Former Girl Scout CEO Frances Hesselbein passed away over the weekend at age 107. She led the movement through the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, finding ways to reach more girls and to empower them to take on a rapidly changing world.
After hearing her speak at the 2011 National Convention, I wanted her to adopt me. She spoke with passion, with vision, and with a firm focus on how to empower women.
She urged listeners to connect with others by expecting their best intentions. She emphasized the need for respect, such as between councils and the national organization, as a prerequisite for collaboration.
Workplace blogger Sylvia LaFair made this insightful comparison just three months ago:
Cause Before Self
We can all learn deeply from women like the late Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Frances Hesselbein, C.E.O. of The Leadership Forum. There is less focus less on celebrity and more on duty and legacy.Sylvia Lafair, CEOptions
In 2017 I sent Mrs. Hesselbein a letter asking for an interview. A few weeks passed with no reply, then my phone rang. “This is Frances Hesselbein. I would be delighted to meet with you.”
This post was originally published in 2017, following that visit.
An Afternoon Meeting
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:
Halston Adult Uniform
When we met, 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.
Camping and Diversity
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.
While her Girl Scout camp was integrated in the early 1950s, much of the “outside world” lagged behind. Mrs. Hesselbein recalled that she could not eat with her African-American staff members at any restaurant in any town near the camp.
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 released under supervision depicted girls of all skin tones, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all physical abilities — in other words, all girls.
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 and collar are prominently displayed in her office.
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 Greenbloods–long-term, deeply committed adult 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 (age 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 (1950-1960), 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.
© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian