The Remarkable Momentum of Mary Erlanger
Mary Erlanger has a powerful prescription for the good life: “keep moving.” Like the racehorses that she and her husband once raised, she is famously fast out of the gate and in pursuit of life: a journalist at 15, a WAVES officer at 21, social activist, therapist, clinician and graduate student at 58.
There are no signs Erlanger intends to slow either. She aids families with intergenerational issues as a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional counselor. Erlanger also contributes her master talents to the Graduate School Advancement Board.
Erlanger plotted new goals when most empty nesters plan retirement. She was once described by an Athens paper as a dynamic woman at the heart of her adopted town’s life. Erlanger (MEd, ’82; PhD, ’87) also exemplifies what journalist Tom Brokaw coined the “greatest generation.” This “double dawg” insists she was born into “the luckiest generation.”
Erlanger, the second practitioner to join Athens Associates for counseling and Psychotherapy, is also grandmother of UGA student Katherine Folkman (ABJ, ’08).
Mary Margaret Arnold came of age in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas, as the daughter of a minister. She eventually landed in the midst of Manhattan, New York, with life-altering result.
She has dined with national figures, worked for CBS Chief William Paley in television’s infancy, had the ear of Congressional and state leaders, and yet kept the common touch.
“I started my life as a journalist,” Erlanger says, seated in the lively kitchen she “painted tomato-soup red.” Folk and primitive artwork collected from the United States, Africa, China, Greece, Europe, Indonesia, India and Nepal punctuates the walls.
Erlanger describes her early reporting work at the Topeka State Journal. When World War II erupted, she temporarily ran a daily paper for five months. During the exodus to enter the war effort, Erlanger entered the Navy, her former news beat.
Once 21 and officially in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services), Erlanger received officer training at Smith College and Mount Holyoke. Afterwards, the WAVES sent her to Washington for three years of “wonderful adventure” coding dispatches and working for Radio Washington. After the war, she remained in Washington as a congressional liaison. Her journalistic dreams simmered.
The Kansan’s appetite for metropolitan life intensified. Erlanger moved to New York City at the end of 1946.
Erlanger shared an apartment with a fashion editor cousin and became editorial researcher for “Keep up with the World,” a Collier’s magazine column. Then, she smiles, a big break occurred.
The big break was CBS. Erlanger reported to work at 485 Madison Avenue, then offices of CBS radio and CBS TV.
CBS strummed with intensity; Paley pulled in wartime radio talents such as Edward R. Murrow and Howard K. Smith. Murrow’s See It Now TV program was styled after his highly successful Hear It Now radio program.
Erlanger wrote advertising and promotion for both television and radio, during Paley’s leadership and Murrow’s tenure. Most memorably, she remembers writing the presentation for their news entry in the 1952 Peabody Awards. (The awards program was then in its eleventh year. The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia administers the Peabody Awards.)
Erlanger wrote: “In years to come, November 18, 1951, may well rank with the most important dates in the history of television. On that day, See It Now was first broadcast…”
“It was a wonderful era in New York – so much energy and so many opportunities,” Erlanger recalls. She knew a surprising number of fellow Kansans in the Big Apple, including Polly Hardy Hathaway.
Hathaway’s brother, Jerry, introduced Mary Margaret Arnold to Michael Erlanger in November of 1948. Four months later her minister father wed the couple in a simple ceremony at her in-laws’ Manhattan home. Marriage to Erlanger, then corporate head of BVD, connected the new bride to her husband’s hometown and his family friends. The Erlangers knew Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who kept a home nearby on the Upper East Side.
Mary Erlanger admired the former First Lady’s social advocacy. She met the iconic figure at a dinner party held by Trudy and Joe Lash. The Erlangers and Eleanor Roosevelt had a mutual friendship with the Lashes. In 1971, Joe Lash published Eleanor and Franklin, which won a Pulitzer.
The Erlinger’s spent weekends in Redding, Connecticut, commuting from Manhattan until 1961. By then, they had two children and made Conneticut their home. Erlanger focused her energies on social advocacy.
Her activities grew to include serious roles on the Connecticut Regional Board of Education, the Connecticut Humanities Council, and the Connecticut Department of Health Services. She served on the first Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and the Governor’s Task Force on Construction Priorities under Governor Ella Grasso.
When appointed to the Connecticut Blue Ribbon Commission, formed to investigate nursing homes, Erlanger learned first-hand about gerontology. Her work intensified chairing the Connecticut Human Services Reorganization Commission. “You can imagine the stresses of that…I decided I wanted to do something different.”
A childhood friend played a pivotal part in what unfolded.
“I had a friend, Virginia Trotter, who was the vice president of academic advising at UGA,” Erlanger says. Trotter urged her to come to UGA to study. Erlanger’s husband agreed to opt out of Connecticut winters – at least, temporarily. They arrived in Athens in the winter of 1980, taking a lease through June.
Now Mary Erlanger was in her late 50s. For 16 years, the couple kept a home in Redding, fully expecting to return when she finished her studies. Erlanger entered a doctoral program.
“By the time I finished in 1987, we had made a new life here.” Afterwards, she entered into private practice with fellow student Donald Randall. Together they founded the Athens Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy.
During a lecture on aging and choices, Erlanger once offered:
“The way we feel is not about age. It’s about how we feel about ourselves. Life is a process, and choice is the energizing part of that process. What we have is the pathway – the journey – and the chance to take that journey in good company.”
Granddaughter Katherine Folkman, 20, returned to UGA last December following a semester abroad at Oxford. One of her first stops in Athens was her grandmother’s cheery kitchen. “She’s a wonderful writer,” her grandmother enthuses, “interested in ecology and marine biology.” Folkman is a Foundation Fellow, whom Erlanger “lured away from Ivy Leagues” a few years ago.
The two returned to Connecticut together for a year-end family visit. While there, Erlanger rediscovered a packet of materials from her prior life and work. Tucked among the papers was a dinner invitation from Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Of course Mrs. Roosevelt was brilliant AND progressive – all well documented,” Erlanger remembers. Inside she also discovered the yellowed pages of a Peabody Awards submission written 53 years earlier.
She and her granddaughter Katie, a budding journalist, would find much to discuss on the journey back to UGA and their Athens-based lives.