By Barbara Sherf
With the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment (CHCE) shutting its doors last Friday just shy of its 40th anniversary, many seniors will not only miss the Center, but its Executive Director Mary McNeill Zell, 70, who has been at the helm for 14 years.
At the monthly community lunch she co-hosted with Center on the Hill Executive Director Leslie Lefer at the Center on the Hill last Tuesday, Zell asked that any article be more about the CHCE than her. Mary, as the Rolling Stones pointed out in a song, you can’t always get what you want.
Upon learning an article was in the works, seniors, volunteers, and board members barraged this reporter with their thoughts.
“Not only is she organized, efficient and pleasant, she calls me if my parents have not shown up for an event or they need to be picked up. When you are a caregiver, it’s reassuring that there is someone else looking out for your parents,” said CHCE Board Member Maureen Alexander, whose parents, Ken Milner, 97, and Vivian Milner, 90, were regular attendees at the luncheons.
According to Lefer, the luncheons will continue on a quarterly basis with the next one scheduled for October 24.
Over 55 people turned out for the luncheon, where Board President Marilyn Paucker presented Zell with a bouquet of flowers and well wishes. “This is bittersweet. It’s been a great run for everyone, but our demographics have changed. Mary made the Center what it is, and she was a friend, an ear and a great resource. People would come to her with all kinds of problems, and she would jump in and help out,” said Paucker, who has served as CHCE Board President for nine years.
Marion Lampkin of West Mt. Airy had sought out advice from Zell, a former attorney, upon receiving a $301 parking ticket. “She is a phenomenal lady. She is the kind of person who knows somebody who knows somebody. She wrote a real tearjerker of a letter for me, containing the truth about what happened. In the end, I didn’t even recognize myself,” Lampkin chuckled. “She’s just a lovely lady and will be missed.”
Lefer presented Zell with a card and money donated by volunteers, staff and CHCE members.
“It has been a pleasure working with Mary and partnering with the Center for Enrichment for the past three years. Mary has been a dedicated leader who cared very much for those she served. She will be truly missed,” said Lefer.
Beverly Waters got teary-eyed when asked about Zell. “She watched over and she loved us,” said the West Oak Lane resident.
Unbeknownst to many, Zell was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and graduated from Punahou School, the same school former President Barack Obama graduated from. Her father was at Pearl Harbor during the attack on December 7, 1941, leading to the U.S. entry into WW II. “My grandfather, who was a submarine captain, and two uncles also served in the Pacific as naval officers during the war.”
After growing up in Hawaii in the 1950s and early ‘60s, Zell attended college on the mainland, receiving a B.A. in history with minors in political science and theater from Marietta College in Ohio. It was there that she started working backstage with props and costumes, a love she still enjoys today at The Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill, where she has volunteered for 24 years.
Following her college graduation, she returned to Hawaii for a year to work as an engineer and programmer for an AM/FM radio station. “It was great. I’d do a 6 a.m. to noon shift, then out to the beach. Then I’d go to the other station for a 6 p.m. to midnight shift.”
From there she landed in Philadelphia, while her former husband pursued a degree from the Wharton Business School, then earned a law degree in 1977. She proceeded to work as a defense attorney for the next 23 years. “One of my cases involving mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine crimes was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I did not get to attend oral arguments because I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my son.”
Zell’s son, Jonathan, 31, worked for a year preparing fresh foods at Weavers Way Co-op in Chestnut Hill while attending culinary school. He now cooks at a Center City restaurant. Daughter, Mary Elizabeth, 34, is working at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C.
Currently a Chestnut Hill resident, Mary and her family lived in West Mt. Airy when the children were growing up, Jonathan attending Chestnut Hill Academy and Mary Elizabeth graduating from Springside Academy.
“I’m really going to miss the people,” said Zell. “They have become like family to me, and I hope to keep in touch with them in some capacity.”
Zell is looking forward to doing some volunteering but also landing a new job.
Standing in line for a hot meal, Mary Hayes had kind words and a prediction regarding Zell’s future. “She always made you feel welcome. She would always greet you, and you never felt like a stranger. There is no doubt in my mind that she will find something that speaks to her with the same kind of passion that this position did.”
Barbara Sherf writes stories about businesses and the elderly for the Local. She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.