DECATUR — Start spreading the news, and the pizza sauce.
Kim Fields grew up on the sun-kissed shores of Cape Town, South Africa, singing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and fantasizing of a life lived far away in the land of the free and the home of the heavy pizza consumption. Her youthful yuletides were spent by the sea playing “beach tennis” but she was all the while dreaming of a freezing white Christmas, just like the ones she never knew.
So naturally, she ended up running a Papa Murphy’s Take ’n’ Bake Pizza store in Decatur. Her vagabond shoes haven’t strayed to New York City yet, but it’s definitely high on her to-do list. “Absolutely, I am going to have to take her,” promises her husband, Ray, who grew up in California and now makes his home with her in Clinton. “I just hope she stays away from the shopping.”
Fields’ peripatetic story has ingredients as rich as any Papa Murphy’s entree. First, she moved to California six years ago and went on to college there to study business. Her father, Doug Penny, already was living in the Golden State and has a job that sounds like something out of a James Bond movie: “He’s a remote-operated underwater vehicle pilot, working for oil rigs,” says Fields matter-of-factly, making it sound like he drives a school bus. “Oh, he loves it.”
While she was in sunny California, which has elevations high enough to introduce her to the frigid reality of snow, she met her husband-to-be. He wrapped up a master’s degree in psychology and was about to embark on a doctorate when the two of them decided a Papa Murphy’s franchise in Central Illinois was a rich slice of opportunity too good to miss.
“Ray’s first job was at a Papa Murphy’s when he was 16 years old,” says Fields, 31, adding he had later gone on to manage one before college. “So he knew all about it.”
Working in partnership with another husband-and-wife team, they bought the franchise in 2009 and now own not only the Decatur store but the Papa Murphy’s operations in Mattoon, Morton, Danville and Pekin. Her husband’s good at the nitty-gritty business details, while his wife excels at the outgoing promotional and outreach stuff: She’ll dress in a pizza costume and go boldly into classrooms to teach wide-eyed kids how to make their own dinner, and their homework is a pizza to take and bake.
Some students do catch her accent, which isn’t that noticeable except for certain words, and she’ll launch into a quick tour of her homeland where her mother, Colleen, still lives. Basically, the coastal climate is like San Diego, and Fields spent much of her life five minutes from white sands and the delirious blue of the ocean. There are some details not so easy to share with the classroom audience, however, such as why Cape Town houses have “burglar bars” to protect windows and personal security is job one, 24/7.
“I can remember falling asleep with a panic button in my hand because the house next door kept on being burgled at night,” she recalls. “The burglars gassed the people while they were sleeping: They burned what is considered a herb and it made the people go into a really deep sleep. When they woke up nothing was there — the entire house was cleaned out. I was paranoid.”
The America she fell in love with was served to her by a steady diet of Hollywood movies that made even big yellow school buses (“Which we don’t have,” she says) seem exciting and exotic. But the reality of the quiet and safe Central Illinois life she has discovered beyond the Tinseltown glitz suits her just fine. She’s a newly minted citizen, having just completed her naturalization ceremony, and believes you can do a lot worse than the classic ingredients of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Yes, I miss South Africa, but I really do love it here,” she says. “It’s only really when I moved to America that I realized what freedom is all about.”
She defines that freedom as the liberty to walk around feeling at ease or driving your car with the windows open and no immediate fear of being carjacked and robbed. She says in South Africa, you internalize the realities of the crime rate and live accordingly, taking it for granted.
“I think you sort of don’t realize it when you are living there,” she adds. “But it’s when you move away and look back, you see that is not the way life should be lived.”
Having said that, she said South Africa is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth, where people drive on the other side of the road and their names for things leave lasting impressions she’s only shaken with difficulty. Traffic lights, for example, are called “robots” and nobody is allowed to turn on a red ’bot, period.
On their first U.S. date, her husband-to-be made a right on a red light and she cried out: “You just ran the robot,” prompting Ray Fields to think he must have knocked down R2-D2 or flattened C-3PO.
Now Fields drives happily on the right and is used to running robots all over the place, but her childlike sense of awe at the winter wonderland of the New World covered in snow has never melted.
“It’s still a novelty,” she says, and then shows the true depth of her learning curve: “But I don’t like driving on it.”