Get those baskets ready!
Make Easter fun for the whole family with these personalized Easter gifts. Simply click on each item to purchase. more
In the fall of 1969, as a sophomore, I walked into the Princeton University Office of Teacher Preparation to investigate the possibilities for a career in teaching. Mrs. Swain was presiding. Last week, a 41-year teaching career behind me, I walked into the Teacher Prep Office again. Mrs. Swain is still presiding.
The Office has moved, from West College to William Street. The program has seen five different directors, many changes in personnel and about 1000 University students gaining New Jersey Teacher Certification. Jacqueline L. Swain remembers, and has helped, all of them. “She is Teacher Prep,” said current program director Christopher J. Campisano. “If you want to know, Jacqui’s the one to talk to. She’s the heart and soul of the program. It’s the extraordinary program it is because of her work, because of Mrs. Swain. Anybody who walks through that door, regardless of whether they’re graduating or they were here 10 or 20 years ago, Jacqui will know their name.”
Jacqui Swain was born in Princeton, where her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents lived in a rambling old house on Clay Street near Witherspoon. Her parents moved to Rahway, where she went to school. She attended Rider College, graduated with a degree in Commerce and returned to Princeton, where she still lives. more
To lead, one must be able to motivate others, to summon their best efforts in order to attain a successful result. Pinceton resident Katie Heins is such a leader.
Former president of the Garden Club of America (GCA) and Stony Brook Garden Club of Princeton, she has held numerous positions of responsibility in these organizations. Through her effort, energy, and expertise, she has helped them to become more productive, responsive, and influential.
As her friend of 30 years, Princeton resident Susan Levy, points out, “The productivity of any organization, it is often said, reflects its leadership. The Garden Club of America is better for having had Katie as its president. It is more productive, more cohesive, and more directed. Katie inspires by her own remarkable example, adhering to the highest standards, eager to take on challenges.” more
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed that’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Nowhere is this sentiment realized more fully than in the remarkable achievements of HomeFront and in the efforts of the organization’s equally remarkable founder and director, Connie Mercer.
HomeFront’s mission is to end homelessness in central New Jersey and break the cycle of poverty. Established 23 years ago by Princeton area resident Connie Mercer, it has become a multi-faceted organization that helps homeless people and those in need in numerous ways. It provides emergency shelter, food, clothing, affordable housing, educational opportunities, and job-training and placement.
“I thought I knew about HomeFront, but I really had no idea of the extent of its services and the help and hope it has brought to so many individuals and families,” says a Princeton resident, who recently became a volunteer in the HomeFront ArtSpace program.
And, as Ms. Mercer points out, the individuals and families affected by poverty cover a wider spectrum than many realize. “At least once a week, we have clients who come in and say, ‘I never thought this would happen to us.’”
The economic downturn beginning in 2008-9, set in motion a tidal wave of unemployment (including a 124 percent increase in New Jersey), in the worst cases, followed by homelessness (a 40 percent increase in New Jersey between 2008 and 2010) and a struggle for the very basic needs of life.
So often, people hear or read about such statistics and say ‘I wish I could help’; other times they say they are sorry, but move on to their next activity; occasionally, others, like Connie Mercer, see a problem and find a solution.
Who is Connie Mercer and why does she care?
“When you consider the impact Connie has made in improving the lives of those most in need in Mercer County, starting out with a grassroots effort in her garage to provide hot meals, to building a comprehensive community for hope and healing, it is nothing short of amazing,” comments Princeton resident Anne Battle, founder and former director of Familyborn Birthing Center, and founder of One Room At A Time, a volunteer group that refurbishes and decorates apartments for HomeFront clients.
“Connie is humble yet powerful, always moving forward to serve the population she represents. I like to believe that we have angels in our midst. Connie Mercer is one of them, whose light shines brightly for those who need it most.”
Adds Bernard Flynn, president and CEO of NJM Insurance Group, headquartered in West Trenton, “I consider Connie Mercer to be the Mother Teresa of Mercer County. She has an amazing work ethic, and is exclusively dedicated to the individuals and families that she serves. She is passionate, doesn’t take no for an answer, inspires those she works with, and she is a terrific leader and role model.”
Reflecting on her life decisions, Ms. Mercer offers a grateful acknowledgment of her own childhood experience and family life and how it influenced her to reach out to others.
“We were blessed kids,” she points out, referring to herself and her two brothers Paul and Rick. “There was a huge amount of love in our family, I had such a happy time growing up, and I felt that a secure childhood and family life is fundamental for everyone.”
Born in Newton, Mass. to Bernice and Morris Roud, Connie was the oldest of their three children. It was indeed a happy childhood, and included regular visits to grandparents in Toronto, Canada and Boston.
Connie attended public schools in Newton, and school was a pleasure for her. “I loved school. I loved everything about it,” she recalls. “I just loved learning. So many of the teachers were a gift to me. It was an excellent education. The Newton public school system was a laboratory school for Harvard University.”
Connie demonstrated her leadership form early, and was frequently elected to positions in school government and organizations. As she says, with a smile, “I was often president of the school organizations, student council, etc. I think it was because I was the tallest!”
After school, on weekends, and during summer vacation, she and her brothers helped out in the stores her father owned. “He had small shops focusing on jokes and fun items for kids and adults in Newton, Wellesley, Mass., and Maine,” recalls Ms. Mercer. “It was a successful small family business, and when he opened the store in Maine, we went up there in the summer.”
Connie was also a Red Sox fan, and enjoyed attending the games in Boston. “It was 50 cents to sit in the bleachers and see Ted Williams play.” She is still a fan today, she adds.
Always aware of the wider world, however, she developed special admiration for women who worked to help others and achieved important goals, often in the face of adversity.
“Two people I most admired when I was a girl were Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir. When I read Golda Meil’s autobiography, I loved learning that even when she was struggling to create a new nation, she insisted on having fresh flowers on the table. She felt that even under those trying circumstances, you can’t lose your humanity.”
After graduating from high school in 1965, Connie received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where her intellectual curiosity continued to be honed, and her social consciousness was intensified.
“We didn’t have majors at the University of Chicago,” she explains, “and at first I resented that. I wanted to focus on psychology, but the university’s point was that you can spend the rest of your life being a specialist, and for four years, we’ll introduce you to the world.
“I came to be so grateful that the university knew better, and I learned so much more. I had wonderful professors, including David Bakan in psychology. He was a Freudian psychologist, and was interested in placing Freud in the Jewish mystical tradition.
“Professor John Cawelty introduced me to the humanities. I had never really listened to music before, never looked at paintings, and never looked at a building from an architectural standpoint. He opened my world.”
During her college years, Connie became active in a variety of outreach programs. For example, as she reports, “I started a volunteer program to visit patients at the state psychiatric hospital. At one point, the hospital staff went on strike, and I organized busloads of college kids to help the patients with meals. It seemed like such a natural thing for me to do. I was always comfortable talking with or being around people who were different. But I discovered that it was so profoundly difficult for some of the other kids to deal with this.”
The 1960s were a time of turmoil in many ways, and Chicago was the scene of protests against the Vietnam war and racial unrest, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King. “I watched Chicago burn after Martin Luther King was killed and again during the Democratic Convention,” says Ms. Mercer.
While still an undergraduate, she married classmate Marc Mercer, and after graduation in 1969, they moved to Toronto. “It was mainly because I was against the Vietnam war, and I felt I had to get away,” she explains. “I went to York University and got a masters degree in clinical psychology. I also ran group homes for disturbed delinquent boys, and my husband and I were in charge of group homes for both boys and girls. We were in Ontario for eight years, and we established a network of 19 group homes across northern Ontario, including for delinquent Indian boys in the far north.”
After being divorced in the late 1970s, Ms. Mercer returned to the U.S., and found her way to Princeton.
“At the time, I was working for the Commissioner of the Department of Human Services for New Jersey, and it was part of an interstate consortium on residential childcare. It was fascinating for me. The standards in childcare we established were adopted in 17 different states, and I saw that having appropriate regulations could help ensure how kids are cared for.”
In 1980, Ms. Mercer met Howard Myers, who had a farm nearby her home on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study. They married two years later, but soon after, she was recruited to serve as deputy commissioner for child welfare in Illinois. For the next four years, she lived in Springfield, Ill. and Chicago, commuting to Princeton on weekends.
“I was in charge of setting up foster homes, adoptions, and residential treatment centers,” explains Ms. Mercer. “It was now the 80s and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I was really the legal guardian for 18,000 abused and neglected kids in Illinois.”
After returning to Princeton in 1986, she changed direction for a time, and established her own executive recruiting firm. “It was a head-hunting company,” she observes, “and focused on filling environmental positions all over the country.”
Then, one day in 1990, fate intervened, and a new opportunity presented itself, one that would have a profound effect on Ms. Mercer’s life, on the Princeton area, and most of all, on those suffering from homelessness and loss of hope.
“A friend of mine, Chris Hanson, a pediatrician with DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) came over one day, and said he wanted to show me something. He took me to see the motels on the Route One corridor, where we saw all the horror of people being warehoused in those motels, where there was no place for kids to play, or have space for their own private thoughts.
“He said to me: ‘These are hungry, homeless people in your town. Fix it.’ He really challenged me. At first I thought, ‘Okay, all I need to do in this wealthy town is to let people know, and it will be taken care of.’”
It turned out to require a bit more than that. It was due to Ms. Mercer’s unceasing efforts and leadership, along with the help of dedicated friends, colleagues, and concerned citizens that HomeFront came into being.
“Initially, I talked to friends, and we took food to the motels. We organized people, and as we got more and more volunteers, it began to grow like Topsy. First, we gave the people in the motels food, and then we saw that they didn’t have coats. Then, we saw pretty quickly that the children weren’t getting to school, so we had to figure that out.”
Every time one problem was addressed, another presented itself, and Ms. Mercer and her volunteers found themselves continuously facing new challenges.
“There were hundreds of these families involved from Trenton to New Brunswick and beyond,” she points out. “These were pretty much awful places, and the plight was so God-awful, with conditions so horrifying. There was such depression. We saw depressed three-year-olds, and so many kids not in school.”
As the years passed, HomeFront grew into a highly important, effectively functioning organization, helping thousands of individuals to earn high school diplomas, college degrees, find work, and become productive members of society. With funding and support from individuals, corporations, foundations, and organizations, HomeFront has been able to live up to its mission statement everyday:
• “To end homelessness in central New Jersey by harnessing the caring, resources, and expertise of the community.
• “To lessen the immediate pain of homelessness and help families become self-sufficient.
• “To give people skills and opportunities to ensure adequate incomes and to increase the availability of adequate affordable housing.
• “To help homeless families advocate for themselves individually and collectively.”
The children are particularly close to Ms. Mercer’s heart. “I feel the most important work is with the children, giving them a vision of a different future. Once they have a dream, then the other things can happen.
“I never ever thought we’d be running a pre-school program, but we are,” she continues. “Our kids don’t come with shot records or from families who always keep track of things. No existing day care program will take them. We work together with the Prince of Peace Church in West Windsor to help with the day care program.”
In addition, HomeFront offers tutoring, summer camp, children’s arts programs, and basketball teams, among other activities for kids.
Ms. Mercer and HomeFront have been the recipients of numerous awards and honors from the state, county, and local organizations, as well as accolades from elected officials.
“Connie is a living example of how the leadership of one driven, dedicated person can transform a community,” says Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. “With HomeFront, she has tackled the problems of the homeless in an ambitiously holistic way, and has created a soup-to-nuts organization that helps nurture distressed families not just by providing temporary housing and meals, but also through work force education, financial literacy, childcare, transportation, the arts, and more. The more I have learned about HomeFront and the multitude of programs they run, the more impressed I am.”
And HomeFront shows no signs of slowing down. It will open an expanded facility next year on eight acres near the Mercer County airport, which will replace many of the services at the Family Preservation Center currently located on the grounds of the Katzenbach School for the Deaf in West Trenton. Its flagship headquarters will continue to be located in Lawrenceville.
“Always remember that HomeFront grew out of working with individual families, families that needed to claw their way out of poverty,” states Ms. Mercer. “HomeFront is about putting the pieces together and helping to create an environment where no homeless family and kids don’t have a shot at the future. We are really the only county in the state that does work like this on so many levels. I am especially proud that we have created 90 units of permanent affordable housing for our clients.
“Of course, it takes the efforts of many people to accomplish this. We now have a staff of more than a hundred and over 1200 volunteers. It’s due to the incredible caring of this community. For example, we feed 6000 families over Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is special caring in this community, and we can harness that. I especially admire those unsung people who do the right thing day in and day out, whose names you never hear. All heroes to my mind.”
In addition, it is a testament to HomeFront’s success that many former clients regularly return to sponsor and help current clients.
Ms. Mercer’s focus is clearly on HomeFront, but when there is a rare chance to take time off, she enjoys traveling with her husband. “We love Australia and New Zealand and many places in Europe,” she reports. “Also, Howard wanted to visit all 50 states in the U.S., and the last one on the list was South Dakota. This wasn’t number one on my list, but I fell in love with it, especially the Badlands, which are incredible.”
In addition, Ms. Mercer likes Tai Chi, which she practices regularly, and finds it to be “beneficial for body and soul.”
She is enormously proud of her son Michael Myers, 22, who is currently serving as a second lieutenant in the army, and undergoing Ranger training in Georgia. “He came to us later in life, and he was very much a wanted child,” she reflects. “I could not be prouder of him.”
With HomeFront always in the forefront of her efforts, Ms. Mercer is determined that it continues to reach its goals, yet she tends to underplay her own accomplishments and contributions. “To be successful personally and professionally,” she observes, “you need compassion, motivation, determination — and don’t forget — luck! The only real talent I have — and I am very good at it — is identifying talent.”
That may be, but as HomeFront board member and former Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, points out, “Connie’s contribution to the community has been enormous. There are only a few agencies, when mentioned over decades, that bring to mind one person’s name, and HomeFront is one of these. HomeFront is Connie Mercer, and Connie Mercer is HomeFront. Connie would not endorse that for she is very aware of the loyal and hardworking staff and volunteers she works with, and is quick to acknowledge them.
“Margaret Mead’s quote ‘never doubt that a small dedicated group can change the world’ applies here to that one person — Connie — who has not only changed the world, but literally the ‘worlds’ of the hundreds and hundreds of people who have come through HomeFront’s doors. Her unyielding passion to end homelessness has made her the incredible moving force behind HomeFront. The benefits it has brought to her clients and to society are incalculable. Connie Mercer is HomeFront, and HomeFront is Connie Mercer.”
“A deep night
Blacker than the blackness of eyes.
Has fallen silently
On the World.”
Everyone has a story, and frequently it is surprising. One thinks he or she knows all about a friend or colleague only to discover a remarkable history, previously hidden, which is revealed much later in the friendship or business association.
Such is the case of Dr. Stephen Felton, long-time Princeton ophthalmologist and founder of the Princeton Eye Group. Most of his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had no idea of the harrowing experiences of his early childhood and his family’s ordeal during the Holocaust and events of World War II. It was only recently through the publication of his mother’s memoir, I Shall Lead You Through the Nights that this early history has become known.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1942, Stephen was two months premature, weighing only 2.2 pounds at birth.
“My mother called me her ‘Miracle Child’,” recalls Dr. Felton, and indeed, how he and his mother survived those years during the war is a miracle.
His family consisted of parents Victor and Eva Feldsztein, half-brother Stasio, grandparents, and various aunts and uncles and cousins. Except for his mother, Stephen did not know any of these relatives, for they all perished at the hands of the Nazis, either shot or in the case of his father and Stasio, in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In 1941, his parents had moved to the Warsaw Ghetto (later known for the Jewish uprising there in 1943). “My father was an engineer, owned a factory, and was also a musician,” explains Dr. Felton. “A nurse, my mother graduated from St. Sophie School of Nursing and Midwifery in Warsaw. She was the only Jewish girl among the students, who were mostly Catholic. She had lots of friends there, however, and the religious differences didn’t matter at the school.”
After graduation, his mother worked as a private nurse, and met Victor Feldsztein, whom she married in 1938. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, setting the stage for World War II. Warsaw surrendered later in the month, and the Jewish ghetto was established. Its residents suffered under the Nazi control, enduring starvation, rampant disease, and unceasing brutality and atrocities.
Eventually, the Feldszteins were forced from their home, and went to live with a relative.
At this time, Mrs. Feldsztein continued her work as a nurse on an emergency basis only, for it was increasingly dangerous for the Jewish residents to leave the ghetto and venture outside for fear of being shot or transported to concentration camps. In addition, many of the residents established hiding places in their apartments. It was during this time that Mrs. Feldsztein learned of the deaths of her father, brothers, and sister, all killed by the Nazis.
When Stephen was born in June, 1942, no one, other than his mother, expected him to survive in the harsh conditions under which they were living. In March, 1943, Mrs. Feldsztein and Stephen were able to escape the ghetto. A Christian family, the Mataczes, came to their aid, helping them to avoid detection by the Germans. Stephen and his mother moved from place to place, sometimes hiding in the forest, and Mrs. Feldsztein assumed a new identity as a Polish Christian.
Her dark hair was bleached blond, and the Matacz family helped her learn Catholic prayers and even advised her to “Carry the baby in your left arm. Your right arm must be free to cross yourself when you pass a holy shrine.”
In her memoir, Mrs. Feldsztein notes: “Before the holidays, everyone went to Confession, and that included me. When I came before the priest, I said, ‘Father, the only sin I know is that I am lying.’ The priest answered softly, ‘My dear child, we are all praying to one God. The good Lord will bless you and your son.’”
Stephen’s father and brother Stasio had remained in the ghetto in the hope that they would receive a visa to go to South America with Stephen and his mother, explains Dr. Felton. “That was the last information we had from them. But the visa was a fraud, and they were taken to Auschwitz and killed.”
Although Stephen was only two and three years old during this time, Dr. Felton says he has snatches of memory from his early childhood. He recalls playing with other children, and “I also remember walking into a shed with another boy and seeing dead bodies. These memories date back to 1945, and I remember, too, that throughout my childhood, a recurrent dream was of a marching drum beat.”
After enduring beatings, torture, and lack of food, Mrs. Feldsztein welcomed the end of the war with a mixture of relief, sadness, and a sense of staggering loss. Returning to Warsaw, she found work with a Jewish relief agency, and there she met David Wasserman, a survivor of several concentration camps.
They were married, and after a year in Paris, emigrated to the U.S. in 1947. Upon arrival in Brooklyn, N.Y., as she reports in her memoir, Mrs. Wasserman was immediately in for a surprise. “As we disembarked from the ship, we were greeted by police officials. In Poland, a Jewish policeman was unheard of. When one of these American officials spoke to us in Yiddish, we cried tears of wonder. What a wonderful country this is!”
Dr. Felton recalls arriving in the midst of a big snowstorm. “The streets were covered by a deep layer of snow, and I remember looking at the lights of the cars driving along the Belt Parkway and at the Statue of Liberty in the distance. To my mother, they must have seemed like the lights and symbols of freedom and liberation. The feelings of freedom mixed with the profound tragedy of the previous years must have been overwhelming.”
Their new life would be hard at first, however. The family settled in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, and as Dr. Felton points out, there “was no money, no job, no English language, but there was freedom from tyranny and hope for the future.
“It wasn’t an easy childhood for me,” he adds. “Arriving in the U.S. at age five was difficult. I remember feeling alone and isolated. I couldn’t speak the language, and my mother and stepfather were struggling to make a living and readjusting to a normal, non-threatening environment. My mother sewed yarmulkes, and my stepfather taught Hebrew during the day, and went to night classes to become an electrical engineer.”
Eventually, Mr. Wasserman found work in an engineering firm, and Mrs. Wasserman returned to her nursing profession They both learned English very quickly, reports Dr. Felton. In the next few years, two more children, Mina and Allen, were born.
And despite the difficulties, there were good times for Stephen. He played stickball with the neighborhood kids, and went to see his favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, play baseball in Ebbets Field. In 1951, an important event took place in his life, when he became an American citizen. “I remember my citizenship day as fulfilling a dream,” he recalls.
“Ours was a typical Brooklyn neighborhood,” he adds. “One of my best friends Mark Hutter lived nearby, and I’d go over to his apartment building, stand outside the window, and yell, ‘Mark, can you come out?’ and then we’d play stickball.
“It was a half-Jewish, half-Italian neighborhood, and I remember my parents wanted me to take violin lessons. I’d have to walk by the Italian section, carrying my violin case, and those Italian kids gave me a hard time. I ended up quitting the violin when I was 13.”
Stephen attended Yeshiva Ohel Moshe Elementary School, and was resourceful enough to get to school by himself on the subway when he was in the first grade!
“In school, the morning hours were dedicated to learning Hebrew and studying religion,” explains Dr. Felton. “The afternoon was for regular lessons. It provided an excellent education. The Hebrew education was also cultural, and we learned a lot about Israel.”
Stephen liked school, and was a good student, later attending Yeshiva of Flatbush High School. “I was scientifically-oriented, but I also liked art and music. Later, in college, I took music appreciation. I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music, and I still do.”
Dr. Felton also remembers enjoyable summer vacations in the Catskill Mountains in New York state. “I liked going there, and I had a chance to be pretty independent. My stepfather only came up on weekends, and I had time on my own to go fishing and fool around with the other kids.”
When Stephen was about 10, he began to have doubts about religion. “I really rebelled significantly against religion. I especially liked my Uncle Joe, my father’s brother. I felt more identified with him than with my stepfather, who was the son of a rabbi and very religious. Uncle Joe was a person I admired. I was not religious, and neither was he, and he was Americanized. He was all the things I wanted to be.
“He had come to the U.S. in the 1920s, and he ‘Americanized’ his last name to Felton, which I later did too. He also started a chemical business, which became very successful. When I was nine or 10, I started visiting him at his New Jersey farm in the country. He was very nice to me, and he was a very important part of my life. He had an apartment in Manhattan, too, and the chemical plant was in Brooklyn. When I was 15, I started working there in the shipping department.”
Then, in 1959, it was off to college. Stephen attended Brooklyn College, and majored in chemistry. After graduation, he continued his education at Rutgers University, working toward a PhD, which he completed in 4 years.
“At Rutgers, I had a teaching assistantship, and I also worked in research as part of the program. I had good friends at Rutgers, including students from Ethiopia and Iran. I also had my first visit to Princeton, when we came to a football game in 1964.”
Another major event in his life while at graduate school was marriage to a fellow graduate student in 1965.
The couple then had an opportunity to see another part of the country, when he received a post-doctoral fellowship in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Spending two years there, he published academic papers as part of the program.
In addition, finding time for another endeavor, he built his own sailboat! “I had gotten into sailing, and this was a proud moment,” he says with a smile.
Dr. Felton also realized now that he didn’t want to pursue an academic career. “I wanted to work with people and not be isolated in a laboratory. I thought about getting into industry, and it was possible to work with my Uncle Joe.”
Returning to the east coast, he worked with his uncle, becoming vice president of the chemical firm, and he remained in that position for two years. He and his wife lived in Manhattan, and in 1971, a daughter Jane was born.
And now, a new adventure was on the horizon. For a long time, he had felt an important need to help others, and to make a difference and improve people’s lives. “This had been instilled in me by my mother,” he explains. “As a nurse, she went out of her way to help people. After coming to the U.S., she sent packages of food and clothing to the family in Poland who had helped us. And she also helped a lot of people in Brooklyn.”
So, at the age of 30, he decided to go to medical school. “I didn’t want to waste my life. This was very important. I wanted to make a contribution, and I liked the idea of applying research to help people with medical problems.”
The decision to attend medical school at a somewhat advanced age surprised his family and some of his friends, but not all. His close buddy from childhood, Mark Hutter, PhD, now a professor in the department of sociology at Rowan University, recalls, “I think Steve always wanted to be a doctor, and so I was not surprised that even with his success in chemistry, he left to pursue a medical degree. Now, in fact, both my wife and I are his patients; my daughter was a lazik patient, and our son, inspired by Steve, has become an ophthalmologist.”
Despite having done well on the graduate medical exam, Dr. Felton was turned down by some schools due to an age bias. At 30, he was evidently considered too old to begin medical studies. He persevered, however, and fortunately, Rutgers came through, and in 1972, he entered Rutgers Medical School.
“In the beginning, I wanted to be a general physician,” he says. “I had no great aspiration to become a specialist, and I was also involved in research in biochemistry. I liked medical school very much. I especially liked the clinical aspect. With every rotation, I thought I’d want to go into that particular field. I finally chose ophthalmology because I loved medicine and surgery, and ophthalmology was an excellent combination of both.”
Dr. Felton interned at the Rutgers-affiliated hospital for one year, followed by a 3-year residency program at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. “I enjoyed every minute at Wills,” he reports. “It was top-rated in ophthalmology, and it was a great experience. Ophthalmology generally is a happy medical experience. It is always exciting and changing.”
While at Wills, Dr. Felton received the James S. Shipman Award for his research in angiogenesis.
He had been living in Princeton during his residency, and decided to set up his practice here. Furthermore, in a brave move, he did it on his own. “I knew I wanted to have my own practice,” he points out. “I didn’t want other people telling me what to do, and I started out by myself. I began to get referrals, and friends came, but it was a year before it was profitable. I remember I drove one of my first cataract patients to Wills for the surgery, and then drove her back home afterward.”
Two years later, he decided to take a partner. He had known Dr. Michael Wong at Wills, and asked him to join the practice, which would eventually evolve into the Princeton Eye Group.
Dr. Wong remembers that initial partnership and his association with Dr. Felton. “Steve was my first partner, and he’s been a great partner to me my whole career. What has been so important is trust. Trust in doing the right thing for our patients; trust in doing the right thing for our practice; and trust in being a friend personally.
“Ophthalmology, as a specialty, has moved forward very quickly. Steve has always been progressive, willing to invest in new technologies and learn new techniques to keep abreast. Ultimately, patients win. We’d be at a conference learning a new surgical technique, and I would lean over to him and joke that he was the oldest ophthalmologist in the room. What that tongue-in-cheek comment meant was that while others with his pedigree may be stale and not taking on new surgeries, Steve was always there willing to learn.”
As the practice grew, it added a number of new doctors, and has become known for its innovative advances and techniques. Dr. Felton’s specialty has been cataract surgery and glaucoma. He has performed more than 10,000 cataract procedures over 35 years. As he notes, “I knew I had a skill regarding surgery for cataracts and implants, but I never expected the practice to be as successful as it has become.
“I think what is most meaningful to me is seeing the happy faces the day after patients have eye surgery. This means a lot. And I like being able to figure out what is wrong and make a diagnosis. I enjoy discussing these cases with my colleagues. My partners are exceptionally bright, and we conduct business as true partners. Through discussion and consensus, we have made almost all of our important decisions. Our collective training and caring of patients is what has bonded us together all these years.”
Now, Dr. Felton has decided to take a step back from the practice, limiting his time to three days a week. This will give him a chance to take advantage of many of the opportunities available in Princeton, as well as to enjoy spending time with his family, travel more often, and delve into hobbies, such as bridge and golf.
Regarding Princeton, he notes, “Every once in a while, I stop and think ‘Do I really live here?’ It’s such a great place, especially because of the people who are here. They are so interesting, and there are opportunities to do so much. Now that I’ve stepped back somewhat from the practice, I’ll have more time for this, including auditing classes at Princeton University.”
Family is very important to Dr. Felton. After a divorce in 1988, he remarried in 1990, and he and his wife Barbara have a son Jake, who lives in California. The family also consists of his daughter Jane and Barbara’s children Ben and Jessie and five grandchildren.
“My wife Barb is so important to me,” says Dr. Felton. “She complements me in so many ways. She is my partner; she’s my other half.”
And, of course, all the family has been profoundly inspired by his mother Eva, who died in 1992, shortly after completing her memoir. Previously, she had been able to return to Poland, where she was reunited with the Matacz family, who had protected her and Stephen.
“In a sense, my mother had a somewhat selfish point of view as a result of the Holocaust, which was really the attempt of a mass extermination of the Jewish people of Europe,” observes Dr. Felton. “She wanted the Jewish people to survive. This was her goal, and through me, my sister and brother, she felt she had helped to accomplish that.”
He adds that his mother did not talk about her Holocaust experiences until she wrote the memoir, and he, too, never discussed or even thought about his family’s background until he read her memoir and had it published. He has since spoken at the Jewish Center about the events, and has returned to Poland three times, most recently in 2012, when the Israeli government honored the Matacz family, giving them the designation of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
On an earlier visit with his wife and son, he recalls a poignant experience. “We went to Auschwitz, and took two stones from there in honor of my father and half-brother. We then took the stones to Israel to the cemetery where my mother and stepfather are buried. It was a way to unite the family.”
Dr. Felton’s childhood friend Mark Hutter did know about the family’s Holocaust experiences, but as he says, “That was not a subject we often talked about. I knew Steve’s wonderful mother, who was always upbeat with a smile on her face, as well as his stepfather and brother and sister.”
Adds Dr. Michael Wong: “The early events of Steve’s life slowly leaked out over the decades, but crystallized when I read the book he compiled of his mother’s memoir I Shall Lead You Through the Nights. I knew Eva, but not like that. It’s a story that needs to be told, as it embodies what the Statue of Liberty stands for.”
As Dr. Felton reflects on his early life and his mother’s remarkable fortitude and courage, he is both realistic and hopeful. “I really experienced the Holocaust through my mother,” he points out. “I’m fatalistic. I know that bad things can happen any time. I know that it can all disappear in a day. You must enjoy each moment you have and try to make a difference for people.
“I have been very lucky. A lot of things that happened to me were lucky. For example, I survived my birth. I have always been driven to help others. I never wanted to be wealthy, just comfortable. I wanted to be a nice person and have a good family. In that respect, I feel very lucky.”
Sharing his family’s story with others and keeping the events of the Holocaust in the public awareness are important to him now. Many Holocaust survivors are no longer alive, and many, if not most, of the World War II veterans are now gone. The causes and impact of that war and of the Holocaust should not be allowed to disappear from view.
As Dr. Felton says, “People have to realize that evil exists, but if we confront it directly and openly when it occurs, we can overcome it.”
Hank Siegel is a strong and committed advocate. For his family, his community, and his business.
As president and CEO of Hamilton Jewelers, he has led the company to new levels of success, while retaining its core values and its character as a family business.
“This is an honor and a responsibility,” says Mr. Siegel. “Today, we have more than 100 employees. The business started with three: my grandfather, grandmother, and one employee.”
Hank Siegel was surrounded by the family business for as long as he can remember. Hamilton, originally known as George Marks, Inc., opened in Trenton in 1912, and was purchased in 1927 by Hank’s grandfather, Irving Siegel, the son of immigrants from eastern Europe.
“My grandfather was a strong role model. I had great admiration for him,” says Mr. Siegel. “One of six children, he left school at 15 to help support the family. He worked hard, and as a young man, he made the decision to buy the jewelry business. Then came the Crash in 1929 and the Great Depression. The store was able to manage during those years by offering service. They’d send someone over to wind a customer’s grandfather clock or polish the silver.”
Hank was born in 1958 in Trenton to Martin (Irving’s son) and Denise Siegel. He was the eldest of the family’s four sons, which also included Jeff, Scott, and Peter.
Growing up in Yardley, Pa., Hank enjoyed school and was active in the student council and athletics. “I played baseball in Little League, and also football and tennis. In school, I liked civics, social studies, and economics. I went to The George School in Newtown, Pa. for high school, and I had several teachers there who were important to me, especially my first economics teacher, Robert Waters. Also, at the school, we were involved in service to the community.”
Hank knew from an early age that he was drawn to the family business and would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father. “I started helping out in the store when I was a pipsqueak. And when I was seven, I decided to take some props home and set up my own display with trinkets I found, including my mother’s 3-carat diamond engagement ring. She had taken it off, and I found it on a table. I sold it to the boy next door for a quarter! Fortunately, his mother found it and returned it.”
Hank was the beneficiary of a close family, and grew up in a neighborhood with lots of peers and unstructured outdoor play. “I count myself very blessed with my family,” he says. “We went to Long Beach Island for a month every summer, and I loved that. We saw the same families and got to know the lifeguards. And we also had family vacations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Florida.”
In 1976, Hank entered Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. “I had grown up in the northeast, and it was a change of pace to go south,” he explains. “It gave me a change of perspective. Atlanta was extremely cosmopolitan, with people from all over. I loved Emory, and I made a lot of good friends there.”
He served as president of his fraternity, which was active in community service, including, among other projects, the brothers volunteering as food and drink vendors at the Atlanta Falcons football games.
Although he majored in business, Hank took a wide range of courses, such as philosophy, English literature, and astronomy, all of which broadened his horizons.
A major highlight of his college career was meeting Lisette Van Plateringen, who would become his wife. “Lisette was my college sweetheart,” he says with a smile, “and that has never changed!” They were married in 1985.
After graduation, he planned to start working at Hamilton, but his parents had other ideas. “I was ready to work at the store, but my parents wanted me to get more education, so I got an MBA at Boston University. My parents were thinking about what was needed to take the family business to the next level, increasing the professional structure and management without losing the heritage of the family business.”
After earning the MBA, Hank moved to Princeton, but before taking on his responsibilities at Hamilton, he had one more educational challenge ahead. His parents wanted him to have a full and comprehensive understanding of what it takes to operate a successful jewelry business.
“Now they wanted me to study at the Gemological Institute of America in New York City and get a degree in gemology. This was a 6-month course, and I studied the origin of gemstones, learning to identify, evaluate, and understand their origin.
“My parents and grandparents had done an excellent job with the business, but they realized we should go forward. They weren’t ones just to sit back and do things the way they had always been done. Now, we had to adapt to all the changes coming along, including the age of computers, websites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.”
Mr. Siegel also recalls an important conversation he had with his grandfather at that time regarding the significance of staying focused. “He said to me that you always do better in business by re-investing in your existing business and in your community than by spreading yourself too thin. His advice proved to be timeless.”
Hamilton has extended its reach over the years, but always retaining a close connection and involvement within its community. A Lawrenceville store was opened in 1973, followed by two in Florida in 1974 and 1988, the Princeton store in 1986, and most recently, a Red Bank location in 2003. Currently, there are four stores, with the Lawrenceville and Trenton stores having closed.
“I am proud that the Hamilton brand has grown in recognition, both nationally and internationally, and importantly, it is locally trusted,” says Mr. Siegel. “We choose to be small, expert, and specialized, focusing on heritage, craftsmanship, and service rather than national/global and diluted.”
Recipient of many awards, ranging from being named Best Retailer of the Year in 1960 to the first family-owned jeweler in the world to be certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council in 2012, Hamilton was most recently recognized as the Best New Jersey Family Business by the Rothman Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Hank Siegel himself was inducted into the National Jeweler’s Retailer Hall of Fame in 1997.
Ethical and honest business practices are very important to Mr. Siegel, and he spends a great deal of time advising companies and organizations in this regard. As he points out, “It has been my goal to raise the level of business practices. I have always had a deep personal commitment to improve the jewelry industry at large. I served as chairman of the board of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and on the boards and committees of numerous other organizations within the industry. My personal passion is the whole idea of responsible business practices.”
Pertinent examples in the jewelry industry he cites are “the ethical sourcing of gem materials, including proper extraction from the earth so the environment is not harmed; proper and safe working conditions for the laborers; and proper supply chain and custody of the materials.”
Hamilton was elected to membership in the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, an international non-profit association representing more than 420 organizations across the gold and diamond supply chain. It is one of only 56 exclusive retail members internationally to be recognized and admitted into this prestigious group.
Mr. Siegel’s focus on ethics in business has been evidenced from the beginning of his stewardship at Hamilton. It continued when he became president in 1994, and then later when he joined the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), an association in more than 120 countries emphasizing “Better Leaders Through Education and Idea Exchange”.
In addition to his work specifically relating to the jewelry industry, Mr. Siegel also spends time advising other companies in the methods and responsibilities involved in operating a successful family business. As he notes, “We have been successful for three generations, over 100 years. While there are numerous brands with a rich heritage in the luxury industry, there are very few with the heritage of Hamilton that are still independently owned. This is something that we are extremely proud of, and I am particularly grateful both to my grandfather and father in that they built the foundation for today’s success.”
Mr. Siegel’s commitment to ethics in business and his leadership abilities are very clear to those who work with him, both employees at Hamilton and colleagues in other companies.
“I believe Hank has provided exceptional leadership and wise and compassionate counsel to his employees,” says Eric H. Waser, New York Metro Division Head of Citibank, and a long-time friend of Mr. Siegel. “He leads by example, is very thoughtful, and committed to the professional development of his employees. This commitment also extends to the numerous trade and civic organizations he invests considerable time into.
“Family businesses that have been as successful as Hamilton Jewelers has been, spanning three generations, are few and far between. I suspect that Hamilton’s success, influenced in large part by Hank, is due to their making everyone feel special. No gimmicks, just genuine caring. Hank, his family, and employees are admirable ambassadors of Princeton. Like many, I am grateful for my personal relationship with Hank and his accomplished wife Lisette.”
Example and Encouragement
Adds Bernie Tenenbaum, Princeton resident, business consultant, and former professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania: “Hank is a leader. He inspires by the way he deals with everyone he meets. He leads by example and encouragement. He motivates his team members to extraordinary performance. I think Hank wants everyone to win.
“He is unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, and considerate. And he is able to balance old-world tradition represented by the greatest brands that Hamilton sells with the adaptive requirements of today’s digital age.”
Mr. Siegel is very proud of the employees who have contributed so much to Hamilton’s success. “The experience and expertise that we offer is unique,” he points out. “Many of our employees have been with us for 10 years or longer. For over 20 years, we have had one of the world’s most renowned experts working with fine Swiss watches, and another expert in the field of colored stones. We have hand-engravers, gemstone setters, and six watchmakers. We also employ experts in polishing, jewelry design, and appraising.”
Mr. Siegel believes that positive interaction with employees and setting a high standard for himself lead to the best business results. As he explains, “ Everyone appreciates being appreciated. Catch someone doing something right each day and praise them for it. Also, hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone expects.”
One of Hamilton’s employees of long-standing is gift department sales associate, buyer liaison, and store display overseer Joanna Riley. “I have been with Hamilton for 22 years, and I have known Hank all that time. He is truly remarkable. He brings a sense of pride and personal commitment to excellence to all aspects of the business. He has an open door policy, which is shown in his willingness to listen, care, and acknowledge all team members. The Siegels and the team here are truly my extended family. It has been an amazing experience to work here.
“In addition,” continues Ms. Riley, “Hank’s contributions to the community are endless. Princeton Area Community Foundation, Eden Autism Services, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Easter Seals … the list goes on and on.”
Indeed, Hamilton and Mr. Siegel are very much involved in supporting community charities and organizations. Giving back is important. Last year, in commemoration of Hamilton’s 100th anniversary, they initiated “100 Days of Giving”. The program encouraged all Hamilton associates to volunteer their time to an organization of their choice in their community. They volunteered one day of service to the charity and received a full day’s compensation from Hamilton.
Walking the Dogs
“We were able to support 100 local organizations, including everything from the Trenton Soup Kitchen to medical and children’s organizations to the arts,” reports Mr. Siegel. “This was important to us.”
Living and working in Princeton for more than 30 years has given Mr. Siegel a special view of this community and its unique qualities. As he says, “I have loved the diversity of Princeton. There are so many people from all over. I love the fact that my wife and I can walk our dogs in town and see people we know and others from all over and all backgrounds. For me personally, community is very important. I am a fourth generation Mercer County resident. I appreciate this area and the community.
“Princeton continues to be diverse, a unique combination of people from all levels of society and backgrounds. I enjoy being a season ticket holder at McCarter, and we go to concerts at Richardson Hall and to games at Princeton University. My wife also audits courses at the University.
“A big pleasure for me is working in the garden,” he adds. “It is therapeutic. I also like to play golf, and my wife has taken it up now too, so we can play together.”
Mr. Siegel is a music-lover — everything from 1960s rock to “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen to opera, especially Puccini’s Tosca.
“I remember when I first saw Bruce Springsteen,” he recalls. “It was October 1974 at Alexander Hall. I will never forget that!”
Quality of Life
Serving on boards and contributing time to organizations that have special meaning for him is another way Mr. Siegel supports his community. “I have served on The George School Committee, as well as on the boards of McCarter Theatre and the Greenwood House for the Aged. Both of these organizations contribute greatly to the quality of life in the Mercer County region, and The George School had a great impact on me.”
“The Siegel family has a history of service to Greenwood House, dating to my grandmother and my parents as well as myself and Lisette,” continues Mr. Siegel. “We were deeply grateful in 2003, when the organization chose to honor the Siegel family for its gala event, at which President Clinton was the speaker. I was additionally honored to have been chosen to conduct the ‘Q and A’ session with the former President. Talk about being nervous!”
While Mr. Siegel enjoys spending time at home, he often finds himself on the road — or more literally — in the air. “I travel extensively, over 100,000 miles a year, to India, Africa, Asia, and Europe on business,” he reports.
“It is my great privilege to serve on the board of the Gemological Institute of America. The Board of Governors is comprised of 16 individuals from around the world with expertise in a variety of areas, such as mineralogy, education, research, and finance, as well as experts from the jewelry and gem industries.
“We recently had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and Botswana, and the trip provided amazing insights into the diamond industry in these two nations — South Africa being one of the oldest diamond-producing and cutting nations, and Botswana being one of the newest.”
Enriching and often unexpected experiences occur on these travels, he adds, and they frequently emphasize the outreach of Hamilton. For example: “On a trip to India, I was speaking with a man whom I didn’t know, and he said, ‘Are you Mr. Siegel? I was in your store in Princeton not long ago!’
“We always have to consider how we can continue to be successful, especially in a rapidly-changing world,” he points out. “This business is in my blood. I learned it from the bottom up, and I especially enjoy the interaction with the clients and my incredible staff.
“This is a happy business,” he continues. “Jewelry is beautiful; it makes you feel good, and it is associated with happy occasions — engagements, weddings, anniversaries. At the end of the day, the greatest satisfaction is when I’m in the store, and a young gentleman comes in looking for an engagement ring. I’ll ask if this is his first time in Hamilton, and he’ll often say that his grandfather and father had shopped at Hamilton for engagement and wedding rings. It’s an honor to serve multiple generations.”
Mr. Siegel adds that he is very appreciative of the industry and business accolades that Hamilton has received “but we are even more grateful for the many wonderful friends and clients who have chosen Hamilton to help celebrate the most important occasions of their lives — which to me is the greatest honor of all.”
Such reflections bring him back to his family, the business, and what it means to continue such a legacy. He is reminded of memories he and his father have of Irving Siegel’s willingness to accept a down payment, “whatever the client was able to afford, and he would agree to subsequent payments with just a handshake, whether the transaction was for hundreds — or thousands — of dollars.
Clarity of Values
“Clarity as to values is important,” emphasizes Mr. Siegel. “I helped to codify Hamilton’s core ethics when I first joined the company. Clarity about what is important is crucial. We always emphasize community, entrepreneurship and hospitality.
“To this day, very much of what I’m about is my relationship with my family. Having my father at Hamilton as chairman is the best. I am able to have the resource of both my father’s and mother’s wisdom. My parents always emphasized family, and this is important to me, my wife, and my two sons, Andrew and Benjamin, whom I respect, admire, and love greatly. They make me proud.
“I am close with my brothers and their kids. We all get together every Thanksgiving as a family at my parents’ house. With my brothers, their kids and our close friends, it can be anywhere from 25 to 40 people. My mom does the cooking (with a little help from the daughters-in-law!), and it is something we all look forward to.”
And as far as Hamilton is concerned and its continuing legacy, he couldn’t agree more with his father’s point of view and how it reflects his own thinking and career.
As Martin Siegel remarked. “I started to help my dad in the business when I was 12 years old. I never thought of doing anything else. I came into the business formally in 1955, and now my son Hank is president and CEO. It has meant more than I ever expected to have the family business continue. It’s the dream of a father, passed on to a son and a grandson.”
She is the longest-serving elected official on Princeton Township Committee. She indexed the Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the Letters of Samuel Johnson. She has run in 19 marathons. She continues to contribute to the community in numerous ways, by serving on boards and committees, and donating her time to a variety of organizations — all the while combatting a serious chronic illness, which has not diminished her drive or sapped her spirit.
Phyllis Marchand is one-of-a-kind, a role model for what women can achieve and how one person in a position of leadership while working together with others can make a difference for many.
A New Yorker, Ms. Marchand was born in Manhattan, and was the oldest of the four children of Morris (“Mo”) and Charlotte Steinberg. She was close to siblings Steven, Laura, and Susan, and also to both sets of grandparents who lived on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
“My father’s parents were born in Romania, and my mother’s father was born in Russia,” recalls Ms. Marchand. “My maternal grandfather took my brother Steven and me out on Sundays to a place of interest, such as on the Staten Island Ferry to go to the zoo, or on a trip to Bear Mountain. My brother and I looked forward to these outings, and so did my grandfather. Since he was not born here, he was always interested in visiting new places.
“My maternal grandmother was educated, and played the piano. Music was an important part of my life, and my mother, who loved the opera, often took me to the old Met.
“My father was a millinery manufacturer, and had a company in Manhattan. ‘Phyllis’ and ‘Charlotte’ hats were two of their labels. He was also a big sports fan, especially for the New York Giants baseball team, and we’d go to the Polo Grounds to see them play. Later, after the Giants moved to San Francisco, I became a Mets fan. This has stayed with me, and I follow the Mets with a keen interest, staying up way past midnight to watch the games on the West Coast. I am also an avid fan of all the Princeton University teams.”
Growing up in New York City offers opportunities on a scale not found in many other places: Broadway plays at one’s doorstep; rides on the subway; watching the balloons blown up for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade; premier museums, opera, and many other cultural activities.
New York City children often develop an early self-sufficiency, and Phyllis was allowed to go on the subway by herself when she was 10; at 14, she went to Broadway shows with friends; she roller skated in Central Park, often skating to the park from her home on 86th Street on the West Side.
Phyllis also loved the movies, and was able to go nearly every weekend. She and her friends kept a careful eye on their favorite stars, clipping pictures from the movie magazines. “We all had photos of our favorites, and I especially loved Elizabeth Taylor and Arlene Dahl, and also Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, and Robert Wagner.
“I also loved all the popular songs of the time, and the singers, including Nat King Cole, Eddie Fisher, and Tony Bennett.”
Phyllis attended P.S. 9, the neighborhood public school, through the eighth grade, where she had a particularly memorable experience with her eighth grade teacher, Miss Laubenheimer. “One day, she gave us an assignment, and asked us to write down everything we did that day. After she read what we had written, she said: ‘You have all failed!’ No one had spent any time reading a newspaper. She said we must take time — at least 10 or 15 minutes each day — to read part of a newspaper. She even showed us how to fold it, so we could read it on the subway. She was a very strict and tough teacher, but we also had interesting class trips to The New York Times and other places.”
Attending high school at the private Birch Wathen School on West 93rd Street brought new experiences. French, biology, and English literature were her favorite subjects. “I was also a cheerleader for the basketball team — this was a very small school,” she remembers. “We had only 28 students in our class. I was chair of the social committee too, and was in charge of the senior prom.”
Interestingly, Ms. Marchand’s political focus had yet to emerge. Other activities and pursuits kept her busy, and among her happiest childhood memories were the times at camp in Maine, where she spent several summers.
“I loved going to camp, and I loved Maine. I got a real sense of the outdoors. The camp was on a lake, and there was swimming, canoeing, and hiking. We went up to Mt. Washington. I really loved the camp experience, being with the other girls, the competition, and being a team member. There were kids from all over. My best friend there was from Kentucky.”
The family also rented a house in Long Island at the ocean, where Phyllis learned to swim, and she remembers very happy times there.
After graduating from high school, Phyllis chose Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As she explains, “My high school had been so small, and Skidmore had 1200 students, so it seemed a good fit.”
Majoring in English literature, Phyllis also had time to serve as managing editor of the college newspaper, (as well as to join a “sit-in” at the local Woolworth’s to advocate for civil rights). In her major, she was especially influenced by English Professor Miriam Benkovitz, later author of several books.
“Miss Benkovitz had a PhD from Yale, and her specialty was 20th century English literature,” says Ms. Marchand. “I was so afraid of her! She was from the South and was very intimidating. One time, it was very hot, and when I went into her class, I took off my shoes. She immediately ordered me to leave the classroom. She was very strict about proper behavior.
“She was a wonderful teacher though, and very exacting and demanding. My love of Virginia Woolf was a result of the modern English course I had with her. l had many courses with her, and when I was a junior, she asked me to be her assistant, helping to grade papers, which I did for two years. We remained in touch after I graduated, and she was certainly one of the most interesting people in my life.”
After graduating with a degree in English literature as well as a teaching certificate (she had taught eighth grade English in Saratoga Springs as part of her course work) in 1961, Phyllis returned to New York City, and got a job with Crowell-Collier Publishing.
“They were doing a major update of their encyclopedia, and because they thought I had enough terminology in various areas, such as music, sports, biology, etc. to index the new articles, I was hired. I learned how to index from a wonderful mentor there.”
After working at Crowell -Collier for more than two years, she moved to Cowles Comprehensive Encyclopedia, which was associated with Look Magazine, for another indexing opportunity.
During this time, Phyllis had met Lucien Simond Marchand, who worked for D. Van Nostrand Publishing in Princeton. “Sy was from Forest Hills, but had been born in Holland,” she recalls. “We had met at a beach club in Westchester County, where we liked to play tennis, and now we were dating.”
They were married in 1964, and Mr. Marchand continued to work in Princeton, doing a “reverse commute” to the couple’s home on West 34th Street. After their son Michael was born, they relocated to Princeton in 1966.
It was an adjustment. Other than camp in Maine, and her years at college, Ms. Marchand had never lived outside of Manhattan. “I never knew about having a house and all that it entailed, but I met a lot of people through the Newcomers Club at the YWCA. I began to have friends of all ages and background. The Newcomers Club was very important to me.”
Two more children, Deborah and Sarah, were born, and Ms. Marchand remained home to care for them. Then, as she recalls, “In the 1970s, when the kids were about six, seven, and nine, someone asked me what I had done in New York. I said I had been a book indexer. This person was working at Princeton University in connection with the Wilson papers, and suggested I send my resume to Professor Arthur Link, the Wilson authority, who was editing the papers. At that time, they were looking for an indexer.
“I had very little American history background, but I ended up getting the job. The nice thing was that I could work at home, which was very helpful with the children, and this provided a flexible schedule. I was considered a consultant or Visiting Fellow, and I did this during the ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s.”
As Ms. Marchand points out, indexing is very painstaking, exacting work, and in the days before computers were commonplace, she did the work by hand, using index cards for every entry.
Ms. Marchand continued to work on the Wilson papers into the ’90s, and she developed a high regard for Professor Link. “Arthur Link was extremely influential in my life. When he would praise my work, it was very special and meant a lot to me.”
Ms. Marchand became involved in numerous activities in the community, including serving on the board of McCarter Theatre (in addition to attending concerts and performances), the PTO at her children’s schools, and playing tennis and bridge. “Occasionally, I wrote letters to the papers about issues in town, such as traffic problems and open space,” she notes.
As her circle of acquaintances and friends expanded, Ms. Marchand was sought out as a political candidate. “I knew Barbara Sigmund, who was mayor of Princeton Borough,” she recalls, “and she suggested I run for Township Committee. We had a meeting with Kate Litvack, who served on Township Committee, and others, and they thought it was a chance to have a candidate with no baggage and a varied background. They knew I had kids in school, played tennis, was a member of the Jewish Center, on the board of McCarter, and was interested in preserving open space and in other issues.”
She became a candidate in the 1986 election, and won, receiving the most votes of any candidate. “I went house to house, introducing myself and talking with people. I had opinions on the issues, including regional planning, and the deer problem was beginning to get attention. I found I liked being on Committee. I did a lot of preparation, a lot of reading, and was liaison with the Recreation Board and Corner House. There was interaction with Borough Council too. Barbara Sigmund was mayor, and there was a nice working relationship then. Barbara was the town’s biggest cheerleader.”
Ms. Marchand also spent a lot of time listening. “Different groups and individuals came to meetings,” she remembers. “The Boy Scouts came to learn about local government, neighbors came to speak for or against issues, others came just to observe and listen. It was a real cross section of the community.”
Her ability to listen to differing opinions is noted by many of those who served and worked with Ms. Marchand. “I had the pleasure of working with Phyllis the entire time she was on Committee and served as mayor,” says Ed Schmierer former Township attorney and now attorney for the recently consolidated Princeton. “She was a very dynamic and caring individual. Her leadership style was as a consensus-builder, who worked hard to do the best she could for the community. She was a tireless worker — she brought her ‘marathon’ skills to the local government arena. She ran hard, and accomplished a lot.
“Phyllis was a very good listener; she respected the staff and listened to their recommendations, and challenged them when appropriate. The end of the day, she made the decisions. She had a tremendous amount of energy and commitment to Princeton, and was an absolutely outstanding municipal official.”
Adds former Township Mayor Richard Woodbridge: “When I became mayor in 1991, Phyllis was very supportive as a Township Committee member and a very good team player. Her legacy is that she is tremendously dedicated to the town, and was a very good and effective mayor. Also, if it weren’t for Phyllis and Kate Litvack, there wouldn’t have been a Princeton-Pettoranello program. She and Kate did the ground work in 1989.”
Ms. Marchand is very proud of the evolution of the Princeton Township relationship with its sister city Pettoranello, Italy. “It was a pleasure to see this develop, and it was a wonderful experience to travel there over the years and meet the citizens of Pettoranello.”
Eleanor Pinelli, former trustee and president of the Princeton-Pettoranello Sister City Foundation worked closely with Ms. Marchand during this time, and their association goes back even further. “Our friendship goes back many years because I taught her children when they were in the middle school. We worked together when Phyllis was mayor of Princeton Township, and I was a trustee and later president of the Princeton/Pettoranello Sister City Foundation. Phyllis was one of the mayors who founded the sister city relationship, and has remained a strong supporter of and advocate for the foundation and its mission.
“She was an excellent mayor, honest and forthright, a great speaker, who easily fielded questions concerning controversial issues because she ‘knew her stuff’. Phyllis was and still is always there when you need her, readily available and approachable. How she manages her daily busy schedule has always been a mystery to me!”
After serving as a Committee member since 1987, Ms. Marchand was elected mayor in 1989, and then again in 1994. During this time, she continued her work as a book indexer, both for Princeton University Press projects and many others, including books on the history of the Porsche car and a biography of Jefferson Davis.
During her tenure on Township Committee, she dealt with issues including preserving open space, affordable housing, traffic problems, and the emerging dilemma surrounding the increasing numbers of deer in Princeton.
“As mayor, I felt the Township mayor should be as visible as the mayor in the Borough. I tried to expand the activities, and I met with the County Freeholders and the state legislators in Trenton. There were issues about changing laws for hunting, getting support for the extension of Route 95, which would have diverted traffic from Princeton; also Route One traffic issues, and it was also important to build alliances throughout the region.
“I am very proud of initiating the deer management program, saving open space, and helping to develop a diversity of housing, including Griggs Farm and market rate senior housing. I do believe to be successful in any endeavor, including in local government, you must have an open mind and be willing to listen and be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You need empathy, and you also need to be able to make decisions.”
These are all qualities that Bill Dressel, Director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, found in Ms. Marchand during the time they worked together. “In her capacity as mayor of Princeton Township, Phyllis was actively involved in the League of Municipalities as a member of the legislative committee, the resolutions committee, a member of the executive board, and as League president.
“I have a high regard for Phyllis. She is an honest individual, who, I think, exemplifies that which is best in local governing. I very much enjoyed working with her because she was in municipal government for all the right reasons. She was instrumental in advocating for regional and statewide policies, including property tax relief, sharing municipal services, and traffic regulation of heavy trucks on Route 206. Phyllis represented the League on statewide policies.
“She was also a charter member of the League of Municipalities Women in Government Committee, and a strong advocate for sustainable energy practices. It was a real pleasure working with Phyllis. She was always willing to provide hands-on help, and to be there to assist and get involved one-on-one.”
During the time she was on Committee and as mayor, Ms. Marchand participated in another equally demanding endeavor: running marathons, the first in 1982, when she was 42.
“I started running because I wanted to lose a pound or two, and I also ran as a surrogate for my daughter, who had committed to a run in her middle school, but then couldn’t make it because of illness. I ran a mile, and afterward, I realized I could run the mile, and I liked it. I joined the Mercer-Bucks Running Club, and met wonderful people.
“I was basically a solo runner. I ran every day for enjoyment. Then, I entered the YWCA’s 3-mile race, then a 6-mile race, and I finished. Next came a half-marathon — 13 miles. Someone said to me, ‘If you finished this race, you could run a marathon.’ I thought about it and said to Sy, ‘I think I’d like to run a marathon.’ He said ‘Okay, just get a good pair of shoes.’
“Ultimately, I ran 16 New York marathons, two Boston, and one Philadelphia. One of the things I loved about running was that I could think things out, including about issues that were coming up with the Township. I was on the Planning Board, and ran by some of the sites under consideration. I could also report to Township Engineer Bob Kiser where all the pot holes were. It was first hand evidence.”
Ms. Marchand’s life changed dramatically in 2006, when she was diagnosed with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. As she explains, “It then progressed to Sezary syndrome, and these are both different stages of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.”
She began treatment immediately, and was still able to continue as mayor. It was a rigorous schedule, but she was determined to fulfill her term in office. She did step down in 2008, after having served 21 years on Township Committee, and 13 years as mayor.
During her tenure on Township Committee and after, Ms. Marchand has received numerous awards and honors. Among them are the YWCA Woman of Achievement Award, the Elected Official of the Year from the New Jersey Municipal Managers Association, Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, President’s Distinguished Service Award from the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the Philip Forman Humanitarian Award from the American Jewish Committee, and she was recognized by the New Jersey Association of Elected Women Officials for her service as president of that organization.
Most recently in September 2012, she was honored for her “exemplary and inclusive tenure as mayor” by the Princeton Chabad. She has also been invited to speak to students at her high school and college about the role of women in local government.
Ms. Marchand continues to keep a very busy schedule despite a recent additional medical problem. “In 2011, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma,” she explains, “so in 2011 and 2012, I was battling two different lymphomas. I had chemotherapy and radiation at that time, and now the Hodgkins lymphoma is in remission.”
The non-Hodgkins lymphoma requires continuous and rigorous medical intervention, however, necessitating trips to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital two consecutive days each month for photopheresis blood treatment, as well as self-administered injections of interferon twice a week to boost her immune system.
Despite this, Ms. Marchand remains positive and engaged. She currently serves on the State D & R Canal Commission, the D & R Greenway board, on SIAB — the New Jersey Site Improvement Advisory Board, and on the county board of the Mercer Council for Alcohol and Drug Addiction. She is an honorary trustee of McCarter Theatre, and she is also an advocate for Planned Parenthood, the Coalition for Peace Action, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, and Cancer Care.
When she did decide to step down from Township Committee, she was ready for a new life, reports Ms. Marchand. “Now, I could visit my eight grandchildren; I could do what I wanted when I wanted; I could read what I wanted, not what I had to.
“Music is important to me — I would have loved to meet Leonard Bernstein! — and I have enjoyed going back to the concert series at McCarter. I’m playing more bridge, and doing a lot more walking and hiking and an occasional run. I have time now to smell the flowers, and to visit friends here and elsewhere. I am enjoying old friendships that I didn’t have time for when I was mayor.
“I have also had an interesting experience with a program at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School,” she continues. “Two first year medical students are teamed with a seriously chronically ill patient as part of their training. These two students, one male and one female, shadow or follow the patient to appointments and treatments, even at home, and get to know the patient as a person. The goal of the program is to sensitize new doctors and encourage them to put themselves in the patient’s shoes. What is it like to have a chronic illness? How does it affect your professional life? Your finances, your relationship with a spouse, family, friends, or with yourself? You’re not just a number on a chart.”
Undaunted by illness, she is, as her friend of long-standing Pam Hersh, vice president of Government and Community Affairs of Princeton Healthcare System, notes, steadfast and determined. “I have known Phyllis for 35 years, since I first came to Princeton, and I can list her most memorable quality. She has an incredible ability to hang in there. On a social level, this translates to an inability to leave — she has the toughest time leaving a party, leaving a meeting, leaving a conversation — much to the consternation of her husband who stands waiting with his coat on for an hour while Phyllis is trying unsuccessfully to say good bye.
“This same quality of always hanging in there through the most difficult political, professional, and personal challenges of her life is her most laudable quality. Nothing deters her from going forward and fighting the battles that are important for her to fight. One of the most fun and rewarding battles that we fought together (along with former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed and former Princeton University General Counsel Howard Ende) was saving the Garden Theater — certainly an endeavor that was well worth it for the University students, for the Princeton residents, and of course, for Phyllis, who rarely misses a movie at the Garden.”
Traveling has been a great pleasure over the years for Ms. Marchand, and she and her husband have visited numerous countries around the world — experiencing safaris in Africa, the fjords in Norway, the islands of Hawaii, and the pleasures of Pettoranello, among many other places. And she looks forward to more travels to come.
Facing a serious illness has given her a new perspective, says Ms. Marchand. “You only have one life to lead. I realize how wonderful it is to have a family. When I was going through chemotherapy, one of my daughters went with me to cheer me up when I was getting my hair cut very short before I lost it. It was hard, but she kept a light touch, saying: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, quoting from Ecclesiastes.
“Basically, now I feel well, and every day is a gift. This experience makes you appreciate life even more. I feel blessed.”
Civil engineer, project manager, teacher, pilot, scuba diver, surfer, single-figure golfer, top-flight tennis player — all these and more fill out his catalogue of accomplishments.
An enthusiastic traveler, Mr. Ryle has lived in and visited 50 countries, including a six-month stay in a kibbutz in Israel, four years in Russia, three in Papua, New Guinea, and one year in Australia.
A curiosity about people and places and a desire for adventure and new challenges has led him to explore a range of opportunities.
As an author, he has recently published Keeping Score: Project Management for the Pros, which deftly combines his love of golf and his project management expertise. His approach includes the nine holes of golf to teach the nine key steps to accomplish a project any time, anywhere successfully. It is a suitable guide both for professionals and those new to or struggling with project planning.
Planning has come naturally to Mr. Ryle. At an early age, he was combining a variety of projects and was able to achieve the desired outcome.
The second child of Maurice and Rita Ryle, he was born in Dalkey, Ireland, near Dublin in 1960. Siblings include Cathy, Philip, Jack, and Liz. When Frank was 11, the family moved to the seaside village of Tramore, also the site of a highly respected golf course and the nearby Waterford Crystal company.
The family was close, and Frank enjoyed fishing with his father, playing golf with his mother, and going on family vacations throughout Ireland. “It was a simple upbringing and a happy childhood,” he recalls.
Frank liked math and later, drama in high school. He washed cars and worked in a hotel to earn extra money, and he reports, “At the hotel, I was interested in the people who worked there. I wanted to understand them.”
From the time he began playing tennis at six, however, sports was his passion. “Both of my parents were very good tennis players, and at 12, I was playing tennis competitively all over Ireland.”
At 10, Frank took up golf, and became equally proficient in that sport. “We had sports idols then,” he says. “I especially looked up to Eamon Coughlin, at one time the world record holder in the mile. He was the fastest in the world.”
Tennis gave Frank his first excursion to another country and a taste for travel and faraway places.
“When I was 14 , we went to Paris for a tournament, and I loved it,” remembers Mr. Ryle. “By this time, I had a wanderlust. I wanted to see the world and have adventures.”
Before the adventures, however, college was a must. His good academic record enabled him to attend University College Dublin, where he studied civil engineering. It was a rigorous program, requiring many hours of demanding study.
“I made a lot of good friends, though, and we’re still in touch. We have class reunions in Ireland. I also admired my professors, especially Professor Sidebottom in chemistry. He was engaging and humorous — he had to be with a name like that!”
After graduating with a bachelor of engineering degree in 1981 (he was later made a Fellow of the Irish Engineering Institute in 1993), Frank went to work for Arup International, a global firm of designers, engineers, planners, and consultants.
“I got a job with them in London, and Sir Ove Arup, founder of the company, had a great influence on me. He was a philosopher as well as an engineer. He’d ask, ‘Why are you building this?’ ‘Who is it for?’”
During his 20 years with Arup, Mr. Ryle undertook projects in Hong Kong, Australia, Papua, New Guinea, Russia, Ireland, and the U.S., among many other locations.
In 1985, he moved to Australia for a year to work on Arup’s America’s Cup preparations in Perth and Sydney, which remains one of his favorite projects.
Over time, Mr. Ryle became increasingly interested in the project management aspect of his work. The “how to” of getting things done efficiently and effectively.
“With project management, you think in terms of ‘how to’, he explains. “How to bring in the project on time, how to do it with the resources, how will you get it done?
“I made a natural and gradual transition from pure engineering design to being the project manager on our projects,” he continues. “This was probably due to a matching of desire and aptitude. It happened from when I was 28 until I was 33, and then I became a full-time project manager, but still very much associated with construction-type projects.”
In 1994, a new adventure presented itself, one which would have far-reaching consequences for his future. He traveled to Russia to serve as Cadbury’s construction manager and first production manager for the company’s new chocolate factory in St. Petersburg. He lived there and in Moscow for four years.
The challenging project was exceeded in importance by Mr. Ryle’s chance meeting in 1996 with Vivian Slee, originally from Princeton. This meeting even outranked the enormous pleasure of playing in the first Russian Open golf tournament!
“Vivian had an MFA, and had been selling art in New York,” says Mr. Ryle. “She had come to Russia for eight months to work on a movie with friends.”
Some things don’t require a lot of planning — even for a project manager. As Mr. Ryle reports, “I met her in May, and in 10 days, we were engaged. Five months later, we were married in a castle on the west coast of Ireland.”
The couple spent another year in Russia, while the new Mrs. Ryle was engaged in research for a book, and Mr. Ryle continued with his work on the chocolate factory.
In 1998, the Ryles, with baby Oona, moved to the U.S., settling in Brooklyn Heights. Mr. Ryle became project manager for Arup’s $800 million remaster plan for the Eero Saarinen-designed General Motors Tech Center near Detroit, and for the design of JFK Airport’s International Terminal Four. In 1999, he earned his Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.
The next year, the Ryles came to Princeton, and in 2001, after 20 years with Arup, Mr. Ryle chose a new direction and a new challenge.
“I decided to start my own business due to a combination of factors: turning 40, the imminent arrival of our second daughter (Maisie), a desire to try something different and on my own, my dislike of commuting to New York, and a very understanding wife.”
He set up his own company, PMPulse, which developed software for project management. “We were the first to to do that,” he points out. “I have also worked with the International Institute for Learning (IIL) since 2001, when they bought the rights to the software that I had developed. We have a great relationship, and I have taught more than 10,000 students in 22 countries for them.”
Through his relationship with IIL, Mr. Ryle provides consulting and training to professionals in banking, IT, accounting, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. Companies include UBS, Ernst & Young, SAP, Murex, Deutsche Bank, Mars Inc., and Thomson Reuters, among others.
Teaching has become a distinct pleasure for Mr. Ryle, who says, “I love the interaction with people from many disciplines, cultures, and ages. My students range across all industries and from undergraduates to retiring age, from students to Ph.D.s, from the U.S. to all countries and cultures. I love helping them see that project management is complex but can be learned in a ‘simple’ way.”
He enjoys teaching so much, in fact, that he agreed to teach a course this semester at Princeton University. “Teaching at Princeton University is delightful, as the staff is amazingly friendly, and the students are above average in ability and willingness to learn new concepts.”
Mr. Ryle teaches mostly project management materials (program and portfolio management are part of project management), and as he says, “Recently, I have also focused on the soft skills required for successful projects — hence my passion for psychology and science. I also want to weave my thinking from the book into the classes, and will be developing one class on a golf course, perhaps Springdale, soon. I am also working with a professor in London to bring psychology to project management.”
Living in Princeton has been a happy choice for Mr. Ryle, who became an American citizen in 2008. It offers opportunities in many areas, and after 12 years, it feels like home.
“I like a lot about Princeton,” he says. “I like the fact that it’s a real town, and you can walk to places. I like being in a university town. I also love the library — it’s very good architecture, by the way. And, I love the plaza outside and downtown Princeton. There’s a lot of energy here and a sense of identity.”
Another positive aspect of living in Princeton is the opportunity to be with his children. As he points out, “I left Arup because I wanted to spend more time with my daughters — my proudest achievement! It’s very important to me to see them growing up and being able to spend a lot of time with them.” He also enjoys the chance to see his in=laws, Louis and Biby Slee. “They are well known in Princeton and are wonderful grandparents to the girls.”
In addition to teaching at the University, Mr. Ryle enjoys auditing courses there, including anthropology and psychology. He is also looking forward to a course in philosophy.
Indeed a man of wide-ranging interests, he started the “Topic Club” eight years ago, which meets once a month to discuss a myriad of subjects, from Iran to humor to the Pyramids to the psychology of happiness to affordable housing.
“We have seven to 20 men who get together to discuss a topic,” he explains. “We meet at 8 and can go on until midnight. They are all professionals from different fields and backgrounds. It makes for fascinating conversation”
Mr. Ryle’s friend, Princeton resident Ted Nadeau is one of the participants in the club. “It’s pretty much like a book club,” he explains, “except there isn’t a book! Usually there is a presenter who has done some specific preparation.
“Frank is a very constructive facilitator, and easily gathered a group of diverse and interesting people together. I very much enjoy meeting and speaking with Frank. He has interesting world travel experiences and engineering/building experience that I’m interested in, and also of course, his professional management expertise.”
When not traveling, teaching, or writing a book, Mr. Ryle especially enjoys reading about science, including psychology. “I particularly like Matt Ridley, the best science writer, I believe. I like bringing science and the arts together, and I’m also getting into well-written fiction, such as Somerset Maugham, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Herman Wouk.
“I like classical music, and I am learning to play the piano,” he continues. “And, when we can, we enjoy getting down to Long Beach Island. I grew up by the sea, and we like the ocean.”
The Ryles also have a house in Tramore, and often visit his family in Ireland.
Tennis and golf remain a part of his life, and he plays whenever possible in Princeton and also on his travels. In 1983, he qualified as a tennis coach, and taught part-time in Israel, Kenya, and Australia. His friend and fellow tennis player, Bobby Hackett of Princeton can vouch for Mr. Ryle’s tennis prowess.
“We play regularly, and Frank is a great tennis player. I have gotten better playing with him. But more than that, just being with Frank is fun. He’s very clever and very interested in what you are doing. One of the things I get from being with him is the international perspective. He has opportunities to blend people from different backgrounds, different countries, and different perspectives and get them to work together in this global society and economy.
“He sometimes helps me puzzle through some of my work just by asking interesting questions. He’s very smart, but very down-to-earth.”
The ability to ask the right questions to develop a plan and ultimately complete a project successfully is evidenced in Mr. Ryle’s book. He uses a narrative format with three fictional primary characters, who must come up with a plan to save a company facing a crisis. The story takes place in New Jersey and Cork, Ireland, and a golf course is prominently featured. As the scenario evolves, Mr. Ryle points out the methods they can employ to reach a positive outcome.
Use of the golf theme, with nine specific questions and a score card, is an intriguing strategy. Including characters within the story format adds a personal touch, and creates immediacy. The project management tips he reveals are helpful to anyone working on a project and trying to formulate a plan.
As he notes in the preface of the book, “My personal goal is that after reading this book, your own approach to projects becomes less of a maze and more of a labyrinth. A maze, like some project processes, is something in which you can easily waste time and get lost. A labyrinth, by contrast, is something in which you can lose yourself and therefore free your mind from the burden of project navigation to maintain the agility and creativity required in this exciting new world.”
On Wednesday, April 11, Mr. Ryle will discuss his book at the Princeton Public Library at 7 p.m. A book signing will follow, with proceeds from sales of the books going to help a Princeton family whose young daughter is suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“I look forward to interaction with those who come to the book discussion,” says Mr. Ryle. “I hope it will lead to a lively conversation.”
It was Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941 (“a date that will live in infamy”), and Dorothy Fletcher, age 13, was playing the organ at First Baptist Church of Princeton.
She did not know of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii until she went home, and her mother told her of the event.
That historic episode propelled the United States into World War II, and Dorothy witnessed life on the Princeton homefront during those war years.
“A lot of the boys and young men I knew went into the service,” she recalls. “And there were a lot of things going on in town. I remember the Victory Gardens people had, and there was a big Community Garden on Birch Avenue, near where we lived. There was also rationing for butter and eggs, and other food. I went shopping for my mother — there were three grocery stores right on the corner near our house.”
Dorothy, now Mrs. Alexander, also remembers blackouts, “when we had to be sure the shades were down and the curtains closed, so no light would show. We would also have special services in church, including when someone from the church had been killed in the war. When it was over, there were big celebrations. The bells rang, and everyone was very excited. The American Legion was involved, and the boys at the University really celebrated big-time!”
Those war years are important memories for Mrs. Alexander, but in fact, her recollections of life in Princeton go back well before World War II.
Born in 1928, she was the daughter of Robert and Mary Fletcher. The family lived at the corner of Leigh and John Streets, and Dorothy had one half-brother, John Fletcher.
“He was a lot older than I, and I really looked up to him,” says Mrs. Alexander. “He made sure that I never wanted for anything. I also had aunts and uncles on John Street.”
Dorothy attended the Witherspoon School for Colored Children on Quarry Street (now the Waxwood Apartments) from kindergarten through eighth grade. She enjoyed school, especially anything to do with music. “I remember some of the teachers I liked at school, including Mrs. Potter in kindergarten, Mrs. Griggs in first grade, and Mr. Lawrence in seventh grade. I looked up to them.
“We had a piano at home,” she adds, “and as a little girl, I started playing and liked it right away. Then I began taking lessons in the fifth grade. I really liked to practice.”
Homework and Music
Dorothy’s father died when she was five, and her mother, who had to work, made certain that Dorothy paid attention to homework and church in addition to music.
“I always had to do my homework. My mother was very definite about that,” says Mrs. Alexander, with a smile. “She also started taking me to First Baptist Church when I was a little girl. Because of that, the church has meant a lot to me. I was baptized when I was 13 by Pastor William T. Parker.”
On weekends, Dorothy and her friends enjoyed going to the YMCA, and as she says, “It was very near where I lived. We also all played outside a lot, and I especially liked baseball. On Saturdays, we’d all go to the movies.”
In 1942, she became a freshman at Princeton High School, where she sang alto in the choir. She liked English class because she enjoyed reading so much, but didn’t care for math. “Not at all! But my music teacher was very important to me.”
Dorothy was very busy during those high school years, and continued to be active at First Baptist Church. Not only did she sing in the Youth and Senior Choirs, she also played the piano for Sunday School and for choir rehearsals. She was extremely proud to be chosen as assistant organist during that time.
“Also, when I was in high school, I went to Westminster Choir College on Saturdays and had organ and piano lessons. This was a great opportunity for me.”
High School Graduation
After graduation in 1946, Dorothy worked in the laundry department at Princeton Hospital, and also attended Westminster, studying voice for two years.
“I had to leave Westminster, though, when my mother died, and I had to work to keep the house,” she explains. “But then, I met William Alexander, who had come to Princeton from Virginia, and who joined First Baptist Church. We were married in the late 1940s, and I continued to work at the hospital and play the organ at church.”
Three sons, William, Jr., Roland, and Dennis, were born, and then, Mrs. Alexander was left to be their sole support when her husband died of a sudden heart attack. “The boys were still very little, and I was determined that they would get an education, and be brought up the right way. I wanted them to have values and grow up to be productive citizens.
“I made sure they went to Sunday School and did their homework. It was hard work for a single woman, and I raised them alone, although I did have help from the church.”
Throughout these years, Mrs. Alexander continued to work at the hospital and as organist at First Baptist. Keeping a very busy schedule, she nevertheless always had time to help young people.
“I’ve known Dorothy, whom I call ‘Mrs. A,’ for 42 years,” says Princeton Township Committee member Lance Liverman, who is also chairman of the trustees of First Baptist Church. “I grew up in the church, and went to school with her son, Dennis. She has been like a mother to me and a friend. She’s been more like a teacher to so many youth at First Baptist. She gives her time, energy, and her love to young people.
“I think she is a treasure, not just to the church but to the community. She is extremely important to me — a dear, dear soul. One of the reasons I’ve done well in my life is because she was a surrogate mom to me. You don’t always know the impact you have had on someone — it can just be a kind act. That was Dorothy Alexander. She’d say to me, ‘Do well. Keep yourself together.’ It means more than we know.”
Mrs. Alexander, who has worked tirelessly — and enthusiastically — for the church, has received many awards and honors, including the “Distinguished Service Award” from the Deacons’ Union of Trenton and Vicinity; the Service Appreciation Award “For Your Faithfulness in Using Your Musical Gifts to Serve the Lord as State Organist of the New Jersey Convention of Progressive Baptist”; and the Progressive Women’s Fellowship of First Baptist Church, among many others.
She has traveled all over the country to play the organ at church conventions, very often with her friend of many years, Princeton resident Ida Belle Dixon, long-time member of First Baptist and former president of Progressive National Baptist Women’s Department of New Jersey (a post previously held by Mrs. Alexnder).
“I met Dorothy in 1937, when I first came to Princeton. She was just a young girl, playing the organ at the church,” recalls Mrs. Dixon. “She was so dedicated, never missing a Sunday — I think her mother made sure of that! She just loved music; played for the Senior Choir, the Gospel Chorus, and Male Chorus, as well as for the Sunday School.
“Her contribution to First Baptist is so essential, I hardly have words for it. Music is just her life. I’ve been closely connected with her because of the choir in which I sang, too. Also, Dorothy and her son Dennis would sometimes sing duets for church events. She had a beautiful alto voice. She was and is one of my favorites at the church. My friendship with Dorothy is everlasting.”
Having been born and reared in Princeton, Mrs. Alexander looks upon her home town with great affection. It is not only the location of her church, but also the home of long-time friends and the source of so many memories.
“I wouldn’t want to live in any other place. Princeton is still a town where we know each other, and there are a lot of good people. I have many friends here. Of course, the town has grown. There are many more people and much more traffic.
“One of the things I really think about is that people are good here. You can count on them. If you need someone, they’ll be there for you, and give you a helping hand.”
This is true of her sons, she emphasizes. “It was hard work for a single woman. But now, if I need them, they’re right there for me. My proudest achievement is my three boys!”
She is also very proud of her grandson, Jared Fletcher Alexander, and looks forward to seeing him as often as possible.
Mrs. Alexander continues to enjoy playing the piano at home, reading biographies, and listening to music. In addition to hymns and other church music, she likes Ella Fitzgerald. “I always liked to hear Ella sing — such a wonderful sound!”
The church is still a major focus, and she never misses Sunday services. She serves as “Honorary” organist, “standing at the ready, in case she is needed,” reports the Reverend Carlton E. Brascomb, Pastor of First Baptist.
“We can say that Sister Dorothy has been a source of stability and inspiration for the music ministry of First Baptist Church for many years. Sister Dorothy is also a mentor to many, including myself. As pastor early on, I was trying to prepare what to do for my first wedding, and she made sure I knew what to do and when to do it!
“And, of course, we all love that beautiful smile, when she walks in.”
Another sign of the esteem in which she is held by those at First Baptist is cited by Lance Liverman. “Because we understand how much of her time and energy she gave to the church for many, many years, we have chosen to continue to pay her organist’s salary for the rest of her life. It is something we very much want to do.”
Indeed, the importance of the church — along with the music — cannot be underestimated in Mrs. Alexander’s life. As she says, “The church has meant so much to me throughout my life. It’s the way I was raised. I always look forward to being in church, and I admire the people there.
“I was taught to honor my mother and father,” she continues. “It is one of the Ten Commandments, and I recommend that everyone do that, especially while you have your parents. You will never have another mother or father. It’s very important for me to go to church and believe in God. It will always help you through hard times.
“I have to say that I am so thankful to still be here! To be able to do what I love to do, to play the organ, and to be with the church. This is a blessing.”