By Courtney Shove '96
Her knees were still knocking as she and her husband got in their beach-bound car after Alumnae Weekend. Kat Gordon was in disbelief to have received the 2021 Outstanding Alumna Award and to have her name listed on the same plaque as retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Nora Wingfield Tyson ’75. As a sophomore, Kat sat witness in Chapel the day Tyson accepted the award in 1998. Since then, she’s been a self-proclaimed fangirl.
“She might be the first person I think of when I think of an empowered woman,” Kat said of Tyson, who emailed Kat a personal note of congratulations. “I completely freaked out, and I had to send her the picture of me with the plaque. So, there’s a picture of me, grinning like an idiot, holding the plaque and pointing at her name and my name.”
Now, with what are sure to be dozens of fangirls of her own, Kat is the owner of Muddy’s Bake Shop, which she opened in 2008. Twenty years prior, she was a St. Mary’s kindergartner struggling to make it through the school day without a nap. With a 14-year tenure, she certainly qualifies as an SMS “lifer.” Kat happily renewed her connection with St. Mary’s after college as a volunteer in the advancement office. Since then, she has served as the Alumnae Board president and gained three sisters-in-law who are fellow Turkeys: Ginny Robinson Burbank ’93, Betsy Robinson Ordoñez ’96, and Elizabeth Summitt Gordon ’07. Kat has also taught Muddy’s staff training and visioning classes to St. Mary’s students, faculty, and alumnae. Needless to say, her ties to SMS are deep.
“I’m not sure how it occurred to me to volunteer, but I’m pretty sure I got a mailer from the school and thought, ‘I bet real humans have to seal all these envelopes; I should offer to go help sometime,’” Kat said. “And the next thing I knew, I was on the Alumnae Board.”
For as many lessons learned as a small business owner, she continues to draw on those from her days at St. Mary’s, where she became rooted in her values and learned to think critically and creatively. In 2020, Kat made the difficult yet right-for-her decision to shrink her business. Since the pandemic, she went from three locations with 50 employees to one location with 14.
“There’s nothing like an emergency to really reacquaint you with your priorities,” Kat said.
But her longing to downsize began in early 2018, long before COVID struck. In her acceptance speech during Alumnae Weekend, Kat recounted the time she bawled in her car while listening to a podcast in which her friend Shawn Askinosie talked about meaningful work. It was then that she realized how far she had strayed from her original mission and vision.
“I mistook my vocation as attempting to please everybody and make everybody happy. That’s not the vocation that I was called to at all,” she said. “Essentially, I took on more risk and more responsibility and spread myself thinner. There was literally no reward for it other than people thinking that I had a successful business.”
While spending all her energy making Muddy’s seem cozy and special, she became disconnected from the people she had aimed to love and serve. She tried to re-engage, but as the business grew, she felt farther away from the homey atmosphere she created for her customers.
As she considered the path ahead, Kat remembered an important lesson from Ms. Kathleen McElroy’s Lower School art classes: “No erasing allowed. If you make a mistake, you’ve got to figure out what to do and move forward.” In that spirit, Kat wrote four plans, or visions, for Muddy’s: 1) shrink the business, 2) sell it, 3) close it, or 4) grow it. Ultimately, despite a fair amount of pushback, she went with option 1.
Kat also reflected on what she learned from the late Madame Nannette Quinn, who made learning French about so much more than memorizing vocabulary words. “She pushed us to understand that if we lost the exact word for something, we needed to find another way to communicate our message.”
Without knowing it, Ms. McElroy and Mme. Quinn imparted the same lesson: When you get stuck, work around it, and use what you know to find a creative solution to your problem. Kat credits St. Mary’s with instilling in her the ability to wade through uncertainty and to accept that there is often more than one right answer or path.
“I think that is something that St. Mary’s has always done well: teaching girls to own their experiences,” Kat said. “Nobody’s going to do it for you. People are there to support you, help you, and give you the resources.”
Kat and her small team at Muddy’s still craft whimsically delicious baked goods, albeit on a limited scale. Downsizing has allowed Kat’s vision to reinhabit the singular location on Broad Avenue, where she is able to love and serve customers face to face. Balancing work and life is something she and her staff are committed to, and they enjoy working as full versions of themselves instead of stand-ins who are spread thin.
“You come to a certain point (in life) when: If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, then it’s ‘no,’” Kat said.
Courtney Shove '96 is a marketing specialist at Confluent Strategies in Memphis. A Spirit of St. Mary's Award recipient, she enjoys traveling, going out to breakfast, taking walks through the city's many parks, and coercing friends into playing board games. She has an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri–Columbia and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.