Sailing enthusiast drawn to Arkansas' many lakes

This combined photo shows two images of Linda VanBlaricom, 74, who moved to Arkansas in 1975 for a job and for the sailing opportunities. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

Linda VanBlaricom visited Arkansas in 1975 for a prospective job. The work was a good fit, and moving to Arkansas made for smooth sailing.

"I already had a sailboat. I came over and saw all the lakes ... the lakes seduced me," says VanBlaricom, 74, who grew up in the Midwest, in Moline, Ill., home of John Deere's world headquarters. "It's corn fields and more corn fields, so the trees, the forest, the lakes," she says. "I was just bowled over when I saw Arkansas."

She had completed a master's degree from Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill., by the time the job opened in Arkansas, and she was working in Memphis.

"Community Mental Health Centers were just getting off the ground at that time and there was a new one in Russellville," VanBlaricom says. "I had been working with a man who was doing his internship elsewhere and they offered me a job."

She didn't know a lot about Arkansas beyond news of the Central High desegregation crisis of 1957 before she visited, but joined the Lake Dardanelle sailing club and enjoyed her new surroundings.

In 1981, she moved to Little Rock and began a 40-year hiatus from sailing.

"Life happens, you know," she says.

VanBlaricom, during that time, continued bicycling, which she has enjoyed most of her life.

"As a kid, I would bicycle everywhere because I didn't have parents who could drive me around," she says. "Even in graduate school I didn't have a car. I had a bicycle, so that's how I got around. Monday I rode like 22 miles, just going out to the airport and back. Biking is actually my most favorite thing."

She is also a violinist, and meets at least weekly with a group to play chamber music. People she knew from her music group also bike with her. Some of them are also sailors, and they invigorated her interest in that sport.

"I started hanging out with some new friends here in Little Rock who are sailors, and they said, 'Come sail.' And I went, 'OK,'" VanBlaricom says. "Before I had just done leisure sailing, and now I'm racing at the age of 74. I've got bruises all over me to prove it. It's been very exciting."

On a recent weekend, she acquired a few new bruises as she hustled around the boat during some stronger winds in a regatta.

"It's physically very hard work," she says. "You're moving fast -- boom, boom, boom," she says. "It's a whole different ballgame. And it's been a great, great joy."

Her career has also brought her joy over the years. A career in counseling, VanBlaricom says, was a natural fit for her.

"I think I've always had that desire to save the world and help people," she says.

VanBlaricom was 3 when her parents divorced and she was shuttled back and forth between them.

"It was just kind of a chaotic childhood," she says. "I was very lucky because the public schools were excellent at that time and I really had the benefit of the stability of the public school system and the educational opportunities there."

Now retired, she had a small private practice until about 10 years ago, and she worked for several years for Partners for Inclusive Communities, a University of Arkansas program as well.

"I traveled all over the state teaching positive behavior support," she says. "I loved doing that because it was really primary prevention. It was really helping health care providers to understand what people with disabilities were needing and what they were communicating, maybe, with their behavior, and finding alternate ways to meet those needs so that people did not have to use behaviors that we would typically perceive as negative or aggressive or unpleasant."

The work was rewarding, she says.

"With individual therapy, you're working just one-on-one or maybe with a family, and that's great, but doing training I was able to have a much broader impact," she says.

The federal-grant funded program reduced hospitalizations among staff and patients in developmental disability facilities. Nonverbal patients, especially, sometimes become frustrated when they are unable to communicate their wants and needs, she explains, and the resulting behavior can escalate in those situations to something that causes injury.

"If I can teach somebody how to look at what those triggers are for that behavior and then understand what that need might be, and then teach them ways to meet that need, it's great for everybody," she says. "It's a win-win for the staff and for the clients."

In retirement, VanBlaricom participates in two book clubs, plays pickleball and kayaks. Her miniature French poodle, Kupper -- which was the last name of her late husband, Christopher Kupper -- is a frequent kayaking partner.

"He loves it," she says. "He's gotten a little older -- he's 8 now, so he's calming down, but at first he would be just all over. If somebody else was kayaking with us he wants to get in their boat and then two seconds later he would want to get back in my boat."

What VanBlaricom doesn't do much of is staying still.

"I'm a pretty busy person," she says. "I like to be active."