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The Success Formula

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Megs!” Jennifer called for the second time.

“OK, Jennifer, OK.” Megs walked down the hall into the end office where Jennifer, the pretty graduate student secretary, was finishing up a redecorating job. Today she was putting on the final touches—some jewel-toned pillows and a few favorite photos Dr. Cortlandt had wanted framed.

“What a terrific job, Jennifer! You’ve done this place up in such style—and on a reasonable budget too.”

“You like it, then?” Jennifer smiled. “I hope Daniel—uh, Dr. Cortlandt—likes it. He’s the one who has to live with it. Of course, with his kind of money, cost isn’t an issue; he sticks with a budget as a matter of principle, I guess.”

The photos Jennifer had just hung included a snapshot of the young professor’s parents at their island villa; another of his sister Candace with her new Italian sports car; and an assortment of buddies backpacking, sailing, celebrating the active life Daniel loved. But the photo that drew Jennifer’s attention was one of two girls by a tractor, smiling and squinting into the sun.

“Who are these two?” she asked.

“One of them looks like Betsy Jones,” Megs offered. “She was taking some continuing education courses here at the university a few semesters back—involved in a lot of outreach projects.”

Jennifer tried to look disinterested, but Megs knew how she gleaned information about anyone or anything remotely connected with Daniel.

“Outreach projects?” Jennifer repeated.

“Oh, you know”—Megs tried to remember more about Betsy’s activities—“humanitarian things. Tutoring poor kids, community gardens for old people in the city . . . things like that.”

“Oh.” Now Jennifer’s disinterest seemed genuine. “Well, the photo quality isn’t good, and the girls aren’t so attractive. I just wondered why he included that one.”

Attractive. Megs felt a constriction in her chest. She always felt dowdy, over the hill, and out of it around the smooth and polished Jennifer. As a wife and mother, as well as a part-time teacher now, Megs didn’t have much personal time—for grooming or for anything else. Megs could feel her skirt band rolling over from the pressure of her midriff fat, and her slip strap wouldn’t stay in the right place.

Jennifer took out a notebook to cross off the decorating job from her list of “current projects.” Megs looked over her shoulder as Jennifer turned to her “personal improvement” chart. She had gone by the clinic on her way to work, as she did every Monday, to weigh herself. Now she was making another check mark to indicate she had reached her goal of taking five pounds off her already-slender frame.

“How do you do it?” Megs asked. The columns indicated progress in nightly sit-ups, vocabulary building, piano practice, and books read.

“Well, Megs,” Jennifer shared, “you just have to set your goals and then make your time work for you. You know, when I came here a few years ago, I was 20 pounds overweight and had acne and a disgusting Southwestern twang in my voice. But I already had my philosophy. In high school I had started reading about how to achieve whatever I wanted. During college I worked on my grades, my cooking, my typing, and my talent at interior design.” Jennifer waved her hand around at the perfect room she had created. “Believe me, Megs, it’s 90 percent mental. I mean, if you believe you can do something, your attitude shapes circumstances your way.”

“Watching you would make anyone a believer,” Megs said softly, pulling down her skirt in back.

Just then Daniel came in, bouncing his special high-voltage energy off the walls.

“Hello, ladies!” His eyes stayed on Megs’ face, and she felt his brotherly fondness for her. He briskly dropped his books on Jennifer’s desk.

“I overhead some of your lecture on ancient Egypt today from the hall,” he told Megs. “You really put in your research, and it shows. Those kids were fascinated by those little-known facts.”

“Thanks, Dan,” Megs said, no longer aware of her annoying waistband or slip strap. “As for my little-known facts, I make half of them up as I go along.”

“Come on, Megs,” Daniel replied, teasing her like a little brother, “you just don’t want to share your sources. You’re selfish and mean!”

Just then Daniel noticed the new work Jennifer had done in his office and responded with his usual warmth and enthusiasm.

He noticed

Late that afternoon Daniel came into Megs’ office. “Jennifer’s gone already,” he said. “Look, I feel I should do a little something extra for all her effort. I know I paid her, but she put so much into the redecorating job.”

Of course, Megs knew. “I tell you what. I think she would really love it if you took her out to lunch.”

On Megs’ next day at the office, Jennifer came in humming. “My plan is working, Megs,” she said softly, emphasizing every word. “I have studied Daniel carefully, and I know what kind of person he needs and wants. I plan to become that woman—I am becoming that woman, in fact. It’s almost simple.”

So, Daniel must have asked Jennifer for lunch, Megs thought. She took a deep breath. “Well, Jennifer, what about what you need and want? Shouldn’t you be thinking of that?”

“What I need and want is Daniel. That’s all.” Jennifer’s clear-eyed look almost convinced Megs.

Then one afternoon Daniel asked Jennifer to work late with him. When the class outlines were finished, they relaxed with some conversation. Daniel talked about his childhood, not denying the pleasures money can buy, but emphasizing the things he’d found that it did not guarantee.

Jennifer didn’t talk much about her past, but she spoke about her convictions of goal setting, how she thought a person should have a master plan for their life.

Daniel’s only comment was “Well, Jennifer, I’ve always felt the Master does have a plan for my life, and I just try to find out what that is.”

“Oh, sure,” Jennifer said, feeling a little uneasy. “That could, uh, influence your goals in the first place.”

Later, when Jennifer recounted it all for Megs, she said, “He does need me, you know. With his talent, his education, why should he be stuck teaching in a small church-related university like this? I mean, it has no prestige.” Then, catching Megs’ expression, she added, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this school; it’s just that a young talent like him could teach anywhere he chooses.”

“Yes, well, maybe this school is the anywhere he chooses,” Megs said.

Who’s she?

And then one burnished-gold afternoon in early November between classes, Megs sat reading in her office. She could hear Daniel’s voice low in a phone conversation. Jennifer’s typewriter clicked away.

Then the typewriter stopped, and she heard a young woman say, “I need to see Dr. Cortlandt, please.”

“He’s busy now.” Jennifer’s voice was brisk. “Won’t you sit down?”

“Well, I’m in kind of a hurry,” the unfamiliar voice said. “Is that him talking on the phone?”

“That is he on the phone. If you would just—” Jennifer began.

But Daniel had heard whoever was in the receptionist’s office, and he slammed his phone and jumped up in a flurry of books. “Betsy!” His voice sounded strange, as though he didn’t have enough breath.

Megs glanced at the woman as she whirled through the small hallway in a circle of a gypsy skirt and a faded blouse. “Hi, Dan!”

Daniel ignored her outstretched hands and embraced her. “Oh, Betsy! I can’t call you at that end-of-the-earth place, and you won’t answer my letters! How have you been? Sit down. You look wonderful! May I get you something to drink?”

Betsy laughed. “No, thank you. I’m sorry about not writing you. I’ve been so busy. We’re picking apples now and putting up applesauce. Since most of the kids are challenged, they can’t work very fast, and we have a lot to do getting ready for winter. I came today with the farm manager to get a new part for our old farm truck. And Daniel,” she said as she spoke more softly, “I wanted to tell you in person—how can I thank you for that new tractor you bought for the school? It has made such a difference.”

“Oh, it’s only money; you’re giving your time, your life to those kids.”

And they talked on, he begging for more time with her, she laughing, but treating his eagerness gently.

Megs tried to focus on her own work. A little later as Dan was walking Betsy out, he stepped in the doorway to Megs’ office. “Betsy, you remember Megs Cothren, don’t you?”

“Hi, Megs,” Betsy smiled. And for a minute Megs just sat looking at her. There was something healthy and wholesome about Betsy. Her face had a suntanned glow, and she was surrounded by a wonderful clean apple smell.

Dan was talking again. “See, Megs has a great Thanksgiving potluck every year, Betsy. She has friends in and brings over a few residents from a nearby nursing home. She was telling me about it yesterday.” Dan’s eyes held Megs’, pleading.

“Oh, yes.” Megs caught his message. “We have a wonderful day planned. Is there a chance you could join us, Betsy?”

Betsy accepted enthusiastically, and Dan flashed Megs a grateful smile as they left together, making plans.

Turn around

Megs walked down to the women’s restroom and found Jennifer, red-eyed, staring in the mirror.

“I had to leave. I couldn’t stand it. Oh, Megs, did you see how he was with her—how he tried to hold her with his words, his eyes? He loves her . . . All this time, with my goals, my plans—” Jennifer’s voice caught. “I never took the time to see who Daniel might really be beyond his marvelous looks, his image.”

Jennifer looked up at Megs. “Even you, Megs—and this is hard for me to say—I looked at you only superficially, seeing your imperfections instead of getting to know what you’re really like. And you’ve tried to be a friend to me anyway.”

Jennifer paused for a big sigh. “In fact, I’ve lost touch with myself and with God. I don’t have any idea what He might have in mind for me.”

Megs stood stunned. She thought hard but couldn’t think of the right thing to say.

Jennifer continued: “I’ve played a lot of games. I guess I’ll try one more, my own version of To Tell the Truth—will the real Jennifer Mills stand up?” She turned to Megs with a brave half-smile.

“I think I like her already,” Megs said.


This story originally appeared in the March 22, 1983, issue of Insight. Joan Marie Cook attended La Sierra University and later earned an M.A. in both social work and counseling. She worked in Texarkana, Texas, as a counselor in private practice, specializing in groups. She died at the age of 79 in September 2015.

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