Saturday, December 19, 2009

FAITH KEANE REICHERT Fiesty 108 Year Old Icon

Dear Faith: "Happy Birthday To You" at the age of 108 in 2009. As you held court in your wheelchair at a celebration held by The Roundtable of Fashion Executives, we all bowed in homage to your amazing mind, so clear as a bell, sharp as a tack and all that, and much, much more praise for your longevity astounds and leaves us in genuine “Awe”. Your many admirers lined up to greet you and when my turn came you remembered me by saying how you enjoyed reading my PollyTalk column. So extraordinary was your comment that I was quite stunned by your clarity and remarkable memory. So here we are reaching for the stars when you have already been there and back over a century of living life well and full of wonder and achievement.
My dear Faith, I salute your longevity. As you celebrate your long and illustrious life one can only stand in awe regarding the extraordinary events that transpired during your lifetime as a resident of New York City. Just think of it. You were born Helen Faith Keane in 1901, which means that the tumultuous years of WWI transpired, followed by the Art Deco 1925 Jazz era, then in the1930s The Great Depression spread through the years before WWII, then came other skirmishes and events through which you were challenged. Yet you have survived it all and in style. Daughter of polish immigrants you stood steadfast to the your destiny becoming a fashion icon, a radio and television personality, a professor at NYU for thirty years, and much, much more. Your amazing youthfulness and family background is the perfect ingredient for a novel in itself. As I look at Faith today I can still see the determination in her spirit which no doubt she possessed as a twenty year old woman.
The ebullient Faith had a knack for acquiring admiring nicknames, but perhaps the one that stuck most was “Happy,” for indeed she is and was happy about all her life, her congenial family and he great love for people. However, while “Happy” Faith is 108 in 2009 she is not alone. It is amazing to realize that her brothers, Irving (103) still runs his law office with his two sons and Peter (97) were alive as was Faith as well as sister Lee, who has since passed, for the building, the sinking, the salvaging and the filming of the Titanic. This experience plus many other epic events during their lifetime leave an indelible mark on their record of longevity. So much so, that the siblings have assisted with various medical research projects hoping to pin down any possible genes that might help medicine understand their longevity and health at advanced ages. Though nothing definitive came up it remains a mystery how the remaining trio in this four family saga is still active and enjoying their longevity. The family’s longevity continues to be of great interest and has been featured nationally on shows such as “Good Morning America” and in print in the Wall Street Journal. Even Oprah Winfrey called to take the four siblings in for a week in Chicago. “Lee who was alive at the time had never heard of Oprah before, Faith said. “When we explained to her about the show, she said only fools would watch television in the afternoon.” She added, “Don’t people have anything better to do than watch television.” So that epic Oprah viewing was squelched.
It seems to me that Faith had a rather normal upbringing that segued into a fine education. She attended Cornell University where she was a member of the women’s rowing team, and from which she would graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English in 1925. She later earned an MA in psychology from Columbia University. Now let me diverge and tell you about the rowing team. Faith is arguably the most well-known alumna of the women’s crew and when she returned to the Ithaca Campus several years ago she brought her own degree of fiestiness back to Cornell, her old stomping grounds. Faith pointed out to the new rowers how times have changed from when women needed to have parental permission to be active participants in sports. Faith, the oldest living female rower at Cornell, who coxswained the crew, circa 1925 recalls, “My sport for two wonderful years was rowing, but I never competed.” Faith is truly a renaissance woman who has had years fulfilling her destiny in fashion, broadcasting and education.
Before becoming a legendary broadcaster, Faith excelled in various fields. First as an $l8 a week copywriter for six years at Bloomingdale’s department store and graduating to the position of Fashion Coordinator. Then she moved on to Montgomery Ward as fashion coordinator for their catalog and retail stores, but along came academia to lure her away from retail. While still working day shifts at Montgomery Ward Faith began to work as a teacher, teaching night courses in fashion advertising at New York University. She eventually joined the faculty of NYU in their school of retailing, teaching first part time then full time regaling students for thirty years.
An outspoken innovator Faith landed a job on television when she complained about a show with which she was displeased. The producer invited her to lunch and he offered her her own program. This gave birth to the “Helen Faith Keane Show…For Your Information” aimed at women which aired for one year over WABD, a Dumont-owned station. The show eventually won the Mcall’s Mike award in 1951. For Faith, what’s changed most during her long life are, “The social mores regarding sex and intimacy. “You have to realize that during the 50s era being pregnant in public was considered entirely too intimate.” Faith did however touch on topics such as, ‘ask your doctor about breast cancer.’ About the development of her program Faith recalls, “The ladies would write to me with their questions and, when I received sufficient interest in a particular topic, I would seek an expert who could address it.”
This early pioneer of a woman’s talk shows also found time to get married. Her husband, Dr. Philip Reichert, a prominent cardiologist, was a graduate of Cornell Medical School (class of 1923) and throughout their lifetime together Faith had wonderful support from her husband. He died in 1985. The couple had no children, but one can surmise that the vast audience she reached with her talk show, and the huge student body that attended Faith’s classes at NYU and including all the fashion women she mentored were indeed her vicarious offspring’s.
An innovator from the start Faith joined two other colleagues to form a different fashion organization. At a time when The Fashion Group International had become so big that it was no longer possible to get to know other women in the industry, it was fortuitously that Helen Faith Keane and Lucia Forman and Betty Greene, decided in 1949 to establish a satellite organization, The Roundtable of Fashion Executives to fulfill the purpose of co-mingling with like-minded women executives. Originally they called the organization Vox Pop, the Voice of the Public, but in 1952 when Dupont refused to write a check to Vox Pop, you all changed the name to The Roundtable of Fashion Executives, and the name remains the same today. My how times have changed in this exchange-of-information membership. Meetings were led by a member who selected a topic, started the program and all members contributed spontaneously. Occasionally, meetings featured guest speakers, and members were permitted to bring guests. When you met in the 1950’s at the Ritz Carlton Hotel lunch cost $3.50 and by the 1990s at the Princeton Club lunch costs rose to $35, and today real individual lunch costs are $45 to $50. Meetings sometimes became Brown- Bag, to avoid the increasing luncheon costs. Today, The Roundtable of Female Executives remains loyal to its original mission.
Dear Faith, You are a living legend!!! Your amazing career from copywriter to television host and New York University marketing professor leaves me in total awe with admiration for your many accomplishments. Thank you for your generosity, your feisty spirit, you’re mentoring of so many women during your lifetime and still going ever forward defying aging. My heartfelt congratulations to a woman I heartily praise, and innovator, energetic, opinionated and marvelous!!!

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