How does Lafayette Hill-resident Mary Bert Gutman summarize her longtime commitment to quality childcare?
“It must be something in my DNA.”
Gutman, who was recently honored at the 100th birthday celebration for the Federation of Early Learning Services (FELS), has carved quite a legacy in the FELS community. During her 58 years of service, she has acted as board chair and served on multiple committees for the organization, which serves an estimated 1000 children each year. She currently still serves as a member of the executive committee.
“Some people retire,” Gutman says. “This is the type of work young people should be doing, and I suppose it’s selfish of me in many ways to keep doing it, but I love being involved and helping these children and families.”
Originally from Selma, AL, Gutman moved to the Delaware Valley in 1944 after marrying her husband Alvin (“Vene”). The two met and fell in love while attending college in New England – her at Smith College, him at Dartmouth University. As they settled down and started their family, they also went above and beyond to get involved with numerous organizations in the area.
"We both came from families that believed in giving back, and so we always tried to do as much as we could for our community,” Gutman says. “We both had separate interests – he worked with organizations like Philadelphia University and the Free Library of Philadelphia, while my main involvement was with FELS. But we always supported one another and provided encouragement.”
Gutman also worked with other organizations like United Way, but she says FELS became her main focus. It should come as no surprise: as a sociology major at Smith College, she did her senior thesis on the pressing need for child care, so it always had a great deal of interest to her.
Looking back on her 58 years of service, Gutman says it’s amazing how far FELS has come. In her early days with the organization, she says it was tough to get people to take them seriously.
“We used to resent the fact they called us a babysitting organization,” she says. “People thought we were just expensive babysitters; they didn’t fully get what we were trying to do, so it was difficult in the beginning to get money. We had to fight for funding and grants, but we were on the right track in those early days.”
Over time, the community began to see the importance of FELS. With both fathers and mothers joining the workforce, early education assistance became an absolute necessity.
“Early childhood education is vitally important,” Gutman said. “This is a time of life when children are growing the most and so families need the support and knowledge that their children will be prepared when it’s time for them to enter school.”
Now, FELS operates 11 programs in Southeastern Pennsylvania – three public school sites and eight standalone centers, including the local Terri Lynne Lokoff Early Learning Center (7002 Butler Pike). Gutman played a large part in helping the organization become such a force, and even has a center named after her – the Mary Bert Gutman Early Learning Center in Melrose Park.
“Mary Bert Gutman has played a major role in shaping the development of this organization,” said Fredda Satinsky, FELS Vice President of Program Development. “She is very committed to the idea of quality childcare and believes it should have a critical impact on children and their families. She’s a role model for all of us and working with her has been extremely rewarding.”
The organization estimates it has served nearly 40,000 children throughout the Delaware Valley during its century of service. Gutman admits to being proud of having helped serve so many, but she says such grandiose figures only have became apparent to her recently.
“I never thought of it in those terms, but recently I have considered it because they’ve been giving me all of these numbers,” she says. “It was never something I looked at that wall. It was always about individual children, helping them to learn and grow.”
For her contributions, Gutman was honored along with 11 other board members, at the 100th birthday celebration, which was held June 6 at the national Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately Vene was unable to be there for the event – he passed away earlier this year. However, Gutman says she could feel him by her side.
“We had 68 years together, had three children, seven grandchildren, and soon there will be four great grandchildren,” she said. “At an event like that, it was easy to think of him, because we both felt you get much more out of giving than receiving. When I think of what we made together, the way we tried to live our lives, it’s hard not to be grateful I got to spend 68 years with such a wonderful man.”