julia foulkes

Mom-and-Pop Institutions

The New School has attracted a string of devoted, long-serving administrators, most of whom have been women. One of them was Wally Osterholz, who worked in the Adult Division for forty-five years, from 1962 to 2007. Most had no idea what Wally’s job description was, as Sondra Farganis described it, and yet she seemed to know everybody and how to get anything done.

Need to get into a course after it had started? Wally could do it. Connect a non-profit organization to the school’s mission? Wally figured out how to open up courses to the Fortune Society, who helped those coming out of prison find work. Her office was the sanctuary of many a wayward student, faculty or staff member – she personified the New School’s Adult Division as a place in the neighborhood, in the city, in the family.

Every president of the New School has been a man, but women have long run the school. The first such pairing was Alvin Johnson, the indomitable first president who took over the school from a poorly functioning committee in 1922 and steered its success until the 1950s (even as others served as president). Clara Mayer, the person who actually ran the place, outlasted him. Mayer had followed James Harvey Robinson from Barnard College upon the founding of the New School, but it was Johnson who gave her primary responsibility as Assistant Director, then Associate Director, then Dean, then Vice President. A new president in the early 1960s characterized her management as that of a mom-and-pop store: run by familiar ties rather than efficiency or procedures – and by a woman with perhaps more power than he had. He fired her. A year later, the Board fired him – and attempted to lure Mayer back. She refused.

Wally was hired just after Mayer left. A woman with a degree in chemistry, she sought out secretarial jobs. Distraught after not passing the white glove examination at Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, she struck up a conversation in the bar car of the commuter train to Connecticut. Dean Allan Austill offered her a job at the New School, and she never went looking for another job again. She served under Austill for twenty-five years, the necessary appendage to him as Clara Mayer was to Alvin Johnson. And she witnessed the arrival of female Deans, from Elizabeth Dickey to Linda Dunne. (Still no female presidents.)

At her memorial service at the New School a few weeks ago, Peter Haratonik concluded that people make up the place. Wally was the New School for decades and for many – welcoming, hard-working, problem-solving – if also brusque, chain-smoking, and residing in an office bursting with treasures (or junk) from nearby stoops, bargain stores, or streets. She glided above the machinery of bureaucracy. Rules existed to be bent. And institutions were only buildings, paper, and changing letterhead if not for the conversation between and care of people.

Wally made people central to the New School. Mom and Pop to wandering, curious, generous folks wanting an ear, a guide, and community. If women single-handedly solving problems large and small no longer run the New School, may we at least bring with us the care and alliance forged by Wally Osterholz – and remember the humane purpose of our place.