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Before the Notorious RBG there was Grandma Ruth and Big Mary

As I write this article, it has been four days since Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away. Irrespective of politics, she served as a role model for gender equality, speaking with a powerful, persuasive force, and being deeply admired by the Justices that served alongside her during her 27 years on the High Court.

Remarkable Women in My Own Life

The Notorious RBG was a remarkable person, wife, mother, friend, and Justice by all accounts. That said, it helped me recall that there were remarkable women in my own life that were part of the generation that preceded Justice Ginsburg’s. These two women are real – contemporaries of one another – and the key to my upbringing. Ruth Helen Carey Kilday Fleming was my paternal grandmother; Mary Lucy Seno Catalani was our neighbor – who referred to me as her adopted grandson; we called her “big” Mary because her oldest daughter is “little” Mary.

They were born in 1922 and 1923, just a few years after women achieved their right to vote through the ratification of the 19th Amendment. I can distinctly remember them signing checks with their husbands’ names (i.e. Mrs. John Catalani). They came of age when a woman’s identity was supposedly defined by that of her husband – including limits to her ability to get credit, and other financial/social issues. Ironically it had been women of their era that played a critically important role during the successful World War II campaign that defeated Naziism, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy, in yet another example of women performing as well, and in many cases better than, their male counterparts.

What has always stood out to me about Grandma Ruth and Big Mary was their ability to command, persuade, influence, and lead while rarely – if ever – using anger, brashness, or loudness to move the dial. Their steely poise, kindness, and absolute respect is likely the reason so many found themselves doing as they were asked the first time because no one wanted either women to be “disappointed.”


Here is an example from each: 

Following the wedding of my youngest sister, I dropped by Grandma Ruth’s house with my roommate before heading back to Arizona (my family is (still) mostly in Las Vegas). We were all sitting in the living room having a conversation when my step-Grandpa began to criticize my Mom and her role at the wedding; to his way of thinking, she should have been helping serve, clean, and coordinate rather than socializing. You could have heard a pin drop as my face turned red and my roommate’s mouth was forming the letter “O”. As always, Grandma Ruth had a perfect read of the situation. She stood up, smiled with warmth, and said to us, “why don’t you boys come out back and pick out a nice, cold soda from the fridge. Grandpa needs a minute alone.” As we were walking out, I glanced back to see that Grandpa was getting ‘the look’ that told him all he needed to know. When we returned, we all had a cold beverage – and Grandpa had an apology ready. It’s a lesson that would serve me well: cooler heads do, indeed, often prevail as there is no sense in wasting effort and energy through unbridled anger. Of course, her ability to read a room, take the temperature, see the emotion, and respond in a way that took that into account was borne of an earlier life with a different husband who drank, was unreliable, and frequently violent not to mention three children she was raising. We can use our lives to thrive or as an excuse – always our choice.

Walking into Big Mary’s house was often met with the smell of either baking or cooking and a nearly guaranteed, near-universal greeting that went something like, “…. come on in – grab a plate. You look hungry.” Throughout much of my life, I enjoyed family dinner with Big Mary and the other Catalanes around 5 pm or so – followed by another dinner with the Kildays some hours later. Because I spent the time after school with Big Mary, before my Mom came home from work, I saw the ritual of preparing for what was the nightly tradition of family dinner – a time of laughter, camaraderie, sharing, and love. It was never about the food, but the family. And much like Grandma Ruth, when friction reared its head, she didn’t attempt to speak louder or more forcefully, but with two words: “oh, honey”. To imagine the proper tone, think of how you would say that word in a tone that said, how could you bring that up at the dinner table when we are here to come together? I’ve always thought of this as the precursor to what corporate America calls ‘creating an experience’. Big Mary thought it was important to bring people together, hear about their day, and enjoy the company – absent personal agendas and disagreements.

It was an art to be a Matriarch of their generation and there are key leadership lessons we can all take from Grandma Ruth and Big Mary: 1) cooler heads prevail, 2) we can thrive in the face of adversity, 3) we have to come together to hear one another, and 4) there is a time and place for friction – and dinner is not it.


Leadership to Learn From These Two Masters

There is plenty of space in the realm of leadership to learn from these two masters, which is what I continuously work toward every day.

Ken Kilday, CEO/founder of Leader’s Cut: The Ken Kilday Coaching Experience, is an Executive Business Coach and EOS Implementer®. He works with leaders in companies of all sizes to implement actions, evaluate success, and adjust to new, improved habits and actions to produce repeatable and predictable outcomes independent of changing business cycles. Ken is an entrepreneur who has designed, built, launched, and rejuvenated successful businesses. Contact Ken to schedule a 15 minute Meet & Greet and discover how coaching can best serve you and your business.