Aspirational Chat with Debbie Slack Katz

When I walked up to Debbie Slack Katz’s house in the woods, I immediately felt welcomed by the candle lights in her windows. The welcome feeling only grew when Debbie answered the door! She’s warm, confident and was happy to share her home and her story with me. She has a friendly peace about her that I really enjoyed. She intentionally surrounds herself with items she loves, in a home she designed for function first — what’s not to love about that?! Her accomplishments and work outside of her home are many and are all centered around helping others. I hope you enjoy meeting her as much as I did!

AFP: Thank you for having me here in your home today. How long have you lived here and why did you select this home? Tell me a little bit about it. 

DSK: We've been here 30 years this October, actually (Note: that’s Oct. 2018). I designed and built this home, and the reason we're here is because this piece of property has been in my family since Howard county was a part of Anne Arundel County. It was part of the original land grant. This used to be part of my grandfather's farm. 

AFP: I love that history! That's good reason to live here. [laughter]

DSK: It's very nostalgic for me and I like the energy of it, too. I feel very connected to my past. 

AFP:  I bet you do! Now, when you say we – who lives here? Lived here? 

DSK: It's my husband and I that live here now, and I have 2 children. I have a son who was married last October and I'm expecting my first grandchild the end of December/early January. And I have a daughter, who is in graduate school in Colorado.

AFP: Oh, that's great! Your rooms have a lot of space, but they feel very cozy. 

DSK: Yes, exactly! I designed it so it would have a good flow. It's an easy house to entertain in, but it's still very livable. To me, that was the goal. I wanted something large enough that we didn't get in each other's way [laughter] and livable, but also would provide ease of entertaining. Flow is important to me. 

AFP: Well, especially if you're trying to entertain 30 people! You need great traffic flow and good function. What's your favorite room in the house? 

DSK: Probably the living room, because I like things that reminds me of... I really like Delft as you see, and this reminds me of Williamsburg. I've been collecting it since I was in my teens. I got my first piece when my family and I, as a child, went to Holland, Michigan. I bought my first piece there and kind of here-and-there collected it ever sense. I didn't realize until my uncle did some genealogy, we are of Dutch origins.

{Debbie’s Delft collection makes for an eye-catching window-front display.}

{Debbie’s Delft collection makes for an eye-catching window-front display.}

AFP: Oh, wow!

DSK: So it was kind of like this intuition or something. 

AFP: You were drawn to it, like there was a reason! 

DSK: Exactly! 

AFP: Do you have a favorite piece? 

DSK: This was my grandmother's, so even though it's not the most valuable, I'm partial to it. And this one, I worked for ten years at Howard County General Hospital and when I left, I was gifted this piece. 

{These Delft tobacco jars are an extension of Debbie’s unique collection.}

{These Delft tobacco jars are an extension of Debbie’s unique collection.}

AFP: Let's pop into your kitchen. Do you like to cook? Do you spend a lot of time in the kitchen? 

DSK: I happen to be a very good cook. I won the Betty Crocker Homemaker Award in high school, [laughter], and I have been certified in the state of Maryland to judge food contests. I've judged at the state and local fairs and different food contests. I grew up with 4-H, so I cooked all the time and my son is a chef.

AFP: You have lots of great space in your kitchen. 

DSK: I like it. And put your designer hat on a minute. I installed pocket doors into the kitchen so if I happen to be cooking or if I have a caterer or something like that, I can shut this off. When people come in the front door the can’t see into the kitchen and they have to then go around, though the dining room.

AFP: I love it!

DSK: I use pocket doors a lot because I I think that they're really functional. They will divide without feeling divided. 

AFP: Yes! Because they can disappear. I love a pocket door, too. Now, did you have this put in when you first built the house?

DSK: Yes! I designed the house to have little halls and enough room that people would feel comfortable. 

AFP: And I imagine with your two kids growing up here, there were probably always lots of friends over ? 

DSK: And the thing about living out here, the good news is we've got lots of space and the bad news is they stayed for a while, it wasn't like they could run home because we're really not in a neighborhood. [laughter] 

AFP: You might have already answered this with the lamp that you made, but what would you say is your most treasured possession? 

DSK: Can I have two? Well, I might have to to have three. In the dining room, a carnival glass pitcher that was my mother's mother's. If I had to say one thing though, it would probably be this bowl, and even though it looks very simple, this bowl was my great great great-grandmother's and it sat in the baptismal font at the church where my family grew up. It was used it to baptize some my family members. 

{Nearly everything on display in Debbie’s house has a family connection or story behind it, including this carnival pitcher and glasses set that once belonged to her grandmother.}

{Nearly everything on display in Debbie’s house has a family connection or story behind it, including this carnival pitcher and glasses set that once belonged to her grandmother.}


AFP: Wow! So that really has special meaning.

DSK: To me, I think it's important that you have pieces of your family, I don't care if they're valuable or not. Just about everything here has some family connection or I could tell you a story behind it. I like that I can tell you stories about anything here. 

AFP: I love when you go to someone's house and there's something unique that you can point to and say, "Oh! Tell me about that!" It's engaging. It's interesting. It's a conversation. It's a story.  Do you have favorite travel find?

{“I usually like to collect one interesting thing or something I can't get somewhere else,” Debbie said speaking of her cookware find during a trip to Portugal.}

{“I usually like to collect one interesting thing or something I can't get somewhere else,” Debbie said speaking of her cookware find during a trip to Portugal.}

DSK: I like it because you won't find it here, I guess. This is called a cataplana, it is Portuguese, and basically it is hammered copper and you cook a meal in it. My other favorite travel treasure is a rug is from Morocco. 

{Debbie hand-carried this vibrant rug back from Morocco, making for a perfect souvenir.}.

{Debbie hand-carried this vibrant rug back from Morocco, making for a perfect souvenir.}.

AFP: The colors are striking. 

DSK: I love red! Navy and red are probably my favorite colors. I think you should surround yourself in the colors that give you energy and make you feel good because your home should be your refuge. 

AFP: I've been designing homes now for about 10 years. And what I find when I meet with clients to figure out what we're going to do for their project, is what’s important to them is the  experiences they want to have in their home. We are creating a home to uphold those experiences, like you created in your home. 

You need to entertain for 30, what's the best way to furnish your home to support that? And then, it becomes about the experiences and not the pieces, even though the pieces are appreciated and enjoyed. So, I love hearing how people experience their home and how they love to live in their home. I really feel like I’m bringing their aspiration to life; what they want their life to be like for their future. With that said, finding out how much you appreciate and love everything you have, what are your aspirations for living in your home or for what you want to do in your life

DSK: I think that people always feel welcome here, that people feel safe. Part of my nurse training is safety is your first need. If you're not safe, then you can't do anything else. So, I want people to feel safe here. I want people to feel like it's a little oasis. That's why I purposefully never put up curtains because you can look out and see. We're nestled back in here and you can see that you're safe here. I think that's important. 

As far as aspirations, I like to do things that make people happy, to make sure they understand that I value their stories, because everybody has something unique to teach us. I don't think it matters whether you're the housekeeping supervisor or the president, everybody has lessons you can learn from and everybody has life experiences. Knowing people feeds me. My friends tease me, by the time we get out a cab somewhere I know the driver’s story. I know how long he's been married or why his wife's not with him. I like to listen to people. I like to hear what they're saying and what they're not saying. 

AFP: That's really interesting. Your home is really a great place for people to come and feel welcome, like you said. I can feel that, even just driving up and seeing the candles in the window. To me that feels very welcoming and present. 

You should surround yourself in the colors that give you energy and make you feel good because your home should be your refuge.
— Debbie Slack Katz

DSK: The other thing I really like about it here, too, is that it's not unusual to have eight deer in my driveway. I like the fact that we're settled enough that wildlife still comes around.

AFP: Let’s talk a little bit about your work. You're a registered nurse, and you mentioned you worked at Howard County General. I also read that you're going to be part of the county's first opioid crisis community council and I assume your background in nursing has something to do with that interest. Can you share what's happening with that council?

DSK: I haven't been able to attend very many of the meetings for the simple reason because of what I do now, I am working for Genesis Healthcare in risk management. My area of expertise is actually on patient mobility and how staff can move patients safely. I travel, so unfortunately I've had to miss some the opioid crisis meetings.

Also, I'm the Chair of the Flood Work Group, I'm the Vice President of the Ellicott City Partnership, and I just was appointed to the Historic Structures Committee. The reason that the opioid crisis council is important to me, is because I think the future of healthcare is all about population health. How we manage our population and how we can grow healthier populations.

I think the fact that I grew up in a family funeral home and understand what the devastation, that it is something that we could have controlled, can do to a family. I think the more people that are aware of it the better. It all goes back to that whole safety thing, where people feel safe and can say, "I need help!" with non judgement. 

AFP: That's very powerful! And what I didn't know, is that you are still working. Could you be any more busy?

DSK: I'm am old ER nurse, so I work well under pressure. And I think we're pretty lucky as a county and I think it's a shame that every person doesn't do some sort of volunteer work. I don't care what it is, whether it's with your religious institution or your child's school, everybody is capable of doing something.

I also had very powerful role models, both of my parents were involved in community activities. Everybody always says, "You have such high energy!" and I laugh and tell people that I never knew I had high energy until I was in my forties. [laughter] It's what I grew up with! I have childhood memories of my mom at 2 o'clock in the morning ironing what she's going to wear the next day because she didn't get finished until then.

You’re only as happy as you allow yourself to be
— Abraham Lincoln

AFP:  I’d like to learn more about your work with Historic Ellicott City. 

DSK: It's important work because what keeps me grounded and vested in Ellicott City is the fact that it has so many of my core values. It's historical without bein pretentious and it's a living, breathing community. It has deep roots, a lot of the people have been there for years and years. EC and I  are similar in many ways. I tell people and they laugh, but Maryland is in my blood. My family traces itself back to the Shipleys, who founded the state of Maryland. I like the fact that Ellicott City isn't afraid to evolve and change, I happen to be one of the weird people that like change, because it gives us new opportunities. Ellicott City is a survivor. I think of myself as a survivor too, not that I have any health issues, but just to be able to keep breathing everyday, being grateful for everything I have and keeping one foot forward. 

AFP: That is the most interesting thing anyone said to me in these interviews. 

DSK: But it's true! No matter what you do to me, at my core I'm a survivor and so is Ellicott City.

AFP: Just reimagined, right? 

DSK: Absolutely, reimagined. And I think that a lot of people are very against tearing down the buildings. But like I told you before, my first priority is safety. I, if anybody should probably be in tears about those buildings because I have childhood memories of each of those buildings. My first home was on Main Street, there used to be a funeral home on Main Street and we lived over top of it. I remember going into Caplan's, the smell and the visuals. I remember going into Cavey's Barbershop. I remember the bank, the liquor store and Bob Waggle's. I'm sad about the destruction of those buildings, but then I move on because it's not the structures, it's the heartbeat of the people in the town. That's what people miss sometimes. 

AFP: I agree, something has to be done. We can't keep doing the same thing the same way and expect different results. Mother Nature's not messing around. 

DSK: I'm a Virgo, and I'm not sure I believe a lot of that, but I think there's some truth to it. I have a friend who says that I can't just break a fingernail, sometimes I have to break an arm to learn a lesson. I kind of think Ellicott City must be a Virgo, too. 

AFP: True! I think it's really good that you're involved then.

DSK: I'm logical to a fault sometimes. I'm a person that if you ask me to give you my honest opinion, I will give it, but be ready for it. 

AFP: Well, that probably helped you in nursing a lot. 

DSK: It did! I'm a very decisive person because I've had to be and I've also learned that I'm a very passionate person. Sometimes those are both double-edged swords, but it's all about the balance. 

AFP: What is the best advice you've ever received?

DSK: There's a few things that come to my mind immediately. My father always said, "You look at the color of man's heart and not his skin." That's one of the best pieces. Vic Broccolino, who my boss for 10 years at Howard County General, he was the one, even though I had grown up with the value, he said to everybody that would listen to him, "Just because she's a housekeeper here, she may be the Sunday school superintendent in her church. Don't discount what she have to offer." I think that's an important lesson.

{Debbie prides herself on being a fan on Lincoln.}

{Debbie prides herself on being a fan on Lincoln.}

The other one is, and if you can't tell I'm an Abraham Lincoln fan (because he's actually a distant relative), one of his quotes is really cuts at my core, "You're only as happy as you allow yourself to be." All of us could sit and moan and groan about what's not fair and what's not right and what's happening to us, but I really think it's up to us to allow ourselves to be happy.

AFP: Those all excellent and very powerful. You mentioned traveling internationally. What’s your favorite vacation spot? Favorite place to visit? 

DSK: I guess the beach, I love Ocean City. I'm lucky enough to have a family home there and I'm lucky enough that I have a whole group of friends down there. We call ourselves the "136 Beach Family" and we’re anywhere from 4 years old to 94.

And internationally, I guess Egypt. When I got off the plane in Egypt, something said “you're home" and as you can see, I'm about as non-Middle Eastern as they come. But it was a very powerful experience. I like Morocco, that whole mid-east culture. I know what my answer is, third-world countries. I think you still get an authentic sense of the culture and the people, and one of the things that, because my family's been here so long, we don't have a lot of cultural nuances.

AFP: That's great! I love how it's bookended: you've got home - comfortable, familiar, close and relaxing, and then you've got experience abroad - new and different. You have a lot of great philosophies, grounding beliefs, appreciation and gratitude, but when you're having a bad day or feeling a little “off”, what do you do to cheer yourself up or feel better? 

DSK: A couple things. I take a step back. Try to breathe deep and look at how really lucky I am. There's a big difference between want and need, and I think that we've missed that for a lot of our future generations, myself included. I find a very calming sense, whether it's God's spirit or some kind of control, in that I'm a small piece of a big picture. I also think, and this is very important to me, that as long as at the end of the day I can look at myself in the mirror and say, "I did the best I could or I didn't and I corrected it," then I'm okay.

{Debbie truly has a “little bit of everything” as she likes to say, including Native American treasures.}

{Debbie truly has a “little bit of everything” as she likes to say, including Native American treasures.}

AFP: Good stuff! Now I've got a few easy, fun questions. 

Coffee or tea? It depends. I've only started drinking coffee in the last five years, believe it or not. Teas soothe more the coffees do, but there's some days I don't drink either.

Cats or dogs? Dogs. I like the personality of dogs.

Morning or a night person? Yes. [laughter] It doesn't matter to me. I worked a lot 3 to 11s in my nursing career. I also grew up in a home where my family business was a funeral home, and when the phone rang my father answered it.

Cake or pie? Chocolate cake, sour cherry pie. And I just told you I was decisive. [laughter] If I had to pick one, sour cherry pie. 

Netflix or movie theater? Movie theater. 

Summer or winter? Summer, because I get to see my beach family. 

Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? That's easy, dark chocolate ice cream.

Online shopping or shopping in a store? Shopping in a store. 

Favorite holiday? Christmas. 

Favorite food? Either salad or fish. I do like a good ol' Maryland blue crab, too. 

Favorite restaurant? In Ellicott city, it would be Tersiguel's. I've literally grown up with them. My mother actually signed Ferdinand's liquor permit and Angie Tersiguel is a friend of mine. Then non-Ellicott City would be the Royal Taj. Binda, the manager there, has become a very good friend of mine and I love Indian food. 

If you could live in a different state or country, which may be hard to imagine, where might that be? Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am very interested in the Native American population. There's 19 pueblos there and I have been to probably 12 of them. 

AFP: Wonderful! Those are all of my questions. I really enjoyed learning a little bit more about you! Thank you for your time.

I instantly felt comfortable with Debbie and after reading this I’m sure you can see why! I loved hearing about all of her experiences in the community and why they matter to her. Her generous spirit, historic treasures and cozy home were a pleasure to experience. Thanks, Debbie!

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