I never met Juliette Gordon Low, of course, but last week I came pretty close. I had the privilege of spending part of the day with Frances Hesselbein at her office in Manhattan. Few individuals have had as great an impact on the Girl Scout movement as this gracious lady.
Mrs. Hesselbein was the GSUSA National Executive Director from 1976 to 1990. Her first day on the job, in fact, was July 4, 1976. Today she is the director of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.
I had asked to interview her about the decision to sell Rockwood National Center in 1978. But we soon moved on to the many highlights and happier memories from her time at GSUSA.
She presided over many milestones, some more popular than others, including implementing circular management principles, introducing the Worlds to Explore program, reconfiguring the Edith Macy Center into a year-round training facility, and the introduction of the contemporary (three faces) logo. Some of her favorite memories include:
Mrs. H (“Frances” just seems too informal!) had just returned from visiting a Halston retrospective exhibition at the Nassau County (NY) Museum of Art. The famous fashion designer had created a stylish collection of adult uniforms in 1978, and Mrs. H vividly recalled participating in that process. She also let me borrow the gorgeous exhibit catalog.
I had submitted my resume, Rockwood book outline and synopsis, and several other documents in advance, and Mrs. H immediately noted that we both had experience as camp staff, making us both survivors of that trial by fire. She shared with me several staff photos from her time directing Camp Blue Knob in western Pennsylvania and pointed out the unusual racial diversity of the group for the early 1950s. She also had a photo from the summer 2016 camp out on the White House Lawn.
White House Honors
While Mrs. H never camped on the White House lawn — that I know of — she has been a frequent visitor. But few visits can top one in 1998, when President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Juliette Gordon Low was posthumously awarded the medal in 2012.) The beautiful medal is prominently displayed in her office.
While her Girl Scout camp was integrated in the early 1950s, society lagged behind. Mrs. Hesselbein recalled that she could not eat with her African-American staff members at any restaurant in any nearby town.
With that camp experience in mind, one of her priorities as head of GSUSA was to reach out to all girls, especially girls in historically underserved communities. When she began at GSUSA, the organization was 95% white; fourteen years later, minority ranks had tripled.
As part of that effort, she sought to have a greater range of images in Girl Scout handbooks and other publications. She wanted any girl, of any background, to be able to find herself in a handbook. New handbooks depicted girls of all skin tones, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all physical abilities — in other words, all girls.
A Secret to Longevity?
Finally, as our conversation drew to a close, I brought up another topic: age. Mrs. Hesselbein is 101 — exactly twice my age.
Of course, many people remark on her extraordinary vigor. But my casual research in recent months has led me to a realization. We Girl Scouts seem to be an exceptionally long-lived group of women.
That holds true for volunteers and long-time staff. I just recently learned of a former Rockwood director who has passed away in February — and wanted it known in her obituary that she lived to 99 years and seven months. At Nation’s Capital, we lost two past council presidents in recent years — Marguerite Cyr (101) and Bobby Lerch (104).
And the more I investigate, the more very senior Girl Scouts I find. Camping expert Kit Hammett (96); national board member Lillian Gilbreth (93). National presidents Henrietta Bates Brooke (89) and Grace MacNeil (92). But the record, so far, must be Executive Director Dorothy C. Stratton, who passed away at age 107!
I would love to see some data on the percentage of our membership over age 90 compared with the general population. That could be quite a retention incentive.
I asked Mrs. Hesselbein what she thought might be behind this possible trend. We came up with the same answer immediately — the girls.
The girls keep us young.
Postscript: No selfies from my visit, some memories are too precious to share.
©2017 Ann Robertson
12 thoughts on “My Afternoon with Frances Hesselbein”
Nice to see the true passion in your work. Great job Ann.
Thanks Todd, I really appreciate it!
Nice piece…so it’s true we’ll live to be a 100 🙂
Question; Lillian Gilbreth of ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ fame?
Yes! She was on the national board
I had the privilege of working as a camp counselor for “the lady” when she was at the Talus Rock GS Council. In a week of rain, at the Pennsylvania Allegheny Incline Plane state park, small troop of girls and I helped to fulfill what Mrs H said was one of her pipe dreams – to become an archeologist. ”Twas quite a highlight, the day she and photographer husband John came to take our pictures digging in the MUD!
This was fascinating… thank you for sharing what must have been a very special experience. I, too, am intrigued by the possible correlation of longevity and Girl Scouting.
What a wonderful opportunity and experience! Thank you for sharing it with us. I was a GS 1981 – 1989 (earned Gold in 89), so I am definitely a product of the Frances Hesselbein era. I loved the Worlds to Explore program, but the Cadette & Senior programming – not so much. I somewhat recently read her autobiography (“My Life in Leadership”) and found it fascinating.
What a lady! I remember well her tenure as our chief executive and visionary from the start of my Senior years through the start of my GS staff years. She had a profound impact on me then and has continued to as my career expanded. Thank you Ann for sharing a part of your very special meeting with us.
My mother joined Girl Scouts in the 40’s. She was part of a large, very active troop that enjoyed camping. When Mom applied and was accepted for camp staff she was so excited. Imagine the disappointment when she learned that the only job open to her was in the kitchen! My sister and I both became camp staff and my daughter carries on the tradition even today however, like Momma, none of us has ever been assigned to a job in the camp kitchen.
Ann–How fortunate you are to have been able to sit down and talk with Mrs. H. She had many accomplishments while Executive Director of GSUSA, but my favorite is the introduction of the Worlds to Explore program. We are still using that handbook as supplemental program and lend it out often in our lending library. We also have a large display in our museum and all of the badges mounted and displayed.
Love this, and especially the piece about longevity. My girls are 5th generation GS their great-grandmother passed away after 90years as a Girl Scout.
Thank you so much for sharing your interview with Mrs. Hesselbein. It was such a nice insight to the real her. I feel I “know” her better through it. I too agree the introduction of “Worlds to Explore” program was excellent. Leaders are clambering for our extras in the GS archives in our council.