Former Miss World's Quest to Define Meaing of 'Spirit' - Philadelphia Inquirer - Lexie Potamkin

By Art Carey  I  The Philadelphia Inquirer

She was born in a small town in northern Idaho. Her father was a civil    engineer, specailizing in nuclear and hydroelectric plants. Every few years, the family moved -- Oregon, Washington, California, Michigan, Florida.

Lexie Brockway, pretty outgoing, made friends easily. She moved to Michigan after her sophomore year in high school. Senior year, she was class president.

But her congeniality and cheerleader exuberance masked a spiritual, philosophical streak. Fascinated by nature, she would walk in the woods for hours, marveling at the manifestations of a higher power, wondering about the mystery of it all.

In college, she entered a beauty contest on a lark -- and won. She went on to become Miss World USA. She dropped out of school, traveled with Bob Hope and met VIPs. Eventually, she became a PR exec in New York and launched her own company, with clients such as Bell Atlantic.

"I was making a lot of money," says Lexie, who today goes by her married name, Potamkin, and lives in Society Hill. "I was featured in magazines as the woman who had it all. But there was a part of me that felt empty."

No single event marked her spiritual regeneration. But her father's battle with cancer spurred the quest. She quit her job and moved to California to care for him. When Mickey Brockway died in 1978 at age 57, Potamkin lost her "best friend" -- the man who taught her that "it's more important to be loving than to be right."

Eight years ago, curious about what makes people tick, Potamkin decided to get a master's degree in applied psychology. She took a two-year course with her husband, Robert, scion of the family that owns car dealerships up and down the East Coast.

"My husband is very left-brain," says, Potamkin. "He went to Pann Law and Wharton. When people in class would talk about spirit, he'd turn to me and ask: 'What is spirit?'"

The Potamkins decided to find out. They sent a letter to their classmates. "The responses were beautiful, really magnificent," recalls Lexie Potamkin. She vowed to compile them into a book.

Years passed. Potamkin sold her business and began devoting more time to volunteer work -- Resources for Children's Health, a local group that helps at-risk mothers and babies; the International League for Human Rights, which documents atrocities around the world. She also turned 40 -- a mortality check that often triggers soul-searching. Savoring her "midlife clarity," she began doing yoga, meditating, exploring other religions, tapping the wisdom of Buddist monks. She began working on the book.

It's now done. What is Spirit? (Hay House Inc., $14.95) is an inspiring, thought-provoking collection of answers and biographical sketches, handsomely illustrated by Peter Max. It features testimony from all manner of folks, from Leo (a formerly homeless man) to Jimmy (former resident of the White House). Among those tackling the question are preists, rabbis, swamis and monks, as well as such notables as Jerry Blavat, Elliot Curson, Georges Perrier, Wynona Judd, Roma Downey, Cathy Rigby, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rudolph Giulliani, Ed Rendell, Richard Sprague, Leon Higginbotham, Tug McGraw, Gayle Sayers, Jim Nabors, Gloria Steinem, Sir John Templeton, Saul Steinberg and Donald Trump ("Spirit is enthusiam!").

Some of the answers are trite and predictable. Spirit, a numberof respondents say, is your essence, the spark of the devine. But several replies are memorable:

Jimmy Carter: "Spirit is like the wind, in that we can't see it but can see its effects, which are profound."

Jose Luis Rodriguez, the Latin singer known as "El Puma": "I think the earth is a school. We came to Earth basically to graduate from the school of Spirit."

Dick Gregory, civil rights activist and comedian: "When I saw Nelson Mandela walk out of jail with no hatred and bitternes, I realized he had an authentic Spirit."

Sara Laursen, 18, student-intern in the Asian antiques business: "Spirit is the fingerprint of your existence."

Moses Pendleton, dancer, director, choreographer: "I don't go to church but I'm quite faithful to every sunset I can catch. I find Spirit in nature. The more spirit you have, the more ability you have to dream in the daytime."

Ellyn Golder Saft, fashion columnist: " Spirit is what lingers when you leave a room."

James Hume, author and speech-writer: "Spirit is a reflection of a reflection, the echo of eternity that lights our conscience, reveals our purpose and steels our resolve."

Potamkin's answer? "To me, it's what connects us all, what makes us all the same -- in our pain and suffering, successes and triumphs. It's through spirit that we become one."

She is 43 now, youthful, effervescent and pregnant with twins, her first children. "I've been blessed with a lot of material things," she says. "But things don't make you happy. It's connection with people."

She wrote the book not to make money (she says any proceeds will be donated to charities) but to share what she's learned and encourage others "to think about their own path and purpose in life." She's optimistic about humanity, convinced that, as Jonas Salk told her, we're "an evolving species," becoming more enlightened, generous and aware. She admires the faith and resolve of her mother, Laura, survivor of four open-heart surgeries, and tries to surround herself with "positive, loving people, people who are giving back and trying to make a difference."

To keep her spiriual compass true, she asks herself a question every day when she wakes: "If I die, what will I be remembered for?" And she recalls the advice of her beloved dad: "Be careful and thoughtful how you live. You may be the only Bible some people will ever read."