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English Works: From Lawyer to Leading Philanthropist

Alumna Teri Popp presents a winning argument for skills learned in English
October 13, 2015

“English teaches you to learn how to learn,” declares Teri Popp (BA 1983). A Golden Valley attorney who practiced in employment law, especially in education, she has also for years been a learner and a leader in the nonprofit sector: the Minnesota Orchestra (Board Trustee 2003-14) and its Volunteer Association (President 2004-05), the Minnesota Military Family Tribute (President since 2011), the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Executive Committee Member 2010-11), and Fairview Southdale Hospital and Fairview Foundation (current Board Member for both), among others.

According to Popp, writing and research have been her strengths as both a lawyer and a philanthropist. She can write efficiently and clearly and build a persuasive argument, helped in great part by her liberal arts background and English degree.

Popp knew by high school she wanted to be an attorney. Her father had dreamed of practicing law; instead he served in the Air Force for 27 years. Popp’s family moved frequently, and she ended up attending 11 schools over her childhood. When it came to college, she set her sights on the University of Minnesota—but began by enrolling at a junior college, where she excelled, despite working a full-time job to support herself and pay for schooling. After transferring to the U, she declared English. 

Her goal was to earn good grades so she could get into law school. Her first English class at the U was Shakespeare, with Professor Shirley Garner. The first paper was on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Popp got the paper back, it was marked with a B-. Upset, Popp approached her professor. Garner was sympathetic but emphatic about the need for improvement, Popp recalls. “She offered, ‘If you want to be a better writer, I’ll help you.’ And she bent over backwards to help.”

Garner connected Popp to a writing tutor and continued to instruct and mentor her. “She made all the difference for me at the University,” says Popp. “Faculty like Shirley made sure I would not just survive, but that I would thrive.”

Popp’s advice to current English majors? Get to know your professors, obviously. But also: “Take a broad spectrum of classes,” she urges.

“I came in knowing I wanted to get an English degree on the way to a law degree,” she recalls. “But I was delighted to be exposed to so many different genres and texts, from Shakespeare to Chaucer to feminist prose with Shirley. It all opened my eyes to other ways of thinking and writing.”

Popp continues to explore other points of view, especially as she travels with husband Bill on Hearing Missions with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. They’ve been to China, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Egypt with Starkey, helping to distribute tens of thousands of hearing instruments. At the same time, she says, “People are people no matter where you go. . . . People have the same desires and needs, and are grateful when you reach out to them to help—importantly, when you reach out in a way that helps people help themselves for the long-term.”

Such long-term thinking about assistance is clear in the recently opened Bill and Teri Popp Chronic Care Center at Fairview Southdale Hospital, which enables faster processing and care for all patients with chronic illnesses arriving at the Carl Platou Emergency Center. As the daughter of an Air Force vet, Popp is particularly proud to have worked with Bill—and thousands of donors—to create the Minnesota Military Family Tribute at the Minnesota State Capital Grounds. Dedicated this past June, it is the first tribute to express support and thanks to military families. “It’s etched in stone forever,” Popp notes with satisfaction.

Popp will again put her English skills to use by writing the history of the creation of the Military Family Tribute, to go on file at the Minnesota Historical Society. Her history on Bill’s family also resides at the Historical Society. Popp was the historian for the Minnesota Mayflower Society for a time as well.

She’s also published a children’s book, Violetta and the Thing in the Bottom of the Well. Written for her two daughters to help them sound out words, it has been used in educational settings to help eighth and ninth graders who have difficulty reading.

Asked for a reading recommendation, Popp quickly pulls up a list on her iPad. She especially enjoys reading memoir and creative nonfiction, she says, citing recent favorites Behind the Beautiful Forevers and They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky. It’s a genre she first encountered taking classes with Regents Professor Patricia Hampl, whose A Romantic Education helped pioneer contemporary memoir. A true life-long learner, Popp likes to surround her book choices with context: “If I’m reading an author that I enjoy, I’ll be simultaneously researching the author, the story setting, etc.”

She’s employed the research and writing skills learned in English “over and over and over,” she acknowledges with a smile. And Popp sees the major’s emphasis as no less valuable for students today: “For example, in management, particularly in the growing field of HR where it is necessary to communicate and document.

“No matter what you do, you must be able to communicate clearly,” she states firmly. “English is applicable in any field.”