Pollin with husband Abe and Nancy Reagan in 1988 and celebrating the Bullets’ NBA championship in 1978 with player Wes Unseld. Photograph courtesy of Irene Pollin.
The death of a child often breaks up marriages. You lost two children, yet your marriage seemed to grow stronger. Why?
We were a very strong partnership from the beginning. So much so that with the routine decisions about all our children, we didn’t have to discuss what needed to be done. We just did it.
But when the bad times came, we discussed every detail. We always made decisions together, and we wouldn’t move until we agreed. When our daughter needed an operation, we talked over the risks for days, the three of us. Linda was included.
Above all, through everything, we respected each other deeply. Even if you don’t agree, if there is respect you will make an effort to see things from the other’s standpoint.
Over the years, I came to see this about our children’s deaths: that they were part of nature. They were born with these conditions. Nature isn’t perfect—look at the trees: Some are strong, some are not. That perspective has helped me a great deal.
Your professional work centered on counseling people living with chronic illness. Was that because of your family?
Of course. I started and ran two counseling centers, and I developed the first clinical model that recognized that dealing with a chronic illness is different from getting through a medical emergency. When a person in the family is living with illness, it affects everyone.
The first center was freestanding, with 15 therapists and a board. Then I took the same model to Washington Hospital Center and started an outpatient clinic there. I worked with individual patients and also did a lot of family and group counseling. For a while, a lot of multiple-sclerosis patients. Men, women, adolescents. Eight hours a day, five days a week for more than 25 years. Then I’d be in the owner’s box at the Capital Centre. Long days.
Most people didn’t know you were a working therapist, on the job every day. They saw you in the owner’s box and assumed that was your life.
And that’s okay. I didn’t mind being thought of as “Abe’s wife.” I loved him very much. Well, I didn’t mind so long as they didn’t assume that I was a trophy wife! Hey, I married the guy when he was a skinny kid, 135 pounds. Then we built our lives together.
Were there times when people would hear your last name and not be able to get past it?
Many times. I deal with that all the time. Going back to school was really tough that way. Some students and professors had a hard time with me being there and let me know it.
When I was working it happened, but not often after people knew me. Once, though, I was putting together a therapy group of patients with cystic fibrosis, and a fellow in it asked me, “Can we meet in the Capital Centre?” No. And that was the end of the group. They lost interest.
There was a nurse who snapped at me, “Why don’t you go back to where you belong?” I immediately thought: But I am where I belong—I’m a trained therapist. I’m using my skills to help people.
You must have been hurt by that.
When somebody makes a remark, it’s less an insult than just . . . they don’t know me. It’s all perception. Fortunately, not everybody is locked into it.
That time, though, I was upset. Not hurt, not angry, just concerned about the awkwardness of working day after day with somebody who can’t see you, who would say that. Abe said, “Just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
Women have more career opportunities now. Has anything changed about the way men and women relate?
What has changed, I think, is that men have become more respectful of women. Recently I was talking with a man who said, “Women are smarter than men.” It was a joking remark, but you never used to hear anything like that.
Do you think that’s because men are encountering women more in the workplace than they were, say, when you married in the ’40s?
Yes. Because of that, men now seem to be less threatened by women who are smart. Another thing: Our emotional acuity was not always valued before, and it is now. I recall a member of the American University board saying to me, “Come sit next to me, Irene. You pick up on things that I don’t. Just like my wife does.” The implication: That’s valuable.
Do you regret not starting your career as a therapist sooner?
Before my daughter died, I had no ambition whatsoever to be in the workplace every day. I was really happy being a wife and mother—maybe because I also was so actively involved in the business with my husband.
I remember being really content. I remember walking up the stairs one day, thinking, “I love being a mom.” If I hadn’t had a business outlet, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that way.
For years you went to Wizards games. Did you keep going after Abe died?
I tried, but it felt so different that I said to myself, “Well, it’s over.” I stopped going. For a year and a half I didn’t see any games, but I watched a playoff on TV—and once again realized how much Abe and I had talked about every aspect. What the players were doing, the strategy. Ted Leonsis, the current owner, has been very gracious. He’s said, “Any time you want to come, Irene . . . .” I went once, and that was enough.
You know, it wasn’t our owner’s box—it was my living room. Those who were there were my guests. Yes, I miss that life. It was fun. That time is over now. It’s okay.
Was it hard for you to sell the teams and the Verizon Center?
No. It’s all still there. I know every inch of that building—I helped plan it. In fact, I changed the look of a great deal of it from the original plans. And I’m very proud of it.
I miss the constant excitement, but my sons didn’t want to run it and I wasn’t going to do it by myself. The past is still there and always will be. So I feel good about the sale.
In all the years you and Abe had the Wizards, there was only one championship. Was that a disappointment?
Of course you want to win every game. As for the championship, of all the teams in the league, there aren’t all that many who have ever won one. Abe used to say that we were among the lucky ones.
Is it hard to be a sports-team owner here, where loyalties often are divided?
Oh, yes! It’s one of the things you really notice—the busloads of fans from Pittsburgh or Philly and the people in the stands screaming for the other team. It’s hard to see. Jimmy Carter was a big Atlanta fan, and he was with us in the owner’s box for one game. Hillary and Bill Clinton came to one Chicago Bulls game. It gets to you, to have guests rooting for the other side.
What have you learned about life?
That it’s harder than I ever thought it would be, or that my parents led me to believe it would be. I thought my life was going to be wonderful, and it has been in many ways. But I had a lot of knocks. You get both sides of life. So celebrate every happy occasion, every birthday, every anniversary, every beginning and ending. Notice it. When good times come, make the most of every moment and be grateful. I think we did that. I still do it.
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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