Phyllis Chinlund’s life started unremarkably. She grew up in Pittsburgh PA, in a typical 1950s middle class lifestyle, which later she gently spoofed in Good Girl, her autobiographical film about adolescence. At Smith College, as the last echoes of the “silent generation” faded away, she conducted a research study about lifelong learning. Fifty-five years later it’s apparent that lifelong learning has remained the driving force in her life.
After college she married her high school sweetheart, and together they set out for new horizons. In Palo Alto CA, Phyllis joined the Stanford University graduate program in broadcasting and film. She had discovered the perfect career for someone who wants to keep learning. Moving to New York City after getting her Master of Arts, she directed or edited over 20 documentary films, and often said that each new project was like taking a college course. Subjects ranged from children in hospitals, to Pablo Picasso, to the National Audubon Society.
When her first marriage ended, Phyllis married another lifelong learner — photographer/filmmaker Ray Witlin. During 30 years together they challenged and supported each other to take new trails. With Ray’s help, Phyllis completed Good Girl, and, based on its merits, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Her growing interest in mental health, combined with the shock waves from the loss in one year of both her grandmothers and her mother, inspired a career change. In 1989 she completed an MSW degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work, specializing in geriatric mental health. She went on to clinical work with older adults in a variety of settings in New York and later in Maine.
The next chapter of Phyllis’ life is recounted in her book, Looking Back from the Gate, the story of how she and Ray found themselves on the bumpy road of Alzheimer’s Disease without a map. They were making it up as they went along, while trying to keep Ray’s creative instincts from getting lost along the way.
After 25 years of learning from her clients, Phyllis has retired from agency work, but is still educating herself–about how recent advances in the treatment of dementia validate and clarify the trail she had taken with Ray; and about the potential of mindful aging and the wonder of seeing the world fresh every day. That lesson, Phyllis will tell you, she learned from Ray.
Ray Witlin had a long and varied career in the arts. Starting as a graphic artist, he went on to still photography. His photos appeared in Life Magazine and other publications. Documentary films included the prize-winning Legend of the Paramo, What’s Happening, and Light in the West. Returning to still photography, he traveled for the World Bank and the Ford Foundation, mounted a major exhibition at the UN, and authored a series of photo essays for Side Streets of the World.
Nearly 30 of Ray’s photos, both from his professional career and his late life work, appear in Looking Back from the Gate.. A few examples: