Mildred Goldberger was a role model for women willing to step outside their comfort zones

Mildred Goldberger was Caltech’s First Lady, arriving on the Pasadena campus in 1978 accompanied by her husband, Marvin Goldberger, who became the university’s president that year.

Her prestigious duties at the world-famous scientific institution did not include reaching out to people who marched to a very different beat. But Goldberger did just that. A few years after arriving on the campus  she sent an invitation to members of the Caltech Women’s Club, proposing that women join with her as “acting grandmothers” to infant and toddler foster babies who were in the child welfare system because their mothers had been addicted to drugs.

Her invitation stated, in part, “Alert, intelligent and loving care will make a difference for these so-called crack babies.” This was a project supporting the foster infants I cared for.

Mildred, as I knew her, was a woman who was fearless when it came to stepping outside of the protective enclave afforded by her position.

We became close friends, and women who seemed to yearn for her favors were continuously dismayed and puzzled to find me attending her small special gatherings.

It never failed that I would be asked by someone in attendance, who came to me with a fake smile on her face, “Hmm, so exactly how do YOU know Mildred?”

And how did I know Mildred?

She was an editor for the Los Angeles Times column Scientific View, in which contributions from female scientists and science writers were published.

I was a columnist for the local Pasadena newspaper, writing about social issues.

She was a featured speaker in a series sponsored by the local YWCA. I was one of 20 people who attended to learn from her ways of perfecting my craft.

When “Murph,” as her husband the president was called, retired from Caltech, I attended a luncheon given for the First Lady and my seat was to the right of her as she sat at the head of the table.

Mildred could have sat anyone in that position. Why me? I surmise from the amazing good deeds that she continually did, this action spoke of her as a person wanting others to follow the lead — my placement was a symbol.

Women’s History Month should provide us all the opportunity to begin sharing our contacts and skills to assist other women in reaching their individual goals and in strengthening their potential.

Mildred passed away on Sept. 11, 2006. She was 83. Of the many times that I visited with her at the President’s residence in Pasadena, and at their home after retirement in La Jolla, she never talked about who she was.

I knew her as a wonderful and supportive friend who shared her words of wisdom as well as her myriad contacts.

The world was Mildred’s comfort zone, and my friendship with her attests to the encouragement and examples we all need in order to step away from our own closed circles.

If she had spent our times together telling me who she was to the rest of the world, would we have really had a friendship?

She was born Mildred Ginsburg in Wichita Falls, Texas. She received a BA in mathematics from the University of Illinois. She did graduate work in math, physics and economics at the University of Chicago.

During World War II, she was a research assistant for the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project.

She was also chief of the computation group for the University of Chicago Air Force Project, course manager for the math department at Princeton University, economics instructor at Rutgers University, research analyst with the New Jersey Department of Higher Education, and research associate with Princeton’s Center for Environmental and Energy Studies.

But Mildred worked with me on social issues  and supported me in bringing  a Kenny Burrell Jazz Concert to Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. She insisted on setting up an appointment for me with Norman Lear a few years later.

The concert was a success. The Norman Lear appointment was not. But that’s another story.

Mildred Goldberger was bold. She stepped out of her comfort zone. She set in stone a path for all women to follow. She was talented. She was humble. She was brilliant.

Mildred Goldberger set an example to be followed.

How many of us will accept the challenge by following the example given to us by the late Mildred Goldberger? 

How many of us are willing to step away from our own comfort circles and make room in our lives for those women who march to a different drum beat?