Cindy Lazarus is putting her experience to work at Flying Horse Farms

The night Cindy Cecil lost her first political race-a contest for county prosecutor-the ambitious attorney was devastated. She had the guts of a Kentucky girl who grew up one of 10 kids. Three degrees. Her own Columbus law practice. She wondered whether she could show her face in public again.

Then, immediately after a sweaty workout, standing vulnerably in the locker room of the YMCA, Cindy watched a mentally challenged woman walk toward her.

"So you lost," the woman said.

"Yes I did," Cindy replied.

"So I guess," the woman responded, "you'll never run for anything again."

It felt like a sucker punch-the one Cindy may have needed. "She was verbalizing what I was feeling," she recalled. But after the blow came the rally.

Maybe, Cindy thought, she is wrong.

She was.

Cindy would become, at one time, arguably the most powerful woman in Columbus. She served on Columbus City Council for 10 years, and became only the second woman in the city's history to be president. She was a Franklin County Court of Appeals judge. And she was CEO of the Columbus YWCA.

As she ascended, she married into the legendary Lazarus family-the one behind the department store that would become Macy's. But there's something about a girl who grew up wearing hand-me-downs and was denied the chance to be a police officer because of her gender that just couldn't relax into a life of luxury. Sure-admittedly-she may have enjoyed a bit of ego stroking. But for Cindy Lazarus, working was never about money, which she didn't need. It was about change.

Of course, Lazarus wasn't perfect. Some thrashed the Democrat for befriending a Republican mayor and cozying too closely with business leaders. Others found her tenacity too aggressive, particularly in an era when women weren't as accepted in the political arena.

Still, she made her mark fighting for the little guy.

"She had a head and a heart," said Michael Curtin, Associate Publisher Emeritus for The Dispatch and author of The Ohio Politics Almanac, who covered Lazarus as a reporter. "No one doubts that Cindy Lazarus made an impact in civic life in Columbus. And it wasn't (using) clout that was bequeathed to her. She built her own clout by sheer intellect, determination and desire to make a difference."

Now, at 64, after decades of public service, she's pulled herself from a short-lived retirement to birth and run Flying Horse Farms, a camp north of Columbus that provides a no-cost escape for children with serious diseases. She treks around the region, wooing donors everywhere from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. She sits in her Easton office, working through the logistics of providing medical care to kids whose lives depend on the right shots at the right time. And then she slides on her most comfy pajamas and drives a half hour away to serve campers pancakes on Sunday mornings.

"It's the most satisfying feeling I've probably ever had," said Lazarus, who speaks in a measured, raspy voice, as if each word is important, each thought genuine. "I do think I have brought every bump and bruise of my life, every shining moment, with me to this camp. I don't think it's an accident that I'm here and here now."

She was 21 when she took her first sip of alcohol-cheap Mogen David wine. A college boyfriend had bought a bottle to share. Her body immediately wanted more.

So, as the months and years ticked by, she drank more. And more.

Lazarus had grown up the third oldest of her sizeable Catholic crew in Kentucky, the daughter of a realtor father and stay-at-home mom. She didn't have store-bought clothes or dance lessons. But what she did have was brains-and drive.

When someone pulled out Trivial Pursuit, her close-knit siblings fought to be on her team. "Nobody got to play if she went first, because she'd get every answer right," said Sally Feeney, her youngest sister. "She's brilliant."

Same with Scrabble, her brother Les Cecil said. And horse shoes. And basketball.

"Cindy plays to win, but in a fun way," he said. "Cindy could always make sure of herself in an argument with siblings. Not arguments, spirited discussions-how about we say that?"

After excelling through grade school and college, though, she was dealt a blow when she walked into the Louisville Police Department to apply for a job as an officer.

"We don't take applications," a man told her, "from women."

So she left for Chicago, where she worked at a psychiatric hospital before enrolling in graduate school to study social work at the University of Chicago. "One of my goals," she said, "was to never again be asked how fast I typed." (For the record, she noted in her typically dry manner, it was not fast at all.)

She followed up by studying law at the University of Kentucky.

Almost immediately, the young 20-something, who had been secretly enjoying alcohol alone, realized what a large part of the legal profession drinking can be.

"There was that growing sense in the back of my mind-never in the front-but in the back of my mind, that this was a dangerous arena for me to get into," Lazarus said. "I think what I thought was, I was going to learn how to drink well."

When she started blacking out-when nights disappeared from her memory-she got scared. Just after passing the bar exam, about a decade after that first sip, Lazarus called a friend. "I think I need to go into recovery," she said.

On Nov. 8, 1979, she ended her day at home with a frozen dinner and a beer.

It is the last drink she's ever taken.

Lazarus said that mingling with wine-sipping guests at fundraising events or cocktail-toting friends at social soirees doesn't tempt her to drink. It's never one drink that sounds appealing. But occasionally, when she's exhausted or overwhelmed, she yearns for a whole case of beer alone. That's why recovering alcoholics are always recovering.

Lazarus still attends meetings.

Political junkie Stuart Lazarus, a member of the storied department-store family, was intrigued by the city's Democratic star.

"She was refreshing and honest and unlike any person in public life that I'd ever observed," he said. "I thought it would be wonderful to meet her."

She had come to Central Ohio for an advocacy job that went unfunded shortly after her arrival. Undeterred, Lazarus opened her own practice. Soon, she was recruited into the political scene-seduced, she said, by the idea of people working together to build a better community.

She helped convince people that Columbus needed to do better at taking care of underdog citizens like the homeless and the mentally ill. "Cindy was both large-hearted enough but business-minded enough to become part of the team who knitted together the network of human services that we today take for granted," Curtin said. Plus, he added, her self-deprecating humor was endearing. "She has a great appreciation for the idiocy of the human condition, and she readily admits she's one of the idiots among us. She doesn't have a need to puff herself up."

Stuart Lazarus concocted a rational to warrant lunch with the councilwoman. Seven months later, two days shy of Cindy's 40th birthday, the couple married.

Cindy, who remains close with her gaggle of siblings (her husband swears her southern drawl returns as soon as they cross the state line), longed for children-13 to be exact. (Lore has it that 12 kids get a woman into heaven, and "I wanted to be doubly sure!" she jokes.) But the couple struggled for even one.

Franny became their most treasured blessing.

"I saw myself as a mother of 13. I think God correctly saw me as the mother of one as far as patience and other things go," Lazarus said, laughing.

Her trickiest challenge became balancing work and motherhood. Relinquishing her council post and becoming a Franklin County Court of Appeals judge helped. "It was like going from playing rugby," Lazarus said, "to playing chess."

She decorated the house with Franny's favorite animal-whales-on her birthday, and sent her baked goods and letters stamped with the dog's paw to summer camp.

Each year in early September, around the time their daughter was born, Cindy and Stuart still take cookies to the maternity staff at Mount Carmel St. Ann's hospital to thank them for bringing their daughter into the world.

Franny, now 24 and living in Boston, is equally as smitten with her parents.

She wasn't exactly thrilled as a teen that her mother, by then the CEO of the YWCA, forced her out of bed on Thanksgiving mornings to serve breakfast to the homeless families at the Y. But she still watched in awe as her uncles manned massive griddles and her mother alternated between washing dishes and working the room. "Could I hold your baby," she would ask one mother at a time, "so you can eat?"

"She," Franny said, "is the best person I know."

She looked outside at the bleak February day, content-almost thrilled-to do nothing but stay in her sweatpants, snuggle into the couch with a book and eventually romp in the snow with her dogs.

I like this a lot, Cindy Lazarus thought, to kind of breathe and sleep and settle.

She fantasized about visiting art museums in Europe, and applied to study Chinese culture at a college in Santa Fe solely to delight in the luxury of learning.

Meanwhile, Jenni Belford, who founded Flying Horse Farms with her husband, was certain the camp would change lives. If only they could find the right director.

She sought Lazarus' advice. Who, Belford implored, was up for the task of running it?

The question began keeping Lazarus awake at night, and her husband saw the answer coming before she did.

"Cindy once told me that if she could only muck horse stalls at Flying Horse Farms, she would do that," he said. "Once she started getting really involved and interested, it just seemed to me there wasn't going to be an alternative to full tilt."

One month into Lazarus' serene retirement, in early 2010, she signed on at Flying Horse Farms as CEO.

"For everyone here, it was not a rational career decision," Lazarus said. "You have some kind of moment of grace, and you say yes."

"We as an organization," Belford said, "have been gifted with her presence."

Nestled into a retreat-like pocket of Mt. Gilead, the Flying Horse Farms dining hall is an airy lodge decorated with colorful banners of hand prints and names. It's been one year since campers started coming, and on a quiet, sunny morning during a break between camp sessions, Lazarus sits in the spacious room where she has served many a meal.

She talks passionately-poignantly-about the children whose lives she's trying to brighten. The grumpy, irritated kid brought to life after coaching a training dog through an obstacle course. The sick little boy running toward the dining hall with a homemade superhero cape fluttering from his back. The terminally ill teenage girl reluctantly dancing in the camp talent show-and earning a rousing ovation.

"Their bodies aren't perfect, but these kids are perfect. And here, they get to be seen as that," Lazarus says. "It's this sense of brightness. It's their camp, not our camp."

Belford appreciates Lazarus' networking strength and organizational management skills. But her work ethic is perhaps most awe-inspiring.

"If I can tell you how many emails I get from her at 4:30 a.m., 5 a.m.-I'm thinking, 'When does this woman sleep?' " Belford said. "She's just all in."

The work has proved more challenging than Lazarus could have guessed. No other job, she said, has required such dedication. But none have had the payoff, either.

Flying Horse Farms recently won the hard-earned designation of becoming a full-fledged member of Paul Newman's Association of Hole in the Wall Camps.

"I have had a very rich life," Lazarus said. "But there is nothing for which I am more grateful than getting to work on this. The only thing that is more meaningful than this to me is my family. All of the work experiences I've had would be a distant second."

Even the opponent who beat Lazarus in that very first political race tips his hat to the career of the woman he beat.

Mike Miller, now an attorney at Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter, sent her roses and took her to lunch at Lindey's after his win. The message he hoped she got? You're tough, but you fight the right way.

"She should be very proud," Miller said, "of what she's accomplished."

Lazarus is.

No achievement, however, has been as validating as this camp.

Her encore, as it turns out, has been her favorite performance.