Two blocks off Massachusetts Avenue, around the corner from American University's Law school, lives a woman of remarkable vitality and grace and cheer. She is Eloise Furber, a longtime member of the Sidwell Friends family, whose life journey from Iowa to Washington, D.C. has included significant stops in Belgrade, Berlin, New York, Boston, Burlington, and Chicago. I visited Eloise on a recent hot July afternoon to learn her story. We sat in the cooled living room of the modest, comfortable brick colonial house that has been her home for thirty-seven years, and there were moments when I might have sworn she was still a girl − her sandy hair in a pixie cut, her right arm tinkling with a dozen slim silver bracelets, her sense of style very much evident in the ensemble of white linen trousers, black shirt, and black loafers. She uses a walker now, but her eyes and her laugh are as animated as ever and her mind as sharp.
She was born in Dayton, Iowa, the eighth of nine children, three of them boys whose company she much preferred to that of her sisters. Her father owned a plumbing and heating business; her mother cared for a busy home. After high school Eloise attended the state university in Iowa City, where she majored in business. She participated in a Scottish Highlander marching band, playing the bagpipes and dancing. The band performed during halftime at the football games. Then she taught for a year at a school in Mapleton, Iowa, decided she didn't much like teaching, and left for St. Louis, where several college friends were living. In St. Louis she contracted and struggled with a grave illness whose cure required removing her spleen. Her sister and brother-in-law, Virginia and John McGowan, then living in Belgrade, insisted that she recuperate in their home and sent her a ticket for passage on the Italian liner "Saturnia." Eloise remembered that the ticket was for second-class accommodations but that she chose to go third-class to save money. I sensed that she had some regret about that decision.
But in nothing else that she described to me did Eloise express a bit of regret. To the contrary, she recalled the three years in Europe with John and Virginia, as well as the many adventures that followed them, with great verve and humor and delight. She was Iowa-innocent when she crossed the Atlantic − knew nothing of cheese but Velveeta − but John and Virginia nurtured her. Meeting her ship in Italy, they decided that the one place Eloise had to visit was Harry's Bar, the gin joint made famous by Hemingway. There she learned to drink martinis, and she continued to drink them − with a lemon twist, if you please − for some forty years, first gin and later vodka.
After three months in Belgrade, the McGowans were posted to Berlin, and Eloise went along. Through John's work and her own, first in the local office of the U.S. State Department and later for Army Intelligence, Eloise received a quick and thorough education in the world of politics. It was the McCarthy era, and conversation was lively and intense.
There came a day − she took a long sip of water, opened her eyes wide, and laughed as she described this to me − when Eloise walked into the cafeteria at the army PX and was stunned by what she saw: dozens of young men in crew cuts and flannel suits, half of them American and "all very handsome." She dated some of them before she met Lincoln, who became her husband and the father of her two daughters, Edith and Sarah. Eloise and Lincoln would divorce many years later, but at that early time they were very much together as they left Europe for New York, where he pursued a degree in journalism at Columbia and she worked at Merrill Lynch. Later they moved to Boston so that Lincoln could take a job in radio broadcasting. A year after that an opportunity for television work took them to Burlington, Vermont, a town Eloise especially loves. They lived in Burlington for three years, meeting many young couples like themselves, all of them without any money, and "it was wonderful." Eloise worked for the president of the University of Vermont, whom she remembers as "very handsome," until Lincoln was offered a television post in the larger Chicago market. There they lived in a lakefront apartment; Eloise became pregnant; and when Edith was two years old, they moved to D.C., to the house Eloise still lives in. She began work at Sidwell Friends in 1973 and stayed 25 years, retiring in 1998 with Earl Harrison and Ele Carpenter.
It was Georgia Irvin, Eloise recalled, who first contacted her about coming to Sidwell. Georgia wanted Eloise to take a part-time position working for the Lower School principal's assistant, Mrs. Smedley. Eloise accepted the appointment and, as she describes it, "sat in a closet on a phone book and typed." After several months in the closet, she moved to Zartman House to work in Development. The Sidwell auction was the first in the Washington area and Eloise helped with it. After it had been running for a number of years, Earl asked her to be Director. She served for fifteen years. She then moved to the Upper School as Administrative Associate in the College Guidance office. But all of us who have been close to the daily operation of the Upper School know what her new title meant: Eloise simply did everything. Again, she says, "it was wonderful—the kids, the teachers, and especially Ellis Turner." In 1998 she retired into a blissful year of much good exercise and many fine lunches with friends at Cafe Ole. She also volunteered at Sibley Hospital at the front desk and at WAMU (88.5FM), an American University radio station.
Illness followed, with needful consequences that have given her life yet another welcome dimension − the support provided by her "staff." The current staff includes two law-student tenants, as well as Tony, who cuts the lawn, Miriam, who cleans and washes, and Andrea, who takes Eloise on errands that require a car. In addition, she has an aide for several hours twice each week. All this became necessary after her stroke and a subsequent bad fall in front of Cafe Deluxe in 2001. Since then she has worked hard at physical rehabilitation, but with less success than she would like. There is, however, a positive element to it all: Her grandson, Miles, who will enter kindergarten at Sidwell Friends in September, loves to look at the "pictures of grammoo's bones." Eloise loves talking about him, about the thirty student tenants who have lived with her over the years and "kept [her] young," and about her other helpers, people from diverse backgrounds who "have taught [her] so much." And she loves to speak about her daughters, Edith and Sarah, both of whom attended Friends.
Her other love is reading, especially but not exclusively mysteries. "I've always been a reader," she told me, "although my mother didn't much approve of reading for entertainment." Her mother expected Eloise to spend her time at home doing chores, primarily cleaning the house. But Eloise says she wasn't a very good cleaner because she kept a book in each room so that she could read as she hauled her cleaning tools from room to room. Thus she acquired the habit of reading more than one book at a time. Her other fond memories include times at the beach − "I love the sun!" − and many years spent in Maine with the Furber family.
One recollection that she shared with me was a particular hoot. Some time after her retirement, Ellis Turner, who had been very kind to her when they both worked in the college guidance office, invited her to lunch at a posh establishment downtown, and he asked Eloise's cherished friend Lucia Pierce to join them. As Eloise describes it, "We had a good time. Ellis actually sat calmly and ate his lunch. I was thrilled that he wasn't all diddly. I couldn't believe it."
Such memories tickle Eloise into giggles, and her listener is struck again and again by her delight in many things large and small. In Nora Ephron's film You've Got Mail, a love story about the owner of a children's bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner, a television interviewer calls actor Greg Kinnear's character "a New York treasure." Eloise Furber is a Washington treasure, just around the corner from us all.
OTHER TRIBUTES TO ELOISE FURBER
Ann Bradley, formerly of Zartman House, writes:
"Eloise and I worked together during my first couple of years at Sidwell Friends, twenty-five years ago. She greeted me and every day with enthusiasm and her "let's get busy" attitude. She taught me, the new girl on the block, much about many things. She was dedicated to the School, the Auction, her job and her two daughters - not necessarily in that order. Eventually she moved to her Zartman House top floor Auction command post. I was glad not to be stumbling through an office full of Auction items, but I missed her presence.
One of Eloise's daughters and one of my sons were classmates and sometimes were at the same weekend social events. On Monday mornings, I would get a rundown on the event as related by her daughter, my son having spared me any details. I, of course, never let on that I had heard anything.
I know that in the years after I retired, Eloise took on other responsibilities at the School. I am sure that she gave each of them her dedication and hard work in the style true to her own form. I wish for her all good things in her well earned retirement."
Ellis Turner, Associate Head of School, writes:
"As I reflect on the wonderful professional relationships I have enjoyed over the course of nearly 25 years at Sidwell Friends, the years I spent in the College Counseling office with Eloise Furber immediately come to mind. The life of a college counselor is, shall we say, not all fun and games. The College office has to be one of the most frenetic environments in the School. Yet as our Administrative Associate, Eloise was a veritable island of tranquility and a never-ending font of good humor in what was often a storm-tossed sea.
The 1988-89 school year, my first in the college counseling business, saw the introduction of computers in many of the administrative offices of the School. I was deathly afraid of the new-fangled gadgets and promptly ignored the IBM clone that was placed on my desk. I simply let it sit dormant, with a picture of a Buddha mockingly taped to the screen of the monitor. Instead of word processing, I foolishly insisted on typing each of the letters of recommendation I was charged with writing for my advisees − letters which Eloise would then need to clean up and generally make presentable before they could be sent out to the colleges with student transcripts. Not unlike Buddha, Eloise was the model of patient, calm and centered restraint. She gladly retyped my messy, smudged, Wite Out-laden letters, and she did so without a hint of complaint. Life clearly would have been much easier for her had I just learned to word process and hand her my letters on a disc.
But an epiphany would soon bring all of this to an end. It was triggered when I chanced to glance over at Eloise and noticed how happy and contented she seemed to be while typing away on her computer. Engaged in an Eloise-inspired, out-of-body experience, I came to realize just how easy it was to use this machine. Without speaking a word, Eloise had brought me to a realization of how difficult I was making things for myself. I soon agreed to let her teach me some simple WordPerfect commands and before long, my work time was cut in half. I think that my technophobia would have gone on for several more years had Eloise not been there to quietly, gently and patiently bring me into the 20th (or was it 21st ?) century.
Apart from her role as mystic teacher, Eloise also added humor and diversion to our otherwise serious and stressful environment. With the help of Percy Martin, she decorated her work area with papier-mache fish hanging from the ceiling. There Eloise would sit, with fish dangling and spinning in different directions above her head. When viewed from across the room, through the glass wall that framed her office, she appeared to be sitting in a gigantic, surrealistic fish bowl. Eloise's unusual sense of humor really appealed to kids. As a Middle Schooler, my daughter Marie relished the afternoons she spent with Eloise while waiting for me to pack up and head home. The two became fast friends and came to share common affection for another denizen of Eloise's aquarium/office—a 3 x 2 foot plastic holstein cow lovingly positioned on top of a file cabinet. The heifer, which Marie named Milkweed, stood guard over the dolphins and tuna that always swam by.
Eloise Furber is truly one of a kind: a unique and charismatic woman, remarkably modern and freethinking, yet seemingly traditional and old-fashioned at the same time. Eloise is a valued and beloved colleague and friend, and I will never forget the role she played in my professional life at Sidwell Friends."
Marsha Pinson, Sidwell parent and Auction Chair:
I have been a parent at Sidwell Friends School for more than twenty-five years now and I still fondly remember the first big event that I attended which was the Auction. By the end of my first year in the school, I was working on centerpieces for Live Auction dinner tables and it wasn't long before I was co-chairing a committee. Many of my fondest memories and dearest friends came through the Auction and it was Eloise Furber who set the tone of camaraderie and good cheer that defined the Auction for me and legions of grateful Auction workers.
Eloise had been a parent before she took the Development job that meant so much to so many. She seemed to embody the Quaker ideals of respect, hard work, simplicity, and caring. She was pretty good at conflict resolution, too—she didn't like conflicts. Before school was out and all the "thank you's" were written, she would be strategizing about the committee for the following year. She recommended jobs to people who would work well together for the common goal and bring balance to the workload. She was always mindful of her volunteers' feelings and abilities. When hard decisions had to be made or challenges arose, Eloise would help to gather information and to reach consensus. When a worker's life made fulfilling a commitment difficult, Eloise would find a way to get the job done without complaint or recrimination.
And Eloise's job was not an easy one! In the age before computers and multiple copying machines, Eloise ran auctions using carbon paper (remember that?), note cards, and shoeboxes. She would work tirelessly all day—sometimes doing other Development work as well − and then go home to type or organize the days ahead. She made the job of Auction Chairs (called Chairmen at the time) as easy as she could with outlines and regular meetings. She made the office a fun place full of activity and friendship. She had candy for all of us. She loved to laugh--except when the occasional chairmen didn't want corsages. . . .
Eloise also had great follow-through. She would help to assemble a full committee and encourage participation so that there would be more than 300 volunteers giving a lot of time or a little. Gifts of time, services, or items all were nurtured, welcomed, and appreciated. The Auction Office—which moved all around Zartman House − was always a place where you could have a "good time for a great cause!" Auction Night was the culmination of countless hours of work, months of solicitations, weeks of organization and meetings, and two days of wild activity. There were students, parents, alumni, former parents, grandparents who all looked forward to attending a patchwork evening filled with spirit and devotion flowing from and to Sidwell Friends School. The unsung hero of every auction was Eloise Furber! And she even found time to make great popcorn to be sold on Auction Night.