MANATEE — It was officially Mary Elmendorf Day on Thursday, and an appreciative audience of the distinguished lady’s friends and followers showed up to help her celebrate.
“Dr. Elmendorf is yet another example of the immense treasures that Sarasota stores amongst our local population, and is the embodiment of human capital, contributing not only to the betterment of our city, but the entire globe,” said Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who honored the 93-year-old Elmendorf with an official proclamation.
Elmendorf, of Sarasota, was at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to accept the Bertha Palmer Centennial Woman of Achievement Award for her more than seven decades of global leadership on behalf of women.
It was one among many honors in a lifetime of work on behalf of the poor.
In 1947, she was among a group of honorees awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work as volunteers in prisons and with displaced persons during and after World War II.
In 1952, she was the first female director of a country program in Mexico for CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty.
In 1965, she was a founding member of the first Planned Parenthood of Sarasota.
In 1975, she was the first female anthropologist invited to join the World Bank staff.
In 1982, she was the first recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, presented by both the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology.
“She fully realizes the vision of CARE that, by empowering women and girls, you benefit communities, and by extension, the world,” said moderator Bonnie Greenball, associate director of the USF Institute for Public Policy and Leadership.
“And, this is exactly what Mary Elmendorf’s life’s work has been about,” she added.
Elmendorf’s scholarly work was focused on the importance of clean drinking water in developing countries, but she didn’t just do research: She bought a drilling rig and hired engineers to drill wells.
She also set an example as wife of the late John Elmendorf and the mother of two children, said Judith Sedgeman, director of the public policy institute, who met Elmendorf in the 1970s.
“She was a primary inspiration to me,” said Sedgeman.
Elmendorf and Bertha Palmer — for whom the award was named — were both pioneers, said Greenball.
In 1893, Bertha Potter Palmer was the first president of The Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago World’s Fair.
She moved to Sarasota in 1910, where residents are celebrating the centennial of her arrival, said Hans V.A. Johnsson, a board member of the Historical Society of Sarasota County and coordinator of the Sarasota County Bertha Palmer Celebrations.
At one point, Elmendorf was asked what advice she might give younger women.
She smiled and replied: “We have to ask questions, not just accept things as they are — see if they’re really fair.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.