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Paying tribute to a ‘force of nature’

Marciene Mattleman is retiring from the board of ASAP, which she founded. A fund is being set up in her name to raise $500,000 for afterschool activities.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Ed Rendell’s favorite story about Marciene Mattleman is – well, it is about the same as Michael Nutter’s favorite story. Stories always told with affection.

Mostly, they go like this: She would call on a Monday with her latest big idea. The mayor would politely say "no" and gently hang up.

But that was not the end of it. She would keep calling.

"By Thursday I realized that you should never say no to Marciene Mattleman," said Rendell, who called her both "impossible" and "truly an angel."

I last wrote a profile of Marciene in 1993, when she received the MCP/Gimbel Philadelphia award. This was the lead then, and it is clearly still true now:

"It’s almost a joke among those who know her: When Marciene Mattleman wants something, she always gets it. And when she wants that something from you, there’s no getting away."

The still stalwart 85-year-old "force of nature" was honored Wednesday in City Hall at a tribute attended by her entire family and more than 100 friends, including three Philadelphia mayors: Rendell, W. Wilson Goode, and Nutter. The occasion was her retirement: She is stepping down as board chair for the After School Activities Partnership. ASAP, founded in 2002, offers drama, chess and other activities to thousands of Philadelphia children in the crucial hours between 3 and 6 p.m.

ASAP is the most recent of several nonprofits she founded and led during more than five decades of teaching, educational activism, and social entrepreneurship in Philadelphia.

"The idea Marciene is retiring, I actually don’t believe it," said Nutter. "You may be calling it that. Coming in, I asked, ‘What is this all about?’ Technically, she is stepping down as chair of ASAP. OK, that means you’ll just continue what you’re doing."

His skepticism is understandable; once convinced an idea was worthwhile and could help children, she has been unstoppable.

"My general policy is whatever Marciene is calling about, just say yes and save a half-hour," said Nutter.

He read a citation for her that noted, among other things, that she "started more service programs than any other person in the city’s history."

Mattleman, whose husband, Herman, is a former president of the Philadelphia Board of Education, launched the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. She was also the founder and first executive director of Philadelphia Futures, which mentors city students through their high school years and helps them choose, apply to, and pay for college.

As with ASAP, these programs often sprang full-blown as an idea from her head. She started Futures after philanthropists like Eugene Lang and George Weiss promised to send entire classes of students to college for free. She decided that people who were not so wealthy could also commit to this cause — as mentors, tutors, and financial benefactors to individual students if they could afford it.

Thus was born Sponsor-a-Scholar.

Thousands of students have been helped through this program. One of the first is Blakely Cooper, who in 1991 became the first student that the Mattlemans mentored.

More than that, he became part of their family.

"They instilled confidence in me I never knew I had," he said.

Marciene Mattleman greets Rosemarie Greco after the ceremony honoring her in City Hall. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)
Cooper described how Mattleman attended his track meets, proofreading his college applications on the sidelines. She arranged summer internships for him on the trips back and forth to Penn State, which he attended.

Later, when he was diagnosed with cancer, the Mattlemans helped him find the best care and were present for all his surgeries, he said.

Former Mayor Goode called her "one of the most unselfish, dedicated public servants I’ve known." It was during his administration that the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy started.

Goode said that he clearly remembers the statistic then that 40 percent of Philadelphia adults were functionally illiterate. He knew about that: His own father, a farmer in the South before moving here, could not read or write.

Literacy as an issue "was not tough for me," he said. "I did not know that I would find the perfect person who would be the director and take it beyond all my wildest expectations. I did not need to give her instructions; she had a different idea every day, sometimes two, or three, or five. No other mayor in the country had a literacy program anywhere near what we had here."

Joe Torsella, a former deputy mayor and head of the National Constitution Center who is now U.S. Representative to the United Nations for Management and Reform, is a protege of the Mattlemans. He first worked with them in Goode’s initial campaign for mayor when he was still a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

"At 19, she treated me as a peer and as a person with vastly more potential than I thought I had," he said. "She is one person who through sheer force of will can change an entire city, as Marciene did with adult literacy."

She works round the clock, he said. "In her dictionary, midnight means the perfect time to call a coworker with a great idea," Torsella said. "There were no nights or weekends in Marciene’s world."

He said she was propelled by a drive to make things better, not by ego or pride.

"She cares more about getting it right than being right," Torsella said. With Mattleman, he said, "I learned the power of relentless compassion."

Besides founding and leading the nonprofits, she was also a longtime professor at Temple and a commentator on education for KYW for 14 years.

Her children, Barbara Kaplan, Ellen Kaplan, and Jon, all said that their parents had inspired them. Jon told the story of how in elementary school, " I flunked fifth grade," and was told he’d be held back.

In the fall, he went back to school — but of course he wasn’t held back. "Mom took care of it. She had gone to the principal, and he couldn’t say no.

"Mom is crazy and wonderful and a doer," he concluded.

Her six grandchildren were also present for the ceremony.

Mattleman herself gave a short speech of thanks, with her humor firmly intact. Nutter had good-naturedly grumped that Mattleman was the only person who could induce him to play chess with children, as part of ASAP.

"I never won one game," he said. "It’s humbling to have a 12-year-old say, ‘I beat you in chess last year, nice to see you, Mr. Mayor.’"

Mattleman one-upped him: "One of the kids told me that he tried to let him win, but it just didn’t work."

The fund to support more safe afterschool activities for children has already raised $170,000 toward its $500,000 goal.

To support the Marciene Mattleman Founder’s Fund you can donate directly on ASAP’s website or by mailing a check to ASAP at 1520 Locust Street, Suite 1104 Philadelphia, PA 19102.

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