G.G. Michelson, Macy’s Executive Who Broke Glass Ceilings, Dies at 89

In May 2012 I went on strategic planning retreat with myself, and emerged with a goal that shocked me: to place at the center of my purpose helping feminists from the leading edge of the Baby Boom share their stories of participating in the social and political change that marked a generation. As a marketer I thought, “Are you KIDDING? You’re taking a small niche service–personal history–and targeting an even smaller niche?” But I like fearless foolishness, and I set out on that path. Within a few months, A Fund for Women (AFFW) tapped me to collect and edit women’s stories about their personal experiences with gender equality. Our book What She Said was the result. The audacious goal is turning out just fine. Which brings me to….

I’m an obsessive obituary reader; I find the first draft of the history of our times is being written in those brief essays. Knowing that, you can easily imagine why I want to share the obituary of G.G. Michelson with you.

G.G. Michelson, Macy’s Executive Who Broke Glass Ceilings, Dies at 89

Photo credit: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Time

Photo credit: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Time

Mrs. Michelson’s climb to the executive suite was strewn with obstacles, a passage marked by the struggles of the Depression, family illness, stays in orphanages and a college career that took her through law school but could not promise a woman a job in her chosen field…

…When she graduated in 1947, most law firms had little need for female lawyers, so she focused her job search not on legal positions but on companies that employed large numbers of women, assuming that they would need executives who could bridge the gender divide…

“The purpose of an obituary is to help the world appreciate the person we’ve lost,” says my APH colleague Sue Hessel. G.G.’s obituary makes me sorry I did not know her. I feel she’s a true mother and mentor to the Boomer feminists I admire.

How would you like YOUR obituary to read?


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A note to myself resurfaces…

sen biden on dead poets societyHave you ever found a note in your own handwriting that you have ABSOLUTELY no memory of writing? Well that’s what you’re looking at. I don’t know when or where I wrote this down, and I can only guess from the concluding scribble that it must have been while watching Sen. Joe Biden as a guest of Ben Mankiewicz’s TCM while featuring Dead Poets Society. (I have absolutely no idea when that would have been, and Google is mum on that point.)

Here’s what the scribble says:

Interesting stories come from exposing the everyday conflicts between people (going on all around us).

Challenging established authority/orthodoxy is interesting.  (ex. Catholic church.)

Conformity vs. independent thinking, taking the path less traveled.

Arrogantly ignoring advice of wiser counselors. (Bush on Iraq.)

Question what he seeks in entertainment.

– – –

I recognize why I made the effort to scribble down what I was hearing–these are fascinating writing prompts!

In fact, when the note fell out of some past writing notebook the other day when I sat down to plan my upcoming Pinney Library workshop, I decided I would use these as the assigned themes for the 4-week session.

Why don’t you try them too, and send me the result?  True Stories Well Told is in need of some fresh fodder!

-Sarah White


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A Child’s Christmas in Carmel (circa 1960s)

By Sarah White

In the Episcopal church, Epiphany (January 6th) marks the end of the Christmas holiday. I squeeze in this Christmas reminiscence as the sun sets on January 6th.


Evergreen garlands. Golden gleams of flame from beeswax candles reflected in brass candlesticks as big as walking staffs. Red velvet bows that tie the candlesticks to the ends of pews, lighting the way up the center aisle through the nave toward the apse. These are the first images to come to mind as I think of my childhood Christmases, celebrated at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana, in the 1960s.

A few weeks before Christmas there would be the “Hanging of the Greens,” a work party where choir members and vestrymen would twist evergreen clippings into loops of twine that hung between the floor-to-ceiling windows flanking the nave in our midcentury modern sanctuary. An A-frame hall of fieldstone, redwood, and glass, it managed to be somehow timelessly classical and yet frill-free. Only at the holidays did evergreen garlands in curtains and swags  interrupt its classic lines.

st chris aerial


My parents, my brothers, and I sang in the church choir. We were segregated into Girls’ Choir, Boys’ Choir, and Adult Choir. But at Christmas we all performed together: two services on Christmas Eve, and another on Christmas Morning.

Christmas Eve began with a regular communion service at suppertime, followed by the Anglican traditional “Nine Lessons and Carols” starting at 10pm. To prepare, the choir held extra rehearsals in the church basement. We gathered around a piano near the wall of vestments hanging in rows, black cassocks and white chasubles in descending sizes. We earnestly, patiently turned our various sight-reading skills and musical ears into traditional harmonies.  Even if I was a third-class cadet as part of the Girls’ Choir, I was part of the Big Show at Christmas, and I loved it.

The Big Show began with a processional. After dressing in the basement choir room we exited the Fellowship Hall and enjoyed a view of the candlelit nave crowded with worshipers inside those modern floor-to-ceiling windows between the flagstone piers as we circled to the church’s door, where we waited outside in the dark. My father always gave the statue of St. Francis a little pat on his head for luck. We stamped our feet and blew on our fingers, waiting for the choirmaster to signal time to enter the church. A note from his pitch pipe—a hum from several dozen throats—and we’re off, singing acapella, something majestic like “Christians, Awake” or “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.” Through the tall red double doors and up the aisle we’d go, a pair of acolytes leading a parade arranged by height and gravitas. First to go two by two were the girls, then the boys, then the adults. Up we’d march in stately rhythm, headed straight for the garland-draped Christ on his cross. We passed rows of pews crowded with parishioners and adorned with candles that were higher than my head. A fragrance made up of damp coats and colognes mingled with the sweet beeswax of the candles as we passed.

Reaching the apse our twin columns would split left and right, circle to the outside aisles by the windows, now enjoying the view of the purple night outside. We maintained our measured pace so that we could reunite with our marching partners at the stairs to the choir loft. There we would quietly file to our places in the rows of folding chairs with oval rubber kneelers in front of each, arrayed so all could see the choir director, who doubled as organist. St. Christopher’s had a wonderful organ, capable of booming reverberations and angelic voices.

The “Nine Lessons and Carols” service celebrates the birth of Jesus by telling the story from the promise of the Messiah through the birth of Jesus, interspersing the reading of nine key stories from Genesis with the singing of nine Christmas carols over the course of two hours. Depending on the talent on the choir in any particular year, there might be solos for a particular girl or boy, flutelike voices echoing through the still air. Sometimes a violinist or cornetist would play. Always, the adult choir would fill in and the entire church would swell with song. It was heart-stirring to be in the middle of it all, and to be responsible for a small part of it.

For children, staying alert for two hours of this was demanding. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year, food and drink were strictly off-limits in the choir loft. Tonight we would be allowed Coca Cola during the readings between our carols. We were also allowed to stash a comic book at our chair prior to the service, to fall back on if the mesmerizing voice of Father Davis threatened to lull us to sleep. He had a voice like BBC radio, a voice like God.

In memory those years of singing in the choir run together, the tradition repeated each year with no variation. It’s a lovely memory, but hardly an anecdote. For a decade or more—roughly 1960 to 1970—each year I felt the same excitement at the site of the decorated nave, the same thrill at the sound of the three choirs’ voices combined, the same frisson of disrespect in pulling out an Archie or a Batman to help me stay awake.

All those years run together with the exception of one, when the ritual was disturbed. It was a hymnal that did it.

Our hymnals were tomes of substantial dimensions. Gold stamping on their buckram spines spelled out “The Hymnal 1940.” They emitted a satisfyingly musty smell. They were close to two inches thick and weighed nearly three pounds. For a child, they were unwieldy. But that’s not what caused one to plummet over the choir loft’s gleaming brass railing and plummet onto the bald man’s head below.

It was Stewart Davis reaching adolescence that did it. The preacher’s son, his hormonal brew had brought him that night to the stage where rebellion is required. Stewart was the one who caused giggling that made the choir director aim a stern glance his way, which caused me to turn just in time to see what he did. Stewart dangled the hymnal over the railing and then released it. While Father Davis intoned one of the Nine Lessons, all eyes in the choir loft with a direct line of sight watched the hymnal descend, pages fluttering. It bounced off the brass dish holding a stout beeswax taper at a pew’s end, then ricocheted onto the bald man’s head, then hit a kneeler. The sounds it made started with a clang followed by a thump, followed by a muffled thud, then silence. A small gasp ran through the choir loft as the bald man emitted a startled “ooph”. Father Davis droned on without a pause. Being Episcopalians, no one acknowledged the unpleasantness. The choir launched into its next carol, and that remarkable moment blended back into the backdrop of a decade of Christmases.

The service always closed with a recessional. As quietly as we could, the choir filed down the stairs from the loft and paired up for our reverse parade. To cover our sound, the worshipers sang “Silent Night,” continuing a hummed version until the choir director signaled that we were in formation. Then the choir launched into an exuberant version of “Joy to the World.” Carefully timing our steps so that our pairs would meet at the front in a turn as neat as a pair of Lipizzaner horses, the girls, then the boys, then the adults performed our final drill and exited into the night. The organ thundered to a climax, then fell silent. Parishioners filed out, congratulating the choir on its performance, and we all repaired to the Fellowship Hall for cocoa and, knowing Episcopalians, something stronger for the grown-ups.

I was always sad to hang up my vestment and saying goodbye for another year to the magic, and yes, the possibility that someday something like Stewart’s hymnal might once again break the peace.


~ ~ ~

Memory and truth are related but distinct from each other, as the following proves. I shared this draft with my brothers on Christmas Day, 2014. Brother Andy informed me that Father Davis left in fall 1964. “For many years the Christmas Eve services were celebrated in part by a retired Anglican priest from England…. I think likely his is the English voice you remember.” He added, “I remember hearing about the incident of the hymnal being dropped from the choir loft, but I was not personally there. That makes me think Stewart Davis was not involved, as I would have remembered his name being mentioned.”

Then, Andy dug into the journals my father kept.

CWW Journal Dec. 1966 cropped

On Thursday, December 22, 1966, he wrote:

Yule Activities—David sang in the boys’ choir at ordination of Fr. Hull. The Bishop in his mitre, and all the birds & beasts were there….

Someone (for a while I thought it was Dave) dropped a hymnal over the balcony rail. It hit a tall candle, bounced onto head – bald – of a parishioner. Boys’ choir, stringed instruments, and organist giggled.

Andy added, “Note that the hymnal dropping took place at the ordination service on Sunday before, not on Christmas eve.”

Being one who prefers not to let the truth get in the way of a good story – just like my father in that respect – I’m sticking with my memory that the priest’s son dropped the hymnal on the bald man on Christmas Eve. And thus is history written — and rewritten.

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Upcoming workshops in Madison

Make 2015 the year you write! 71559675-croppedChris Wagner, the World’s Greatest Librarian, asks me to let you know that a six-week FICTION WRITING WORKSHOP STARTS ON THURSDAY, JANUARY 8th from 6:30-7:30 pm at Goodman South Madison Library! “Get your creative juices flowing in this six-session series with writer and artist, Gregg Williard (aka Fiction Jones on WORT Radio). Participants will read their work aloud to build incredible sentences! Bring paper and pen or pencil. There will be an opportunity to invite families, friends and neighbors to the final class to present excerpts from our writings. REGISTER by calling 266-6395, by stopping by the library or on our website, madisonpubliclibrary.org.

And I have a “Start Writing Your Memoir” 6-week workshop starting at the Pinney Library Branch next Thursday (January 15), more details here.

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By Doug Elwell

I’ve never been old before so I guess thinking often of endings is a sort of beginning. As I near the end of things, I’m beginning to look back to beginning things.

Panda today

Panda today

Panda sits on his shelf—the one I reserve for books yet to be read. I guess he’s sort of a manager of them as a librarian husbands books. He keeps to himself mostly—very quiet like a librarian. Whenever I go to that shelf to put a new acquisition on it or take one off to be read, it is just as I left it days or weeks earlier. The shelf is in order—kept as a librarian would. He’s a good librarian in that way.

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. He is an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age although he is possibly a few months older than I. But we don’t put much stock in that either. What are a few months one way or another when we have collected so many years?

Panda had a rough early life. I had a tricycle when I was little and often took him for rides up and down the block in the basket attached to the handle bar. He didn’t hold on too well and took several spills onto the sidewalk. He got dirty once and I put him in the bathtub over the drain and ran hot water over him. He didn’t seem to mind. Mother hung him by his ear on the clothesline to dry. I felt bad for him because I knew how much it hurt when she pulled me by my ear to church on Sunday mornings. I don’t remember how it happened, but he got away from me once and camped overnight in the back yard. I found him in the morning in the mouth of the neighbor’s dog. Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway. He had a rough life when he was young.

Panda before plastic surgery

Panda before plastic surgery

At some point we went our separate ways. I guess he had to get on with his life as I did mine. We kept in touch when I was a teen. He usually sat on my dresser. He didn’t share what he did in his absences and I didn’t ask. But he was always there when I looked. My family and I moved around some. When I left home to follow my own life I left him behind. We learned things and people come into and out of our lives.

Mom and Dad moved around quite a bit over the years forcing several downsizings. Things once important gradually fell away. At the end I went through their tiny condo sorting and discarding and keeping a few things. I finally got down to one last cardboard box that was pushed back into the corner of Mom’s closet. It was light. I brought it out to the kitchen and opened it. I pulled back a layer of tissue paper and there lay Panda. After surviving so many years of culling family belongings—he hadn’t changed a bit. Well not exactly. Some of Mom’s stitching around his neck had unraveled and a few pieces of excelsior stuck out, but otherwise he was easily recognizable. He had changed considerably less than I over the years.

Of all the “stuff” of a family’s life that had fallen by the wayside over the decades, how had he survived I wondered. I’m not a believer in the “unseen hand” of fate. I don’t believe things are “written” or pre-determined. There is no “grand plan”. Yet how to explain it? It’s not about what I don’t believe in, but what I do believe in. I believe in luck and chance and it was those that brought us back together to close our circles—the new beginnings we share.


Click here to read other essays by Doug Elwell published on True Stories Well Told.


© 2014 Doug Elwell. Doug Elwell writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his home town newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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The Gayest Christmas Tree

By Dhyan Atkinson

The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was crafted by the gay guys downstairs when I was living in San Francisco. One of them was an airline steward who flew regularly to Hong Kong. One year he came back with a whole suitcase full of little satin animals. All of them were about the size of the palm of your hand and they were lovely! White satin horses with satin piping for the saddle and bridle, white rabbit fur for the mane and tail. Elephants. Swans. Puppies. Giraffes. Seals. Tigers. Dragons. Each one more beautiful than the next. That year the only ornaments on their tree were the satin animals.

But they didn’t stop there. The tree was strung with tiny white lights and garlands of pearls but the best thing by far was that they had covered the tree with live flowers. They attached little flower tubes to the branch tips to hold the water and covered the tree with roses, carnations, lilies, and baby’s breath. The tree was breathing-takingly beautiful.

This one memory always spills the whole treasure box of wonderful quirky memories of being friends with a house-full of gay guys in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Michael was my closest friend. I was a 20 year old fresh from the suburbs of Kansas City. He took me on excursions to China Town, Fisherman’s Wharf, a real Mexican bakery, the Castro district, and the cliffs where the hang-gliders floated in and out of the banks of fog like pterodactyls.

He had a car. I didn’t. I would beg. “Michael, take me to the ocean!”

I could take the bus during the day but it was lovely to go at night.

“No! You always get wet and get my car full of sand.”

“Not this time I won’t! I promise!”

“You said that last time! I was vacuuming out the car for days.”

“Please, please, please?”

And he would give in. He always did. And we would walk along the sand with the night breeze in our faces and the sound of the crashing waves in our ears trying to stay in that space where the sand is wet and firm but not too close to the wave line. Of course, we would get to laughing and talking, running, spinning, dancing and sooner or later one wave would come up the beach farther than the others… and we would both get wet to the knees dragging sand into the car despite the most sincere of intentions.

Michael and I took the bus one day to Market Street and went exploring downtown. As we were coming home we stood at a bus stop and he nudged me with an elbow. “See that guy over there – the one with the bandana hanging out of his back pocket? That means something. He is signaling that he is available and his preferences.”

“Really? What are his preferences?”

Suddenly Michael shut up like a clam. “I’m not telling you that.”

“Oh come on! Tell me.”

“Not a chance. You don’t actually want to know.”

“But I DO want to know. Okay, if you won’t tell me I’ll go ask him.”

“You will do nothing of the sort!” an alarmed Michael hissed at me. And to make double sure I didn’t, he grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me down the street to another bus stop. He didn’t let go of my arm until we had passed the guy who, it turned out, was waiting for another bus. To this day I have no idea what that particular bandana signal meant. And I’m still curious!

One time my housemates arranged for a group camping trip to Yosemite. I signed up and invited Michael to go with us. As the days passed one housemate after another had to cancel until only Michael and I were left. We decided to go by ourselves. As we headed out of the city in his car, Michael became increasingly nervous. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked as we drove through a sleepy little small town much like my grandparents’ little town in Nebraska. He was acting like we were driving through Watts.

“They burn people like me at the stake in places like this,” Michael told me.

“You are with a woman!” I retorted.

“They can tell,” he replied darkly.

But for the life of him he couldn’t actually be discrete. Our first morning in Yosemite he came out of his tent wearing a blue and white kimono, Japanese sandals, and carrying a large waxed paper umbrella. I will never forget him sitting on his heels poking with a stick at the fire with his umbrella over his head.

When I came back from the ashram in India Michael invited me to stay with him for a few days before I left for the Midwest. His roommate, Robert, took us to lunch. He had recently gotten a job catering and entertained us with tales of extravagant courses and statues of ice. At one point in the description he used the phrase, “The food that was happening on the table.” I let that pass for about two beats and then stopped him, “The food that was HAPPENING on the table?” I said. “What in the world?” But that was the way they were… even the English language was polished up, rearranged, and presented like the most innovative of hors d’oeuvres.

One last story, I would never have found this out except that I was actually staying in the house that one time. One of Michael’s housemates slept in a clown suit. Yes, he did! It was white with big multi-colored polka dots and sported ruffles at collar, cuffs and ankles. I encountered him first thing in the morning in the hallway, shuffling grumpily toward the kitchen, an overnight shadow darkening his jaw, headed for the coffee. My little blue eyes just popped open in surprise. “What’s the matter with you?” he growled. “Never seen a grumpy clown in the morning before coffee?” Well, actually, no!


Those were the days when AIDS was just starting to devastate the gay San Francisco community. I lost contact with Michael, Robert and the grumpy clown after I left SF but I worried about them over the next few years. Michael wasn’t but everyone else in the house was very promiscuous. I hate to think of people for whom “food happened on the table,” who went camping with Japanese paper umbrellas and whose Christmas trees blossomed with live flowers… so free spirited, colorful, creative, crazy and fun… dying of AIDS but I suspect some of them did.

But they live for me again each Christmas when I remember their shining tree.

satin horse 1

© 2014 Dhyan Atkinson. Dhyan has been a writer since she was a child. Today, through her business Five Essential Skills, Dhyan teaches business skills to small business owners including personal historians.

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Getting My Mantra


In early 1975 I transferred to Franklin College, a tiny Baptist school in central Indiana where I knew no one. I began slowly to win acceptance into the “hippie circle,” the small subset of the 700 on-campus students who smoked pot, read Kurt Vonnegut, and otherwise identified with libertine youth culture. It was through them that I learned Transcendental Meditation was coming to town. For $60 and a gift of flowers for the guru, I could be given a mantra and taught to use it for meditation.

I was coming off a crazy-making period of my life. That first semester at Indiana University had sent me spiraling into chaos, under the confusing influence of a course in Eastern Religions. The Zen-like simplicity of campus life at Franklin was starting to knit me back together. Surely meditating with a mantra would speed the process. And besides, all the kids were doing it. But where would I come up with $60 and the flowers for the guru?

The money was there if I scrimped; I received a monthly SSI check (due to my father’s breakdown two years before) and had no expenses to speak of, since girls didn’t need to buy their own pot—just drop by the boys’ dorm and find a circle toking up. But flowers? I was stumped by that request. I didn’t even know where a florist’s shop might be located in Franklin. On the other hand, it was late April, full spring. Beds of well-tended flowers were blooming all over the tidy little campus.

I dropped by the meeting hall and added my name to the list of applicants for the TM training, wherein I would be taught a meditation routine and, in a private session with the guru, given my own personalized mantra.

When the appointed time arrived, I put on my best bell-bottoms and embroidered shirt. As I left the girl’s dorm, I stopped in the bathroom and grabbed two paper towels, moistening one. On my way to the training, held upstairs over the chapel, I passed a big bed of daffodils in full flower. With an inexpert twist, I snapped one after another until I held a bouquet of a dozen yellow blossoms in my hand. I wrapped the bases first in the moist towel, then the dry one, and proceeded to the meeting room. My $60 were harvested at the door. I was told to give my flowers to the guru when my turn came.

Maybe a half dozen of my hippie peers were already gathered for the TM training. We were told to sit cross-legged and empty our minds. Then one by one, we were taken from the group and led to a small side room where the guru waited.

I handed him my bouquet. He spoke one word to me. It had one syllable. That syllable sounded like the crackle from a radio tuned between stations. It felt like the zing of hitting a funny bone. It smelled like frying electrical wires. It tasted like tinfoil and smoke. I couldn’t even see it on the blackboard in my head where perfect spelling always appeared; there was no equivalent in the English language.

I had a mantra now, and I hated it. I tried using it, tried meditating for 20 minutes, morning and evening. I gave it a good shot. But by the time the spring semester ended, so had my foray into TM. My mantra and I just could not come to peace.


Decades later I asked my husband Jim what his mantra was. About the same year I did, and for about the same reasons, he had ventured across Madison from the U.W. campus to a strange land known as Willy Street, to find an Ananda Marga house where meditation and mantras were being offered, free of charge or obligation. He brought no money and no bouquet of flowers, stolen or otherwise.

Even though all meditation training seems to include an injunction not to tell anyone your mantra, he told me his. I loved it at once. It had two syllables, one round and framed by soft stops, perfect for in-breath, and one loose like a sigh to carry the out-breath. It sounded like a horse’s gentle nicker. It felt like a warm blanket. It smelled like chai and tasted like a bran muffin. Its spelling appeared on my mental blackboard in a neat cursive script. When I repeated it I felt a pearlescent bubble form around me, like the inside of a genie’s bottle.


Did my guru know my flowers were stolen? Was his stinking lousy mantra my penalty for coming to TM with a tarnished heart? I had to wonder. Of all the lessons learned in college, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the longest is, Do not cheat on your mantra. And by extension, an even more important lesson—simply, do not cheat.

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