuition was completely free. I met my brother’s neighbor (and friend), and a few months later we got married in an Episcopal Church in Spanish Harlem.

How have you made your living?

After being laid off from the art department of a children’s encyclopedia (after it was published), I worked a variety of jobs – from Wall Street to doing research at a law firm, to being a hostess at Longchamp’s. Eventually I became an ad executive with small ad agencies specializing in entertainment and medical computerized medical lab equipment.

I later took a job with with Van Cleef and Arpels, the French Fifth Avenue jewelers, as Public Relations and Advertising Director for North America.   My job, aside from always wearing their jewels, was exciting, intense, stressful and exhausting, with frequent stays in Beverly Hills and Palm Beach, as well as trips to Honolulu and Mexico where I was a guest of the Mexican Government. However, after 5 years I was burnt out and took a year off before joining the Advertising staff of the New York Daily News.

Nina in 1987 at Flagler Museum fundraiser for American Diabetes Association
Nina in 1987 at Flagler Museum fundraiser for American Diabetes Association

What’s the most remarkable thing you’ve done?

Ha. Most remarkable thing I’ve ever done. .. I guess petting two white tigers might qualify. I did a photo op with Sigfried and Roy and two white tigers and it made the cover of the New York Post.

And I fulfilled my dream of singing in Carnegie Hall.  I sang there with a large chorus for over 21 years, and once with the Contemporary Opera Company, and with several guest conductors.

Nin ON NY Post Cover 700X

What’s the Next Big Thing for you?

No big things but just little things. When my schedule allows, I will undoubtedly do more acting with Tap, do some writing and maybe…maybe…go back to some painting.

How did UUFE and you find each other?

While I was working in advertising in NYC, I attended a Church of Religious Science for a couple of years before switching to a Unitarian Universalist church which I stuck to, convinced that I had found my spiritual home at last. When I went to work at Van Cleef and Arpels, my attendance at the UU church fell off.

When I came to Easton, I had decided to retire early.  But my love of this extraordinary area led to my taking a job as Tourism Coordinator for Talbot County for about 5 years.

I attended the UUFE for a year or so, singing in the choir, and after losing interest for a while, I returned and have been happily committed with UUFE ever since.

How do you serve UUFE and why?

I love the wonderful mixture of people and have enjoyed the choir and the various committees I have served on.  Although I am taking a little breather now, I expect to serve on other committees in the future. I have definitely come home.

Nina with us, ready for the Next Little Things
Nina with us, ready for the Next Little Things

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