By Marni McEntee | Photographed by Hillary Schave
In the pre-dawn blackness on March 23, 2016, Darcy Luoma couldn’t sleep. Really, she’d been awake for nearly six days straight, and she hadn’t been able to eat much, either.
“I get up at 3 in the morning, and I just have this icky, icky feeling. I was sitting in the stillness,” Luoma says in March this year, citing one of the tenets of her leadership model that had crystallized just days before. Seeking stillness to quiet the mind and reflect.
She’s nestled into the same chair in the same living room of the same house.
“I sat here, and I thought, ‘I need curtains.’ It was six days after the arrest. This bay window and that window had no curtains,” she says, motioning to the kitchen window behind her.
Luoma texted a friend and asked if she and her husband could help. She heard back at about 5 a.m., and soon her friends were there, measuring the windows. They went to the hardware store when it opened. Soon, all the windows were covered—even in the garage.
“Four hours later, he’s like, ‘alright. I think I’m done. I’m going to go put the tools in the car.’ He opens the front door, and there’s the bank of media trucks.”
All the curtains are gone now. The late afternoon spring sunshine bathes the cozy living room of her Madison-area home. It’s nearly three years to the day after Luoma’s husband, John Gilbert, who was a stay-at-home dad to their two daughters, was arrested midday, at their home.
After months of hearings, and arrests of other men involved, Gilbert was convicted on federal charges of possessing child pornography and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Luoma, who’d quickly been cleared of any connection to the case and was considered a victim, had filed for divorce within days of his arrest.
She’s ready to reveal how she managed to make it through the toughest of times—times most of us can’t even imagine. How she strove to protect her two daughters, now 11 and 13, after they lost a father with whom they had, and still have, deep and lasting bonds.
How her own Thoughtfully Fit leadership model, which came to fruition in Luoma’s home office a few days before her ex-husband’s arrest, helped guide her through the grief, fear and rage of an upended life. And, how, ultimately, it helped her find forgiveness.
There’s no TV in the Luoma living room, and she doesn’t read novels, only books on the latest techniques in leadership, coaching and public speaking, from Brené Brown to Viktor Frankl to Stephen Covey. Any video watching, Luoma says, is of TED Talks, so she can study the habits of effective speakers.
Even a quick perusal of Luoma’s background shows that she’s been a doer and a studier of behavior and motivations her entire life.
Her mom tells her, Luoma says, that she was a born leader, organizing her older sister and other kids in games and projects when she was growing up in Hastings, Minnesota.
She was a varsity athlete throughout school and consistently had leadership roles at UW-Eau Claire, where she majored in German and math, and graduated with teaching certificates in both subjects.
After college, she worked with the Wisconsin Education Association Council and later did advance work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign.
In her free time, she traveled and competed in triathlons with her best friend Nancy Clark, who now lives in Neenah, Wisconsin. They alternated adventure trips each year—one in the U.S., one abroad.
She was director of U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s office for 12 years and earned her master’s degree in organizational development with young children at home, dreaming of owning her own business.
Clark says, “I always have loved Darcy’s sense of efficacy. She’s just not afraid to try things, and she just truly believes if you put the effort in you can do it.”
Luoma knew for a long time that she wanted to “help others create high functioning leaders and teams,” a mantra she sincerely espouses today. When Kohl decided not to run again in 2012, she launched Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting.
“I’ve always wanted to look within and figure out why, and then to read, to understand the research,” Luoma says. “What creates high-performing people? How do people get through adversity? How do you build a strong team? How do you lead?”
For the next three years, she worked constantly, “creating abundance,” as she calls it. Along with a growing roster of coaching clients, in 2013 she had 53 speaking engagements and in 2014 she had 100.
She amassed a loyal following. Luoma devotees often ask, when puzzling a tough thing in their personal or professional lives, “What would Darcy do?”
Her husband was home, raising the girls, taking care of the house, doing the laundry, raking the leaves, blowing the snow. He also helped out at their church, leading the youth band and taking some kids on a mission trip. It was an arrangement that, for them, just worked.
Luoma had met Gilbert at a friend’s wedding in 1999, and she pretty much fell for him that day. They married in 2006, and their first daughter was born the same year. Their second came 17 months later.
Clark says Gilbert was too scattered to take on a traditional job, but he relished his role as a stay-at- home dad. Luoma talks excitedly even now about his energy and his joy in supporting her work and bringing up the kids. In the days before his arrest, Gilbert was serving snacks and playing music while Luoma and her team were spit-balling ideas and filling up flipcharts to create Thoughtfully Fit.
“I think part of what made him a great dad is he could just go with the flow,” Clark says. “The things that probably drove Darcy crazy about being a parent just didn’t bother him. And he was just good at it. He was a great cook. He could fix anything,” Clark says.
Clark says she never would have imagined what happened, but she worried for Luoma sometimes, because Gilbert had an ease with lying and he could be manipulative, all with a smile on his face.
“I would say he was kind of like a church boy. I mean, he had a very strong faith. He sang in his choir,” Clark says.
“I just think in some ways he came across as such a simple person, but he had a complex set of issues, I guess would be the way that I would put it.”
Luoma says they were in individual and group therapy for years before they got married, dealing with Gilbert’s tendency to stray to other women. It was his addiction to sex, Luoma says, that ultimately got the better of him and ruined their lives together.
By 2015, Luoma says, her business was so robust that she was becoming exhausted. She hired a business coach, who helped her plan an expansion. In January 2016, she hired six new coaches and brought aboard Deb MacKenzie as her vice president of operations.
Just months after the expansion, Luoma was on her way to a meeting when Gilbert was arrested.
“So, I was at this program when my phone rang, and it was my neighbor. She said, “Darcy, what is going on at your house?…There are police cars and 50 SWAT team guys with guns. They just took John out barefoot in handcuffs, and he wouldn’t look at us.”
Gilbert was initially charged with child sexual assault for encounters he’d had with a 15-year-old girl he met online, but those charges were dropped in favor of the federal child pornography charges.
When the media began piecing together their relationship, since they didn’t share a last name—and wanting to protect her daughters at all costs—Luoma also hired a crisis communication firm. Her attorney told her not to talk to anyone.
“I took him at his word, because I was scared. I mean, I was really scared,” Luoma says.
Luoma continued to work through her sleepless haze. She was scheduled to facilitate a daylong leadership seminar four days after the arrest, and she realized that it was a late-start Monday at the kids’ school. She scrambled to find a mom to help. One who called her back had a chilling message.
“She said, ‘I’m just telling you right now, if the police find any pictures or videos of my daughter, I’m sending the mafia to your house. My husband has ties to the mafia.’”
Luoma wanted to keep the girls’ lives as steady as she could, on the advice of multiple child psychologists she’d consulted. But that call changed everything. She called her attorney who said, “Get them the hell out of Dodge.”
She called her sister—and only sibling—crying, and told her, for the first time, what had happened. Then, she drove the girls five hours to her sister’s house in Minnesota, dropped them off and turned around and drove back. She arrived for her 8 a.m. presentation the next day, running on fumes.
The kids stayed in Minnesota for the rest of the school year. Luoma returned to Madison sooner to be present for court dates and to handle other things related to her husband’s arrest. She took a sabbatical from work, pulling her new coaching staff in to handle her clients. But she was back at it in a few months.
Luoma says being able to handle work at a time when her marriage had flamed out, in the most public and salacious way, required unbelievable resolve and a projection of strength. Even when, she says, she “was totally broken. Defeated.”
“When I would have an event, I was preparing fully and bringing in all my armor so I could nail it, A) so that my business didn’t die and go bankrupt, and B) because the girls were watching. The girls saw my tears. They saw my sadness, all of it. But I also wanted them to see my strength, and to see that there can be resilience, that we can get through this.”
Luoma first told part of this story in a public setting at a BRAVA THRIVE Career Workshop she was leading in February this year, where she was teaching one of the six practices of being Thoughtfully Fit. What better example of how Thoughtfully Fit could help a person through any manner of hardship, than how it had helped keep her afloat after the worst thing imaginable happened to her?
She also was testing the waters because she plans to release a book next year about the ordeal and her recovery-in-progress. When she began telling the story, toward the end of her three-hour presentation, the BRAVA audience was rapt; not even a gasp of astonishment was audible when she talked about her then-husband being dragged away in handcuffs.
Luoma has been working with BRAVA for seven years, and she has avid followers among its readers.
Mackenzie, VP of Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting, says going public was a difficult decision, based on Luoma’s desire to let go (another aspect of Thoughtfully Fit), after years of keeping the information close.
Mackenzie says the team advised, “When your book is published, that’s when you start telling the story. But she was really feeling like she was ready. She was really feeling it. We said, ‘Start small. Don’t walk into a big corporate client’ and tell all, Mackenzie says. “You know, let’s start where we’ve got friends.”
To be sure, Luoma is worried about negative reactions. Firstly, she wants to ensure that her daughters aren’t hurt in any way. And, she’s afraid of losing current or future clients.
“My heart is really alive, very alert. I’m not sure how to describe it. There’s this combination of fear— once we put this out there, you can’t put it back,” she says.
Some people will recoil at the thought of her ever being involved with a man like that, let alone forgiving him. And some, who may have known about the arrest all along, will be glad that they can finally talk to her about it, she says.
“There’s just more of the unknown. I’m feeling tender, and I’m also feeling compelled. What’s the point of hiding? What’s the point of keeping it a secret?”
In late March, Luoma drove her daughters to the airport in Chicago, where they were joining their chaperones and a student group for a language and cultural immersion trip to China.
After she dropped them off, she pointed her car north and started the nearly eight-hour trek to Sandstone, Minnesota, where Gilbert is serving his sentence in a minimum-security prison.
It was the first time Luoma has seen Gilbert alone, without being separated by glass or being closely monitored by guards, since he was arrested.
When Gilbert was in maximum security lockup in Dane County, Luoma didn’t let the girls visit for an entire year because the place was just too scary, all steel and shouting inmates. After he was moved to a minimum security prison here, she took them to see him once a week. Now, they get up to Sandstone every few months.
When moms wonder how she can let her daughters see him, she explains: “Every therapist I talked to, and I talked to five, all of them said it is always in the best interest of the children to have a relationship with an incarcerated parent, as long as the child is not at risk emotionally or physically. The girls were never at risk, and their friends were never at risk. This was truly a secret double life.”
Plus, she says, “John was in their life every minute of every day until he was swept away. He was a stay-at-home dad. They had a deep connection and bond with him.”
She recalls a visit at the prison last February. When they left at 3:30 p.m., it was 28 below zero outside. “We’re walking to the car and my youngest daughter was skipping through the parking lot of this remote prison with barbed wire and double fences and watch towers, and she’s skipping saying, ‘I love visiting Daddy!’ And I’m like ‘oh my God!’”
Even Mackenzie, who scrambled after Gilbert’s arrest to help Luoma keep her business in order, and who is fiercely loyal to her, has sometimes had a tough time understanding why Luoma would spend time on a man who left such wreckage behind.
“A lot of people are going to question her decision to be as forgiving as she’s been,” Mackenzie says. But she has supported Luoma, because it’s her decision and one that Mackenzie agrees is in the girls’ best interest.
“But,” Mackenzie admits, “there’s also part of me as a woman, you know, I’m still like, ‘just burn all his shit.’”
And Luoma understands and anticipates that reaction, especially after it’s all laid out publicly.
“I’m scared. I think I’m willing to put myself out there in that way and be attacked by people who think I’m a horrible person because I’ve forgiven somebody who has done a horrible thing. I’m ready after three years to just own that,” she says. “I think that fear is OK. It’s my truth.”
Luoma, ever the teacher, ever the coach, also wants anyone dealing with something seemingly unbearable in their own lives to find some solace.
“My hope is that they can see something in themselves, and find some spark of whatever they need, whether it’s joy or forgiveness, or empathy.”