Edith Everett’s superpower is that she doesn’t see the obstacles, just opportunities to improve people’s lives. She counts her blessings, not her problems. At 94, she hasn’t given up on repairing the world, takes on new challenges every day and encourages others to do the same. Edith leaps when there is a need, and then figures out the path.
She has been a stockbroker, vice president of investments at a New York Stock Exchange member firm, a trustee of the CIty University of New York, teacher, political activist and philanthropist as well as a proud wife, mother and grandmother. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants, she’s a New Yorker, born and raised. Her mother grew up on a farm in Poland where there was no public school available to Jews. However, Edith’s mother valued education and taught herself English as an adult. Edith inherited her love of learning, entering college at 16 and then joining the male-dominated field of finance in 1961.
Edith’s husband of 54 years, Henry J. Everett, died in 2004. In the 1950s, Henry and Edith co-founded The Everett Foundation, which has focused on education, human services and Jewish advocacy. As president of the foundation she has continued their work, founding the Everett Jewish Life Center at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, and serving on philanthropic boards including The Jewish Book Council, Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, Blaustein Institute for Human Rights and International Hillel. Edith is a beloved figure who is a source of encouragement and inspiration for friends of all ages and backgrounds.
You started out as a teacher. What motivated you to change direction and become a stockbroker? Did you confront any obstacles as a woman on Wall Street in the 1950s?
I stopped teaching after I had my first child. My husband was involved in finance so I got involved with it and became a stockbroker. As a stockbroker, it was not a problem being a woman—in fact, it was an asset. Truthfully, all that counts for those people is money. As long as I had clients and I had an income, my companies let me do whatever I wanted—that was legal obviously. But there was no impediment. When I did research, it was sometimes an advantage to be a woman because I’d call a company to get information and generally they were sort of taken off guard, so I’d learn things that others might not have found out.
Some women in the investment business had a problem if they were analysts, more so than brokers, because analysts were mostly salaried people and it was mostly a male-dominated business. There were a lot of cliques. The men went and played golf or had drinks or something, and the women weren’t invited. I heard this from other women, I didn’t experience it myself. Once, my employer, the head of one company that I was with, took me to lunch at the New York Stock Exchange. He said that a year before he couldn’t have taken me because women were not allowed. That was many years ago. That was hard on women at that time. That was my impression, anyway—I have no complaints. I was just very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
Where did your passion for education and helping others come from?
One of the reasons I feel very motivated about education is the fact that my mother never had a day of school, not in Europe, where she came from, because Jews had to pay for school, and not here, because she had to work. She was a smart person who desperately wanted to have an education, and felt insecure because although she taught herself to speak English, she couldn’t write well in English. I got involved in education because I didn’t like the idea of other people feeling that way.
Helping others is so important to me because of a story my father always told. When my father came to America, he was a dishwasher. One evening he got lost on the way home to Brooklyn. He was in the street, late at night, waiting for a trolley car and looking very bewildered. A man came over to him and said, “Do you have a problem?” When he didn’t respond he asked again in Yiddish. My father told the man he was lost. The gentleman explained how to get home and offered him a nickel for the car fare. It blew my dad away that a perfect stranger would offer him money to help him. He told that story a lot, and I told it a lot because it impacted all of us. My parents weren’t people of means and the 1930s were difficult times, but if there was a friend or a relative that he perceived needed help, he would ask, “Can I help you?” He didn’t want to wait for someone to ask him. He thought it was humiliating to have to ask. He would offer to help. That was the standard that we have—if you see somebody in need, you have to reach out. Don’t wait for them to ask you. So I love that story.
When you and your husband established the Everett Family Foundation in the 1970s, how did you decide where to focus your philanthropic efforts?
We wanted to do something in Israel, and both Henry and I were very interested in education. It’s the bedrock of a good society. We approached the United Jewish Appeal, which had a subsidiary called the Jewish Education Fund. They gave us a list of schools with needs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There was also a small town in the north with no high school, very poor, settled by Moroccans who fled Morocco in the fifties and were largely uneducated. We said, “That’s for us!” We wanted to be able to do something significant, to turn something around that wasn’t so accessible. And that’s what we did, we undertook the building of a high school. The Organization for Rehabilitation through Training helped us attract qualified teachers and a principal. It’s been a great joy to us how this school, and the town around it, has changed dramatically. I was recently in Israel with a small group of people from our board, the Israel Sci-Tech Board, which I co-founded in the United States. I visited the school and the principal got some of the graduates together and they’ve got jobs, they’re professionals and they’re wonderful. That was very gratifying.
You’ve had quite a few losses in your life. Your brother died while serving in the Air Force during World War II, and your husband of 54 years died 20 years ago. How did you persevere after those losses?
I think one of the things that’s very helpful is understanding what’s good, understanding how blessed you are, even given these terrible circumstances. I’m grateful every single day, and I think that’s important. If you dwell on what you are missing, your life is going to be miserable. If you dwell on somebody who has more than you have or what might have been, your life will be miserable. I think a life of gratitude is a happy life. When I think about my brother and of course my husband, I think of the great times we had together, what a wonderful husband he was and what a wonderful family we have and so forth and so on. I could be sitting home wringing my hands. What would that do for anybody? It doesn’t help.
As I say, be grateful every day for everything you have and that makes life a lot better. I only wish that more people would have the great life that I have, it’s just been a great blessing, my life.
What are you most enthusiastic and passionate about today?
Right now, I’m most passionate about saving America from fascism. I’m trying to encourage everybody to understand this, to be outspoken even in your neighborhoods, because these people are getting into your school boards, your libraries, your hospital boards, your newspapers, your television stations. Wherever there are institutions, you have to be alert. You have to use the power of the ballot, you have to speak up. You cannot sit by idly because that’s how Hitler came to power. They voted him into power. It’s not a secret.
I think not enough people understand that we could be on the path to autocracy, so I am trying to get them to understand this. Hitler didn’t come to power by chance. It was planned, it was over time. Mein Kampf was the map of how he came into power. He told lies just like our former president, who is a wannabe dictator. He loves Putin, he loves Kim Jong Un. He thinks these are great people. When you love those people and those are your idols, we have to watch who this president wants to be. He’s definitely a wannabe and we have to stop it. I’m deeply disappointed in the lack of aggressive messaging from the Democrats.
What motivated you to become involved in political messaging?
This goes back to George W. Bush when he was trying to privatize social security. I thought to myself, “Are we going to sit back and let that happen?” I didn’t have any experience at all, but I felt the need to do something. So I wrote a script and bought radio time. The truth is I don’t know how I did it. What did I know about radio? When I went to pay the actress, she insisted that she not be paid. She said she was just so glad someone was trying to stop this. I was very touched by that. This encouraged me to do more.
When there was a ballot initiative in California about Social Security, we purchased more air time. A couple gets a Social Security check and she says to her husband, “I was expecting more money in the check. I know we used to get more money.” And he says, “Well, now they changed it. They do investing and sometimes the market’s down and sometimes it’s up.” And she says, “But we have a budget. We used to know what we could spend. Now we’re in trouble. Do you think the kids will take us in?”
I later heard that an article in the LA Times credited this ad with helping win the ballot and stop privatization. I had no experience writing a script.
Are there any new challenges you plan to take on, in addition to politics and education?
I just sort of respond to things as they come. I don’t have any goals in terms of what I want to do and how I want to do it. I think mostly I’ve responded to things that I see. Right now, and I’m not going to use names, but I think I’m going to take on my phone carrier. I noticed my bill was not itemized and there were things on it I didn’t know I was paying for. When I called the phone company they said they’d remove the charges but that is not honest. It’s sneaky. So that’s my newest, non-political thing. I’m going to see what can be done in that area and tell all my friends to check their bills. You should check yours too.
I guess what I have to say is you can’t just say, “Oh, it’ll go away.” Whatever it is, things don’t go away. They get worse. It’s like when people steal from the cash register and they just take a dollar. “Oh, what the hell? It’s just a dollar. I got away with a dollar. I can try with five next time.” You are encouraging bad behavior if you don’t stop things at the outset. So we have to not allow things to happen around us. We have to be responsive.
Would you like to share any further words of wisdom?
It is most important to speak up, take positions, don’t let things happen. Make things happen. Don’t be afraid to say your piece. If your kids are listening, choose your times to say something. It’s not always right for you to say something, but find the right time. Don’t be afraid that people won’t like you or your friends will turn on you. You have a right to have an opinion and to state your opinion.
My husband and I were very active in anti-tobacco, back when people could smoke everywhere. Friends said it never will change. The executives creating advertisements encouraging children to smoke were admired. They put their names on buildings, they’re philanthropists and they’re making money on the backs of dead people.
You mustn’t be afraid someone won’t like you or will be upset that you said something. You have to take on these things. I had an outstanding mother and she gave me a lot of confidence. She loved me beyond imagination and I knew that she was there for me. I had self-confidence.
So things that other people really are reluctant to say, I had no hesitancy saying it because I had this self-confidence. You don’t have to be the queen of the party. That’s not your role. Your role is to be a decent, nice person. A good person who is thoughtful and caring and not afraid.