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She fought the fights of the last century

She fought the fights of the last century

By Louis J. Salome, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2001

WEST PALM BEACH -- "Love is a game of giving all -- he who gives the most plays the game best." -- From Harriette Sangerman's high school notebook written in Chicago around 1920.

A little more than 30 years later, Harriette Sangerman was Harriette Glasner, the American Renaissance woman who used her idealism, steeled by family and life, to reshape the face and fabric of Palm Beach County.

Intelligent, courageous and persistent, Harriette Glasner became the Palm Beacher who crossed the tracks and played the game best because she loved people and justice.

During almost 50 years of activism, Glasner founded or helped found 10 major social, cultural, religious or humanitarian organizations in the county. In her spare time, she led many other campaigns to alter public attitudes and policy. She has received 28 awards, not counting two academic degrees, for her spirit and leadership.

In her 96th year, Glasner's contributions still bear interest. She refused to let threats and scorn, much less her husband's wealth, divert her. So fierce was Glasner in her zeal to spread equality that her legacy justifies calling her, simply, Harriette.

Harriette wheedled and taunted, outfoxed and pressured the old regime to yield to the revolution in civil and human rights.

"To the Truth," Harriette titled her notebook four score years ago. And to her truths she stuck.

"Oh my dear," is the way Harriette usually began her sentences. With that, her friends knew, the dynamo was fired up and another wall would fall.

She created power. She found a way to be effective. She had more drive than the rest of us. She had this drive to create a better world, particularly for civil rights and racial integration.

-- Elsie Leviton of Palm Beach, a friend of Harriette's for about 50 years and a former neighbor

In the 1950s, Harriette began harassing a segregated and dozing society; in the tumultuous '60s, Harriette and cohorts awoke the multitudes. In the '70s, she turned to abortion and women's rights. In the '80s, she fought paddling in the public schools and was an advocate for neglected and abused children. Conditions in women's prisons were magnets for her wrath.

Controversy never frightened Harriette. She knew how to squeeze her friends into the lobby when the marquee said those she helped weren't welcome.

In the late '50s, the Royal Poinciana Playhouse refused to let Harriette bring an undersecretary of the United Nations from Africa as a guest. Harriette called the actors union in New York, which vowed that its members would boycott the theater if it barred Harriette and her friend. The theater surrendered.

"She thought women should be able to do anything, and she did it," one of her old friends said.

"I was never a socialite," says Harriette.

But when she tooled across the tracks to the office of Dr. Warren Collie at the corner of Third Street and Railroad Avenue in West Palm Beach, where few whites ventured, she glowed in her Gauguin Red Cadillac convertible or her sparkling gold topless Chrysler.

In 1975, she sold a diamond-studded platinum bracelet to start her own charity, Emergency Medical Assistance Inc. EMA, as the organization is known, provides money to women who want to have abortions and counseling but can't afford the cost.

The organizations that Harriette started or helped found add up to an honor roll of progressive causes, ranging from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to the local chapter of the Urban League, as well as the Unitarian Church.

She founded the old Center for Family Services, the Palm Beach County Funeral Society, and in 1963, she helpedstart the Florida Council on Human Relations and directed its local office.

The local Planned Parenthood office was born in 1971 because Harriette thought it was time.

Week before last, at the 30th anniversary celebration of the founding of Planned Parenthood here, a member asked Harriette whether she was surprised at the organization's growth.

"When you do the right thing, it will grow," she answered softly.

Harriette's money and direction flowed into her organizations.

Segregation was her enemy. She fought to integrate the public schools, colleges, beaches and other public accommodations, and to open access to hospitals, theaters and restaurants.

Harriette was a warrior. She wasn't a fighter, she was a warrior. She never let up. Everything Harriette did, she did on her own. In the white community, they sort of feared Harriette. She was not to be bought. There will never be another Harriette.

-- Charlie Mae Ellington of West Palm Beach, an old friend and civil rights activist

A feminist before the label was coined, Harriette was a humanitarian from the start, and that covered all the bases.

If Harriette paid for her zeal it was at home, where her attention often came second to her attempts to change the world.

"My mother was always at the typewriter, first the manual typewriter and then the electric, doing her civic duty . . . when I was a child, it was integration I remember most. When I was older, it was abortion. I went to sleep listening to the rhythm of the typewriter," says Elisabeth Simons of West Palm Beach, Harriette's daughter.

The ribbon whistled another tune: It meant that Elisabeth spent more time with her nanny than she did with her mother.

Harriette was no dilettante, but her trips to the hairdresser were holy days, and she never wore the same dress two Sundays in a row.

She was a revolutionary with painted nails. She opened restaurants by going to dinner with a black man and speaking only French, which, in the segregation bog, made the man acceptable to the owners.

At the same time, she bagged trash on regular walks along the Flagler Drive bicycle trail.

Ellington recalls Harriette plodding through mud, in front of the Pleasant Heights Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, to observe the segregated basement classroom of now-retired teacher Johnny Carlisle, who had insufficient supplies for the children.

Harriette bought the 75 youngsters, ages 5-15, enough food, milk and supplies for that summer in the early '60s.

When she wasn't wearing out typewriter ribbons writing memos for change, Harriette emptied pens signing checks for her causes.

Her memory and awareness are fading, but Harriette brightens as she reveals a bit of what keeps her churning. "A good education is the key to making life better for people," she says.

She said to me one day, "John, you'll come under attack, but just dodge it."

-- the Rev. John Riley, Episcopal priest from Jacksonville, first executive director of the Palm Beach County chapter of Planned Parenthood

In her passion, Harriette was part Eleanor Roosevelt, part suffragette and more than the equal of a Freedom Rider.

William Holland of Riviera Beach, the first black lawyer to practice for 50 years in Florida, says Harriette was "in some respects more important than the Freedom Riders because she was rooted in this community, and she was a very high taxpayer."

She "was like a rock that would not be moved," says Holland, who in 1956 launched the legal fight to desegregate the county's schools. "She was persistent, determined and she was very persuasive in getting others to follow her."

Holland recalls that Harriette gave him a check for $300 to $400 to support the desegregation suit. "That was the first contribution I got to the cause of desegregating Palm Beach County public schools.

"She had courage," Holland says. "A lot of others helped but didn't want to be seen. She was the key person from the white community. She stood almost alone. She was responsible for bringing other whites into the campaign for integration, brotherhood and racial harmony."

Her allies admit they didn't know what motivated Harriette and are stunned that they never tried to find out. They followed because they believed in Harriette and her causes. That was enough.

It was something inside that motivated her. Harriette told me, "When you believe something is right, you never give up."

-- Mim George of Delray Beach, who worked in the public defender's office and has been a friend of Harriette's since 1970

Harriette has a love affair with learning that is almost 100 years old. "Nothing that you ever learn will hurt you" is one of her mantras.

What she didn't learn reading and taking classes, she absorbed from life, which in the 1920s and early 1930s was more hardship and tragedy than triumph.

When Harriette graduated from high school in Chicago in January 1923, a month after turning 17 and already married, Principal B.F. Buck wrote to Harriette's father, "The Senn High School wishes to congratulate you and your family on the success which Harriet has made of her work in this school.

"Her career here has shown throughout commendable strength of mind and character. . . . We are certain that the work which she undertakes in the future will be carried out with an equal degree of success."

The principal was right, but life stalled his prophecy. It was 18 years before Harriette returned to class.

Married and divorced young, she became a single mother who had a botched abortion. She worked as a model, a dental assistant and a secretary to support her child and her widowed mother.

She entered the University of Chicago in the fall of 1941 but dropped out at the end of the term after Pearl Harbor. Then, a wealthy Austrian immigrant 18 years her senior came into her life, and Harriette never had to worry about money again.

After she moved to Palm Beach in late 1952, when she was almost 47, Harriette began a crash course in learning.

For almost a decade, she participated in a reading club with about 15 other women. Every Thursday morning, they read the Greek philosophers and playwrights. In her mid-50s, she took ballet at the Northwood Hotel in West Palm Beach.

Almost two decades later, on March 20, 1969, Harriette received a bachelor of arts degree from Florida Atlantic University. In the classics. Her grade point average was 3.69. Harriette had earned an associate in arts degree from what was then Palm Beach Junior College on June 12, 1962. In the 1962-63 academic year, she studied architecture at the University of Miami. Her second husband, prominent industrialist Rudolph Glasner, had started a second career building houses in Palm Beach in the early '50s, so logic led Harriette to study architecture.

Outside the classroom, Harriette labored for the organizations she founded, plugged for the United Nations and against nuclear arms, helped the League of Women Voters and the ballet, and promoted religious unity through the Association of Religious Organizations, which she launched.

Copyright © 2001, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.
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