At 85, the dynamo Marciene Mattleman 'retires'

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Marciene Mattleman began her career as a sixth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, then earned a Ph.D. in education, writing her dissertation at night when her three children were sleeping. (MICHAEL PRONZATO/Staff Photographer)

She has been described as a "force of nature," a "serial entrepreneur," a "doyenne."

But former Gov. Ed Rendell offered perhaps the most unvarnished - and true - assessment of Marciene Mattleman, a towering force for good honored at City Hall on Wednesday for her decades of accomplishments.

"The secret to Marciene's success," Rendell said, "is that she's impossible."

That is: She has made a career of lifting up the city's most vulnerable - children, people who cannot read - often by sheer force of will.

The 85-year-old's powers of persuasion are legendary.

She makes a phone call - or a dozen phone calls - and suddenly, people are doing whatever she asks not for Marciene, but for underserved students trying to get to college, or young people who need a safe place to go after school, or the waitress she just met and persuaded to go back to school to build a better life.

"My general policy is, whatever Marciene is calling about, just say yes," Mayor Nutter related. "It saves you about half an hour, and you're going to do it anyway."

(That would explain how the mayor found himself very publicly losing a chess match to a 12-year-old enrolled in a club run by the After School Activities Partnerships, the fifth nonprofit Mattleman has gotten off the ground.)

A standing-room-only crowd paid tribute to Mattleman as she stepped down as ASAP's board chair. In typical Mattleman fashion, she used the occasion to advance another cause, the Marciene Mattleman Founder's Fund, which aims to raise $500,000 to keep city young people in safe, enriching after-school programs through ASAP.

Mattleman began her career as a sixth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, then earned a Ph.D. in education, writing her dissertation at night when her three children were sleeping. She worked as an education professor at Temple University, then launched the Mayor's Commission for Literacy under Mayor W. Wilson Goode, then organizations called Youth Education for Tomorrow, Philadelphia Reads, Philadelphia Futures, and finally ASAP.

After each organization achieved a measure of success, she handed it over to others and turned her attention to another cause.

"No one in this city has done more for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia and our region than Marciene Mattleman," Rendell said.

Literacy was particularly important to Goode, whose father could not read or write. When he took office, an estimated 40 percent of the city's population could not read at a fourth-grade level. So he asked Mattleman to start a commission to tackle the issue citywide.

"She had a different idea every single day," Goode said. "Sometimes three or four or five in one day. Before I knew it, it was the most powerful program in the country."

Rosemarie Greco first encountered Mattleman in 1985, when Goode was about to name Greco to the Board of Education. Mattleman's husband and partner in all things, Herman, was board president.

Marciene Mattleman called Greco to wish her well, and Greco was startled by Mattleman's enthusiasm.

"Her energy led me to believe she was a 20-year-old volunteer," said Greco, who became close friends with the Mattlemans. "About her passion, benevolent dictator is a good phrase."

That never changed. Joseph Torsella, a U.S. ambassador and the former CEO of the National Constitution Center, met Mattleman when he was a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student. He became her intern and one of many proteges.

He worked hard for her, but never harder than she did.

"There were no nights and weekends, but strangely enough, none of us minded," Torsella said.

He turned to Mattleman, sitting in the front row, surrounded by her children and her husband of nearly 65 years.

"You gave me the confidence and sense of possibility that changed my life," Torsella said.

And yes, even at a ceremony honoring her towering accomplishments, Mattleman couldn't just sit still and bask in the spotlight.

Before the event, she asked Blakely Cooper - a 38-year-old businessman whom Mattleman began mentoring when he was a Philadelphia high school student - what he was going to wear, what he was going to say, and whether he was going to show up on time.

(Cooper didn't seem to mind too much. Mattleman, he pointed out, bought him his first suit, visited him at college, helped get him his first internship, and sat with him after his multiple surgeries for a rare form of cancer.)

"She sent over talking points," Rendell noted, laughing. "For me? Talking points about her? It's a little over the top."

Mattleman greeted guests, exchanged hugs, and stage-managed.

"Excuse me," Mattleman told one well-wisher before the City Hall ceremony began. "There's Jim Kenney. I wanted to tell him he couldn't sit up front because he's not a mayor yet."

Mattleman's children, all of whom followed her into public service of some type, said it has been marvelous learning from her life of service.

And maybe also a little daunting to be on the receiving end of so many 6 a.m. and midnight calls: Mom phoning to give them advice on how to improve the world or their own lives.

On one occasion, Jon Mattleman said, his parents bought a lovely oil painting. He was surprised when he saw his mother, a former art student, hovering over it, supplies in hand.

"I can make it better," Mattleman told her son.

She did, he said. It still hangs in their home.


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