Amazing Women of the Suncoast: Mary Lindsay Elmendorf

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Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014 4:37 pm

SARASOTA, Fla. -- She's been called the modern day Margaret Meade. She broke the glass ceiling for women by becoming the first woman director of CARE program in Mexico, and is praised for translating anthropology into action.

Mary Lindsay Elmendorf was born in South Carolina 97 years ago. She graduated from high school at age 15 and met her husband John at the University of North Carolina. "The first day I was there I met him. He and I were two of the youngest people in our class."

She studied public administration, social work, and anthropology. She and John married, and they worked with slum dwellers in the U.S. and abroad.

She gained international attention for her work with the Mayan women in Mexico. "So many people were only helping the men, or only talking to the men about what the problems are, so I added the women's dimension to analyzing the problems."

And she focused on helping solve those problems. She was the first anthropologist hired by the World Bank, and she discovered why the bank’s efforts to clean up drinking water wasn't working. "They were putting in a very fancy water supply and sanitation. It was like something dropped into their village and they didn't know how to use it."

She taught the women how to use it.

She was a part of a Quaker group in World War II that won a Nobel peace prize. “I worked a great deal with the Spanish refugees in France."

She and john had two children, Lindsey and Susie. The family moved to Brown University, then her husband was named President of New College in Sarasota – then a college in turmoil. “For the first 3 years you couldn't be sure it would come through, but it did."

She was all consumed in helping at the college and helping meet needs in the community. “I think Planned Parenthood is one thing that I'm proudest of. Also we're very proud of New College."

After her beloved husband died, she married another anthropologist and teacher. John Landgraph.

And her life lesson? "Don't think you can do everything, just try to do the best you can and solve as many problems as you can. But you can't do it all."

Now she takes great joy in her little dog and her 9 grandchildren.

Mary Elmendorph is truly an amazing woman. She's traveled and worked all over the world, and every place she's been she made it better because she was there.

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