Education, Volunteerism Valued by 2014 Women of Distinction

For Palm Beach philanthropist and community service champion Susie Elson, the road to a career in mental health advocacy began on a trip to Milledgeville, Ga., home to the state’s mental hospital.

At the time, the hospital had the dubious distinction of being the largest mental institution in the world and was home to some 15,000 inmates, said Elson, speaking to 450 guests at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Women of Distinction luncheon at The Breakers in Palm Beach on Wednesday.

Video of remarks by Susie Elson (above) and Nancy Murray at the 2014 Women of Distinction luncheon at The Breakers Palm Beach.

“It was a snake pit sort of place, where the elderly and children were warehoused together with very few possibilities for treatment from only two doctors on staff. And neither of them spoke English,” said Elson, who was living in Atlanta at the time.

“I was outraged. And this was the beginning of my mental health advocacy career, which led me to the governor’s mansion, to the state Legislature, the halls of Congress and even the White House.”

Elson went on to serve as president of the National Mental Health Association, which has more than 1 million members. She also has a long history of supporting causes ranging from social services to education and the arts.

She and another Palm Beach resident, Nancy Murray, were the 2014 honorees at the luncheon, which raises money for scholarships for female students. This was the 23rd year of the luncheon, which honors women who have made significant contributions to the community.

Both Elson and Murray spoke of how volunteer service challenged and invigorated them. “I have received so much more than I have ever given,” Elson said.

The two also talked about the importance of educating women.

“There is no greater priority than educating and training young women,” said Elson, who has served as a trustee for several colleges and universities, as well as serving on the Board of Regents for the state of Georgia.

“I have experienced the power of education and truly believe that when you educate a woman, you in fact also educate a family.”

She is the mother of three grown sons and is married to Edward Elson, who formerly served as the U.S. ambassador to Denmark.

Murray has had a similarly wide-ranging career that has spanned the world of magazine publishing as well as high-level positions in such organizations as The Garden Club of America, the Palm Beach Civic Association and the Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach.

In her acceptance remarks, Murray made reference to the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

“In the movie, Meryl Streep asks Dustin Hoffman, ‘Why can’t a woman have the same expectations as a man?’ This is still a valid question 35 years later, when women are still expected to manage family, home and career. Is it that the world thinks that women were born with a unique gene, one that combines tenacity and the art of juggling?”

Murray also spoke about transferring her skills from the for-profit world to the not-for-profit world when she came to Palm Beach.

“I found work in the volunteer world to be as rewarding as the for-profit world, and I was fortunate enough to have the luxury of the support of my husband and my family as I went about these endeavors,” noting that there is a “cornucopia of stimulating volunteer jobs out there.”

She recalled auditing an accounting class years ago on the PBA campus. The course was taught by the husband of one of her friends, and “the students were very polite,” she said.

Murray concluded by reading her favorite poem, titled “Success.” She said that while the poem has been attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, scholars later discovered that its true author was a woman, Bessie Anderson Stanley.

She said that this intriguing piece of literary detective work “shows how easily the creative efforts of women were sometimes overlooked.”

Murray’s husband, John, is a physician. They have three adult children and five grandchildren.

Introducing Elson was 2013 Women of Distinction honoree and Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio. The other 2013 honoree, Danielle Hickox Moore, introduced Murray.

During the luncheon, 2014 Women of Distinction scholarship recipients Lisa Nyman and Whitney Smith offered remarks and delivered the invocation. The PBA Concert Choir, directed by Associate Professor of Music Dr. Geoffrey Holland, performed patriotic selections.

This year's event also included a special recognition for Bebe Warren, the honorary chairwoman for the Women of Distinction luncheon. The wife of PBA founding chairman Dr. Donald Warren, she was the luncheon's first chair from 1991 to 2006.