|It's New to Us by Jean Stratton|
Former Mayor Michele Tuck-Ponder Is Now CEO of Area Girl Scouts Council
Even as a young Girl Scout who proudly wore her uniform, Michele Tuck-Ponder, the current CEO of Girl Scouts of Delaware-Raritan, Inc., was destined for leadership.
"Everything I did as an adult, I did first as a Girl Scout," she explains. "In Princeton, when I was running for office, I knocked on doors, just as I had as a Girl Scout selling cookies. Later, the public speaking necessary to my professional life built on the speaking experiences I had as a Girl Scout.
"I was always achievement-oriented," she adds. "This was instilled by my family. When I was six, my mother sat down and said, 'You are a little Negro girl. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far."
Her parents, William and Anna Tuck, encouraged Michele and her two older sisters, Patricia and Jackie, to do well in school, participate in activities, and volunteer their time to others.
In 1963, when Michele was five, the family moved from the Bronx, N.Y. to Teaneck, N.J. "I grew up in a unique place," she recalls. "It was very integrated, and opportunities to achieve were there."
She excelled in school, both academically and socially, later becoming Student Council and class presidents in junior high and high school.
From her earliest years, Michele was certain a career in journalism was in her future. She wrote stories and essays in school and at home, read all the time, and studied hard. It was a sure thing!
"I loved to read," she says. "I liked all the Nancy Drew mysteries, and I liked stories about places I'd never been or seen like maple sugar time in New England or about a girl growing up on an Indian reservation.
"My English teachers always encouraged my writing. Especially Eva Barron, who was a Holocaust survivor, and David Sosland. I was on the year book and school newspaper staffs, and I also won writing contests, including a Scholastic Magazine contest, when I was in the ninth grade. The magazine made a big deal about it, and the editor said I should go to Northwestern University, which had a good writing program. I tucked this away for later consideration."
Volunteering was emphasized in the Tuck household. "My mother believed the more you gave and did, the more you received. I read to people at a nursing home, and I helped clean the Methodist Church, where I was a member."
She also learned to cook, an activity she continues to enjoy today. "My mother and grandmother taught me, and I loved to make cakes. Actually, I loved making them more than eating them. I'm a pasta girl!" she says, laughing.
"My grandmother lived with us," continues Ms. Tuck-Ponder, "and she and my mother were my heroes. They had difficult lives. My grandmother and grandfather had a farm in Virginia, growing peanuts and raising hogs. It was hard work. They had nine children, and my grandmother also raised seven children of one of her daughters who had died.
"My mother, who did not have good health, and my grandmother both coped with adversity and never lost their optimism. They were very strong women."
Both of these women were important role models for Michele, as was her father. These were hard-working people, who strove to provide their children with a secure and stable life.
"My dad drove a cab in New York, and worked in the Post Office," recalls Ms. Tuck-Ponder. "My mom worked at Nabisco and sold sewing machines at Sears. Both worked two jobs."
Michele remembers good times during her childhood. Her family went on outings and vacations, which the children always looked forward to.
"We did two things every summer. One, we went to Coney Island, had frogs' legs at Nathan's, and went on all the rides. Two, we went to southern Virginia to visit our relatives. This was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and we always drove straight through without stopping at any of the restaurants along the way. Once we were south of Delaware, we would not have been welcome in the restaurants.
"So, my mom packed amazing lunches for us, and she'd bring out all these wonderful treats when we got to certain places cakes and Slim Jims, things we weren't always allowed to have."
In addition, recalls Ms. Tuck-Ponder, the family did not stop at rest rooms during the drive for the same reason. "We went into the woods. Children are resilient, and we didn't mind. It was sort of an adventure. It made my father angry, though, since we had to stop a lot."
A big part of Michele's life was her membership in the Girl Scouts. Her mother was a leader, and Michele joined as a Brownie and continued all through high school. She was selected to be part of the Wider Opportunities program, and traveled to California and Mexico, among other places, where she met a number of celebrities.
"During my travels with the Scouts, I met Frank Sinatra, Walter Cronkite, Gregory Peck, Gloria Steinem, and Barbara Walters. This was very exciting for a young girl. I very much enjoyed the Girl Scouts. I admire the integrity and commitment of the Girl Scout organization. It opens up a world of possibilities, allowing women opportunities to lead, create, and mentor. It gives girls the benefit of experiences that make them productive, committed citizens."
Michele was well on her way to becoming an involved citizen in her teens. She was living through turbulent times, and during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s, she remembers her mother calling her in to watch the televised hearings.
"Congresswoman Barbara Jordan was on, and my mom said, 'There's someone you could be like. That's something you could do.' I tremendously admired Barbara Jordan."
Michele graduated from high school as a member of the Honor Society, and remembering the advice of the Scholastic Magazine editor, enrolled at Northwestern University and McGill School of Journalism, where she had a full scholarship. She joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, became involved in student government, and wrote feature stories for the university magazine.
She also became interested in African history through her association with Dennis Brutus, an exile from South Africa, who taught African studies.
"Another professor who influenced me was Henry Binford," she reports. "He taught American history, and he was the one who said to me that he would only teach me if I took graduate level courses. So I did! I enjoyed learning, and I especially enjoyed writing papers."
A career in journalism was still on the agenda, she adds. "Every summer, I worked in publishing in New York, including at McGraw Hill. Also, at college, we spent one semester working on a newspaper. I was sent to Binghamton, N.Y., and I wanted to do an expose about general contracting and minority set-asides. It didn't go well. I ran into trouble getting interviews, and I didn't like it.
"After this experience, I said to my parents, 'I don't think journalism is for me. I'll come home and think about it.' They said 'No way! You're out of here!' They did offer me one golden loophole, saying I could come home if I went to graduate school. So, I took the grad school exams."
She did especially well on the law school exams, and after graduating from Northwestern, without ever having entertained a notion of becoming a lawyer, she entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
"From the first day at law school, I didn't like it! I didn't like the environment, the process. But once there, the Tucks don't quit. I got involved in student government and was president of the Student Bar Association. I loved that. I loved setting up things."
She also liked Philadelphia, and began to work on political campaigns in the city.
Graduating in 1983, she passed the bar in New York (and later in New Jersey), and immediately went to work in Washington, D.C. "One of my former professors was at the Federal Judicial Center, an organization which trained federal judges. Then, after a year there, I became a clerk for a conservative Republican judge. Here I was, this liberal Democrat, and it was a marriage made in heaven. I made him see things, and he made me see things. I was there a year, and we got along great. We became very good friends, and he later came to my wedding."
Her next job, practicing law, was less positive. "I worked at a law firm with a woman partner I admired. But during the preparation of a case I was working on, it turned out that the client did not want a black woman handling the case. The partner wanted me to stay and work on another case, but this was unacceptable to me, and I quit."
Like her mother and grandmother, Michele Tuck-Ponder is not one to let adversity stand in her way. She went on to become a staff representative and press secretary for Congressman Louis Stokes of Cleveland, also serving as liaison to a variety of federal departments.
"I loved that," she says. "There was a lot going on. It was during the Oliver North hearings in the '80s, and I met a lot of people, including Elizabeth Taylor, who was then married to Senator John Warner."
Then, it was on to the Senate, where she joined the staff of Senator Frank Lautenberg, working on special environmental assignments, and Health and Human Services projects, including AIDS-related issues.
"The senator was a great political mentor" says Ms. Tuck-Ponder, "and I eventually transferred to his Newark office. I wanted to be in New Jersey then. My dad lived there, and he was getting older. My mom had died earlier when I was in law school."
Also during this time, Ms. Tuck-ponder's sister, Patricia, had kidney disease, and Michele donated a kidney to her.
In 1990, she joined the staff of Governor James Florio, serving as assistant counsel, and deputy director, Division on Women, and assistant director, New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, Department of Law and Public Safety.
"I was assigned to oversee community disturbances," she explains. "I was traveling a lot all over the state. In the Division on Women, I worked on policies concerning violence against women, sexual harassment, and job training."
Even though she was not practicing law, Ms. Tuck-Ponder points out that her knowledge of law was an important factor in all the positions she has held since graduation from law school.
In 1991, while working for Gov. Florio, she moved to Princeton. "I really loved it," she says. "It has definitely become my home. I feel very comfortable here. There are a lot of people I know and am fond of. It's a privilege to live in such a special place. It's not just because of the University or any one part; it's the general population, the diversity, the whole community."
It was then that she began to dip her toe into Princeton's political waters. "I had met Kate Litvack, former Mayor of Princeton Township, and she invited me to a Democratic Party meeting. They thought I would make a good campaign manager for Phyllis Marchand and Sharon Bilanin. I was single then, and they were all so nice, inviting me to dinner and parties."
Ms. Tuck-Ponder's candidates were elected, and Ms. Bilanin continues to be grateful for the expert help. "I have worked with Michele both as a colleague and a friend. As my campaign manager for Township Committee, she provided support, encouragement, and expertise. When Michele later became mayor, I served as deputy mayor, and she was always willing to share information with all Committee members, and encourage new faces to become involved.
"One of the things I love about Michele is her encouragement and support of other women. Some women have a hard time doing this. But Michele has so much confidence and ability that she never feels threatened by others, and supports and encourages them willingly. She is an excellent role model for young women."
In 1993, the Democrats decided it was Ms. Tuck-Ponder's turn to run, and she, along with running mate Steve Frakt, was a successful candidate.
"I always wanted to run for office," she observes. "I thought I could make a good contribution. I liked people a lot and could work with them. I had been in government and saw a lot of people screw up. I realized that for what touches your life and what matters the most, local government is most important. It's decision-making at the local level that can make the difference.
"Also, Steve Frakt and I were a good team. He's a very detail-oriented person, and I'm a gut person. It worked well."
In 1995, she successfully ran again, and this time became mayor. Ms. Tuck-Ponder was an accessible mayor, a willing listener. People were quick to share their views with her.
"As mayor, I couldn't walk into a supermarket without someone coming up to me. They would even come to my door!"
She is proud of her accomplishments as mayor, especially in two areas. "Bringing up the consolidation issue was important. I thought consolidation was good government, and was in everyone's interest. Although it was not approved in the Borough, I still believe it's good for both municipalities. After all, the Borough and Township are attached at the hip.
"I am also proud of the new Township municipal headquarters. The Township staff, which was an outstanding group of people, was working in an unacceptable building. I tried to keep the new building moving forward, and I really kept forcing the issue. To Phyllis' (Mayor Phyllis Marchand) great credit, she saw the project through in the face of significant setbacks."
Ms. Tuck-Ponder says she loved being mayor for another reason. "I got married while I was mayor. I met my husband, Rhinold Ponder earlier, when I first moved to Princeton. A lawyer, he handled the closing of my house."
One thing led to another, and they were married in Prospect Gardens on the Princeton University campus in 1996. She has collaborated with her husband on a number of projects, including publishing two volumes of African-American Sermons: "Wisdom of the Word: Faith," and "Wisdom of the Word: Love."
Reading, as it has always been, remains one of her greatest pleasures. Biographies are special favorites. "I love reading about everybody Walter Cronkite, Katharine Graham, Strom Thurmond's daughter, Colin Powell. My favorite author, however, is novelist Isabel Allende."
Ms. Tuck-Ponder also practiced law with her husband for a time, "until he fired me!" she says, with a smile. "He said I was too busy being mayor."
In fact, she stepped down as mayor in 1999. By then, the Ponders had a daughter, Jamaica, Ms. Tuck-Ponder was active in Rush Holt's campaign for Congress, and she had a two-year fellowship with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a Community Builder Fellow, in Camden.
In addition, she was serving as president of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of Delaware-Raritan, Inc. During this time, too, her sister, Patricia, ill with kidney failure, came to live with the Ponders.
Still interested in Princeton politics and issues that affect the community's residents, Ms. Tuck-Ponder turns up at Township meetings from time to time. While pleased with her favorite town, she says there is always room for improvement.
"I think the town needs more volunteers, including firefighters. Everyone really needs to get out there and volunteer. Stop complaining and volunteer. You have the power!"
Having said that, she adds, "There are so many people in town who are so special, who give so much to the larger community. I had a great friend I admired so much, Dr. Chester Peterson. He was a dentist in New Brunswick and lived in Princeton. He was always there to lend a hand, and was so kind to people.
"John Powell, a member of my church and a Rotarian, is such a wonderful example of how much people can give to the community. And Anne Reeves, founding director of the Arts Council, is another extraordinary person."
As advisor to the Arts Council, Ms. Tuck-Ponder worked closely with Ms. Reeves, who is impressed with Michele's abilities in many areas. "Michele is exceptionally thoughtful and clear-headed, with a rare gift of fine leadership. At innumerable meetings, I observed her remarkable ability to keep everyone focused and on track, without offending anyone.
"I know her as a wonderful, proud parent and a supporter to her artist husband. And she's fun to work with. She has the gift of merriment."
Ms. Tuck-Ponder's former colleague, Steve Frakt, now retired from Township Committee, is also well-aware of her capabilities and positive decision-making.
"Michele is very talented. She's got a good sense of how to make decisions. She listens to all points of view, but she is very resolved. When she makes up her mind, she is a very good advocate for her position. She has strong leadership ability. I admire and like Michele very much."
These leadership qualities will now be in evidence at her new position as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Delaware-Raritan, Inc. It is a challenge which she finds exhilarating. The demographics of the Council's area are tremendously diverse.
"The Council covers Mercer, Middlesex, and parts of Monmouth, Union, and Somerset Counties, and the area includes the largest Asian Indian population in the U.S." she explains. "There is wealth and desperate poverty, white and black, and everything in between."
Ms. Tuck-Ponder is working hard to convince people of the value of Scouting to today's young girls and to recruit leaders and promote parental involvement. "We need parental commitment," she notes. "But in Trenton, for example, one of the challenges is that parents are often working two and three jobs. There is little time left, so we need institutional support, as well.
"We have over 5,000 adult volunteers, but we need more. The traditional leader used to be Mom, but now she is often working. We are trying to get younger women, 18 to 29, including college students. The girls relate to them, and college students, including at Princeton, are receptive to being leaders. In a community like Princeton, it's important for people to recognize the value of the organization in building a girl's character and self-esteem."
With the many challenges facing girls in today's society, Ms. Tuck-Ponder points out that Girl Scout leaders need to be vigilant, as well as creative and caring. "Knowledge is power. Our leaders are required to have basic training regarding safety and security. They know what to look for, whether it's signs of drugs, self-mutilation (cutting), or depression.
"Recently, after a speaking engagement, a middle-aged man from Trenton came up to me and said, 'Girl Scouting saved my life. I'm a single dad, and sometimes, my daughter shut me out, and I didn't know what was going on. I called the Girl Scout leader and asked her what was happening. She'd say girls at this age are doing such and such. This helped me, and now I have a great relationship with my daughter.'''
Ms. Tuck-Ponder's work takes her on numerous trips throughout the Council area, as well as across the country, but she is especially happy when she can be home with her husband, who is a serious artist as well as lawyer, and her daughter. She also looks forward to spending more time with her favorite hobby, reupholstering furniture.
"I like old things," she says. "I like to take things apart and put them back together. I'll be doing my sofa this summer. It's hands-on and creative, and also, it's the sewing. I learned to sew in school, and I liked it. I made all my own clothes, even as an adult."
Spending time at the gym is another favorite activity, and she is also a dedicated member of the United Methodist Church in Princeton, and chair of its education committee. "It's a great church, and I spend a lot of time there," she reports.
Ms. Tuck-Ponder is also vice chair of the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network, vice chair of Princeton Township Democratic Municipal Committee, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Association for Children of New Jersey, to name just some of her organizational affiliations.
She has received awards from the National Organization for Women, the University of Pennsylvania Black Law Students Association, the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and the William P. Heard Foundation.
As it turned out, Ms. Tuck-Ponder opted for public service, instead of the expected career in journalism. She is often the one making the news, rather than reporting on the events of the day or the activities of presidents, politicians, and perpetrators. No doubt, this is how it was meant to be.
As she says, "I enjoy impacting people's lives in a positive way. In my current work, I am looking forward to bringing issues of women and girls to the forefront of the public dialogue. (1), I want to elect more women to public office; (2), I want to eliminate poverty. Because if women are poor and hungry, children are poor and hungry; and (3), I want to promote equality. It's better than it was, but we're not there yet.
"One other thing I would say is that I think of creating a family wherever I go at my place of work, at the gym, wherever. I try to create a sense of family, emphasizing obligation and commitment to others. I think my parents and grandparents instilled this in me as I was growing up, and I am proud to continue it."