Her Sister's Keeper

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Dean Kaufman

In recent years Brinker has become increasingly isolated. Her father, Marvin Goodman, whom she adored, died in 2007. Her son, Eric, 34, took over his grandfather’s successful commercial leasing and development firm and now splits his time between Peoria, Illinois (where Nancy and Suzy grew up), and Manhattan. Her ex-husband, Norman Brinker, died last June, ending a long relationship that, despite their divorce in 2000, remained deeply loving to the end. “If you are unusual at all in what you do, prepare to be lonely,” Brinker remembers her father telling her, and for her this has proved true. “So many men I know aren’t nice about what I do,” she says. “Men my age judge me as being intense and unavailable. They say, ‘She has an agenda’ or ‘She’s too intense’ or ‘She’s going to make herself sick doing this.’ What they mean is that she isn’t available to just take care of me.”

Brinker comes across as both gracious and impatient, the kind of person who looks at her watch when conversation slows, who jiggles her foot while talking, whose admirable outlays of energy betray an inner restlessness. “She’s a warrior queen. She’s e-mailing at 3, 4 in the morning every day—a person with amazing energy to get this work done,” says Elizabeth Thompson, senior vice president for medical and scientific affairs at Komen. “She’s relentless,” says Susan Carter Johns, Komen’s strategic-relationships vice president. “And she expects everyone around her to work that hard, too.”

Back in Peoria, Brinker’s energy and drive delighted—and sometimes overwhelmed—her parents. “Her dad, Marv, once said to me, ‘Suzy was easy. Nancy was smarter than me and always was a challenge. She was always asking questions,’ ” recalls Margaret Valentine, who as Norman Brinker’s personal assistant of 42 years grew close to the whole family. “Nancy just came on like a bullet. He liked that about her, but there weren’t many quiet Sunday afternoons.”

Nor was the dinner table quiet. Brinker’s father was an outspoken Republican who advocated letting businesses flourish without government or union intrusion. He transmitted his views to Nancy over family meals at which he hotly debated her mother, Eleanor, a life-long Democrat. “In the end, Dad won,” Brinker now comments dryly.

Brinker was the first in her family to finish college, at the University of Illinois. Although her father envisioned her having a career in business or law, she didn’t go on for a graduate degree. “I didn’t feel I could survive in school,” she says with regret that, 40-plus years later, still sounds fresh. She had, she explains, an undiagnosed learning disability that required her to work twice as hard to keep her head above water and made standardized-test taking all but impossible. “I felt the jig was up,” she says. “I must have had the lowest SAT scores in the history of the state of Illinois. I felt if I took the LSAT, I would fail. They would look at me and say, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

Nancy moved to Dallas right out of college, lured by a beloved aunt and uncle, and was quickly hooked by the state’s cowboy culture and wide-open spaces. Texas gave her room to roam. Unlike Suzy, a homecoming queen and model who left college after two years to marry and start a family, Brinker was a product of the late 1960s who questioned authority and planned to become a “career woman,” in the parlance of the time. “Suzy was more introspective, more delicate,” recalls Linda Washkuhn, Suzy’s best friend, who was with her when she died and who brought the first regional Race for the Cure to Peoria in 1986. “Nancy would march in where Suzy might dip her toe. Nancy was just a little more outgoing, bolder, ‘don’t let anything get in my way.’ ”

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