Attention, women of northern Michigan! A friend of yours passed away last week. You may never have known her, but she had your interests at heart.
Elly Peterson, former Michigan Republican state chairman and co-chair of the Republican National Committee, used the power of her personality, her enormous drive and the best sense of humor I've ever encountered to smooth the path for you.
She was a human comet, always reaching upward, always driving forward, not just for women, but she felt a kinship for them. She was called "Mother" by whites, blacks, reds and yellows because she was the loving, driving force in all of their lives.
She grew up on Main Street in New Berlin, Ill., daughter of a country doctor. Her warmest memories included riding with her father via horse and buggy, making house calls. Then there was Elly as a tot in overalls, playing so vigorously that she was always covered in mud. One day she was making chalk drawings on the sidewalk when a woman asked where Dr. McMillan lived, and Elly pointed to the house, adding proudly that she was his daughter. The woman huffed, "Oh, no, I don't think the doctor would have a daughter as dirty as you!"
On a trip to Washington in 1943, she strolled into a Red Cross headquarters and became so engrossed in the work that Christmas Day found her aboard the Queen Mary, bound for months of duty tending the wounded on the war's bloodiest fronts.
Her political career began as a volunteer in my home county where she and her husband moved after the war. When we met, I, about 20 years her junior, knew zilch about politics, but she banged her infectious message at me as she did to thousands of others over the years, like the Pied Piper, spreading her dream of a strong, winning GOP hospitable to women and minorities.
In what seemed like a flash, she went to work at Republican Party headquarters in Lansing and became the first woman in Michigan or anywhere to become state party chairman. She was progressive in her thinking, opened headquarters in the ghettos of Detroit and other cities as visible evidence of the GOP and real daily assistance to those in need.
Her skills led to nearly 20 years of her party's control of Michigan and Govs. Romney and Milliken. I went to work full-time with her, and what a shock -- regular 15-hour days, speaking all over the state, to anyone who would listen -- and the party grew and grew. Such power in a woman was unheard of.
Funny things happened along the way: At a state convention in Detroit, a flustered man introduced her as "one of the finest women who has ever walked the streets."
She'd go toe-to-toe with the Democratic state chairman of the time, Zoltan Ferency of Lansing, all over the state. This is how the message was delivered then -- no e-mail, few statewide newsletters, just driving hundreds of miles from county to county, from the Upper Peninsula to the Indiana border, from Port Huron to Traverse City.
After she and Zoltan took each other apart at these forums, we'd all go together to the nearest bar or restaurant for food and a million laughs. We were friends in the same business.
Elly gave her most sincere pitch to a gathering in Naubinway in the Upper Peninsula. After a 20-minute stem-winder, she was winding down when a lady in the front row who had slept through all of this awakened and stood to shout, "And what message do you bring, Mrs. Peterson, to the people of Naubinway?"
Once she was seated on the dais next to a congressman at a large dinner. Later we laughed as she recounted how he'd removed his dentures, washed them in his water glass, and dried them on the edge of the table cloth while she was eating!
At the table of another statewide dinner, she was seated next to a rather grumpy governor of a Midwest state who spent the next two hours telling her women had no place in politics. She should go home to her kitchen, cook her husband a nice dinner and "Stay the hell out of politics." How charming.
In 1982 she led a public departure of a number of women from the Republican nominee for governor, Richard Headlee, to gubernatorial candidate Jim Blanchard (who won) because Headlee did not support the Equal Rights Amendment for women nor pro-choice efforts. Others might have done differently, just paying lip service to the Republican candidate. Not her.
She was twice elected national GOP co-chair, living and working in Washington, then she was the national co-chair of ERAmerica and inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. She was a national leader in Gerald R. Ford's candidacy for president.
There were no pretenses to her. This year U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton drew $1,000 from Elly and another $1,000 from me for the first woman candidate for president, and we were proud of it.
It was quite a journey with Elly, an exciting life. And she did it all in her three-inch high heels!
Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley was assistant to the Michigan Republican Party chairman and political advisor and campaign manager for former Gov. William G. Milliken. Her essays have appeared widely in the state.