Emma Pfaeffle on learning resilience from her father’s recovery from bankrupt patient to Obama appointee
As part of a series to mark Father’s Day, Moneyish asked some prominent people to share the lessons they learned from their father or father figures about money and leadership. Read more here.
My sister and I are first generation American. Both our parents were immigrants—from Cuba and Nicaragua— and I describe my childhood as Disneyland because it was so safe and secure. We never lacked for treats or toys, but we were bargain shoppers and never frivolous spenders. While we never really had conversations about money when I was growing up, we only went shopping at places like Costco, or bought things on sale.
It was only when I was a teenager—I’m now 26—that I learned our family had financial issues when I was around 4-years-old. That’s when my father, Fred Pfaeffle, had a brain hemorrhage, followed by a really intense brain surgery that caused him to lose his job. Dad had to relearn how to walk and was told he’d most likely never practice law again. Well, he was later appointed by President Obama as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Agriculture. He’s now 54 years old and just started his own business as an independent lawyer after President Obama left office in January. My dad triumphed against the odds, but because I was so young, I didn’t understand his resilience. Now I see how strong he was.
Back then, the strength I saw was from my mother, Zoe, who passed away nine years ago from lupus and fibromyalgia. When my father was ill, she was handling everything on her own. She was a stay-at-home mom but encouraged us to write in the occupation field for school forms that she was a mother of two, because it’s such a difficult job. She was the glue of the family though she had medical issues herself when we were growing up. But she never let anyone know and never let it show. I absolutely attribute all my strengths and success to my parents.
My mother was very artistic—she was always watching foreign films and reading actors’ biographies—but I was the first in my family to make it into a career. My father is such a pragmatic guy and he’s a proud papa, but was skeptical when I first chose the performing arts. He’d asked for my backup plan if I didn’t become a professional dancer and I’d say “acting!” The turning point came when I was booked for a season at a dance company while still a senior in college. When he saw that I booked jobs while still in school, he came around.
This Father’s Day, we’ll probably just be Facetiming because I have two shows on Sunday. My dad is also really busy—he’s in Washington, D.C. working and planning his wedding for next January. But we talk at least once a week and text all the time. We’ll celebrate a week later when I go to D.C. on my day off. I’m getting him a new printer and scanner for his home office.
Emma Pfaeffle plays Veruca Salt in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—The New Musical,” now on Broadway.
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