On December 17, 1910, a group of young women gathered, no doubt over tea, to found what they called the Mothers Club of Greenwich. They were of the Eleanor Roosevelt generation, and like the future first lady, who volunteered at a Lower East Side settlement house before marriage, they wanted to better the lives of those less fortunate. The pleasant privilege of life in Greenwich, they felt, should come with a sense of responsibility, as clearly expressed in their articles of incorporation: The object of the organization shall be to bring together women of the community to promote civic, philanthropic and educational activities and exert a helpful influence in the community.
One hundred years later this organization—which in 1917 was renamed the Woman’s Club of Greenwich to more closely reflect its aims—has more than accomplished its charter and is indelibly woven into the fabric and life of the town. “What the women did in the beginning was really heroic,” says Gloria Meyering, the 2009–2010 first vice president in charge of philanthropies. “Their lives were planned by anyone but themselves, and they had to be strong to get out there. And the first thing they thought of doing was making their community more caring, which took a lot of courage.”
Centennial celebrations have been going on all year, with Open House teas at the clubhouse on Maple Avenue, picnics at Greenwich Point, cocktail parties and gardening workshops, theater trips and educational lectures, luncheons and planning sessions for the future. On October 2 the club took over the plaza in front of the venerable old post office on Greenwich Avenue for “Meet the Woman’s Club—Past and Present,” an event showcasing ten decades of camaraderie and contributions. Of course past-president Marie Krumeich was on hand for her lively historic bus tours, which she’s been giving since 1976 (members dress in Colonial and Native American costume to enact skits at various sites along the way). And on December 17 the club will mark the date with a festive Champagne brunch at its lovely Victorian mansion.
The Woman’s Club may very well qualify as a hidden treasure. Although known for high-profile fundraisers like the pre-Christmas Holiday Boutique or the Appraisal Mania days, the club’s philanthropic work is accomplished quietly and steadily. Addressing a wide variety of concerns, donations in the past year support Call-A-Ride, Dana’s Angels Research Trust (DART), Greenwich Scholarship Association (the club provides annual gifts to three Greenwich High graduates), Greenwich Symphony Young People’s Concerts, Greenwich Adult Day Care, Neighbor to Neighbor, and the YWCA Domestic Abuse Service. Some $15,000 of proceeds from the spring house tour went to design and implement new “hands on” gardens for Nathaniel Witherell, with raised beds so those in wheelchairs can tend them.
“When I get my committees together,” says Gloria, “we talk about what we’re already supporting and who may be ready to go out on their own. Then we think about an area that hasn’t been touched for a while. For example, we learned there were a lot of youngsters who’d never gone to camp, so this summer we funded the camper program at the YMCA. And we found that one eight-year-old boy had never had his own bed—he’d always slept on the couch in the living room. So we found [the family] an apartment where he had his own room and his own bed, and we were able to get him the sheets and all the things we hoped would go with it. To impact the life of one child makes a big difference.”
Ideas can come from anywhere, and it was member Inez Marella who brought her nephew and his family to the club’s attention. Phil and Andrea Marella have four children, two of whom—Dana and Andrew—are affected by Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a condition in which the body is unable to process cholesterol, which can lead to cognitive and visual impairment. The couple had founded the Dana’s Angels Research Trust in 2002 to fund research for what is termed an “orphan” disease (a disease so rare as to not qualify for government support).
“We’ve gone from school fundraisers to huge bene-fits with Richard Dreyfuss and Smokey Robinson,” says Andrea Marella. “When we met with the Woman’s Club at their philanthropy teas, we could tell they were very moved by our story—it’s not every day you meet a family with two children who have a fatal disease. Medical research is expensive, and there are only a few families raising the money because the disease is so rare. About 95 percent of the money goes straight to the research, since we’re an all-volunteer group.” The Woman’s Club contributed to DART for three years. “We were so happy to support the Dana fund,” says Gloria, “and we like to think we helped get the ball rolling.”
Word of mouth is key, but the club also identifies problems by following the local press and talking to officials and agencies at Town Hall. As a result the club boasts a long record of starting projects the town has then adopted. In 1927 the club hired Greenwich’s first professional social worker, and also paid for the town’s one and only visiting nurse until 1933. After buying a building from the William Rockefeller estate for a recreation center in Glenville, the club donated it to the town. In the depths of the Depression the club funded a survey that gave birth to the Greenwich Community Chest, for which it assumed the initial expense. The Greenwich Shelter and Day Nursery, the Social Services League, Free Milk for undernourished school children, the Milbank Avenue School for the developmentally disabled and handicapped—all were Woman’s Club of Greenwich projects. In the 1960s the club was instrumental in starting Meals-on-Wheels, the first such program in Connecticut.
“The club has really been a second home to me,” says Marie. Her memories are vivid and specific, which is perfect for her bus tours, and also brings forth nuggets like the fact that the Woman’s Club bought the 3.5-acre Rockwell estate in 1952 for around $300,000. “The two little old ladies who lived there, one died and the other lost it,” she says, “so the bank took it over and we got it cheap.” That was the year Marie joined the Junior Woman’s Club (the clubs were combined in 1983). “When you arrived at the age of thirty-five, you were supposed to go into the senior club,” she says, “but we were having so much fun, a lot of us stayed thirty-five for years, sort of like Jack Benny.” Marie was editor of the JWC’s thirty-six-page magazine The Link, which she recalls donated $2,000 of their advertising profits to the Maple Avenue purchase.
Before that, they met at Greenwich Academy or the Second Congregational Church. “We needed a base and we got that house and it was so wonderful,” she says. “For a turn-of-the-century house it has large bathrooms and huge closets, which they never had in those days—they used to have chifforobes.”
Upkeep on the three-story house is not cheap, however, and the club defrays expenses by renting it out for parties, weddings and meetings for organizations like the Alliance Française. “To make that house accessible was my goal,” says Marie, who served as president from 2006 to 2008 and organized the donation of the stair-lift for the wide staircase to the second floor. “I had to do a sales pitch to get a stair-lift for the front portico, so people wouldn’t have to climb those granite stairs. We want to be in line, plus we have aging members. Not only that, it helps when we rent [the club out] for wedding receptions or events where people might be in wheelchairs, so we also have a wheelchair lift. I didn’t touch anything in the treasury,” she says proudly. “I did it all from donations.
“There was kind of a lull after I was president,” she continues, “so I started a crafts group. We do knitting, we do needlepoint, we do crochet, we do it once a week up in the boardroom and we have a ball. The club really is my second home,” she says and laughs. “My husband thinks I should have a bedroom set aside over there.”
Irene Martin joined the Woman’s Club fifty years ago, which earns her the title of longest-standing member. At eighty-nine she blithely calls herself “the old lady” and comes across as anything but. In 1960, when she was assistant treasurer of the State National Bank of Connecticut—“It’s now Bank of America after eleven changes,” she notes dryly—she was invited to speak at a luncheon and was subsequently proposed for membership. It was an era Irene calls the glory days, when the club had 900 members and noted authors, designers and scientists vied to speak at their luncheons. Then came Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. “When women entered the workforce,” Irene says, “this was a dramatic change. In other words, as a group we work to earn money for our philanthropies, which are education-based. But in the late sixties, the ladies, particularly the highly-educated ladies, decided they would go out and get a position. So membership dropped as changes occurred in women’s lives.
“I’ve given a lot to the club over the years,” she reflects, “and I’ve gotten a lot. If you’re a giving type, I hate to classify myself like that,” she adds with a laugh, “so let’s just say I like to participate. And if you participate in fundraising and you see a youngster getting a scholarship at the end of your efforts, it’s very rewarding.”
As for the future of the Woman’s Club, Deborah Jander, the current president, says that the quest for new members continues (currently they have about 130), and points out that today many members are working women so meetings are often scheduled at lunchtime. “Our purpose remains threefold,” she says. “First is philanthropy, to identify needs in the community and fill them; second is educational, which includes educating ourselves through our lectures and guest speakers; and the third is social, to spend time and work with like-minded women. We’re just now considering a fifty-year warranty on our new roof,” she adds. “So definitely, we plan to be around for a long time!”