Almost 40 years ago, Elise Wager was the Commercial Department Director for the fledgling and cumbersomely named Queens County Overall Economic Development Corporation. She hired me on a six-month contract. Elise started out as my supervisor, but in time became my friend and mentor. Earlier this month, Elise passed away. Over the past few weeks, I have reflected on her importance in my life and how her guidance shaped me professionally and personally.
My initial interview was admittedly lackluster. When she asked me about my knowledge of the borough, I responded that Rizzo's (a long closed checkered tablecloth sort of place in Astoria) served terrific lasagna. She smiled -- Elise had a great smile -- and we proceeded to discuss local Italian restaurants. She later told me that, though my experience was minimal at best, she liked Rizzo's too...the baked clams and shrimp scampi.
The field of neighborhood economic development was new, especially in the five boroughs, at the time. New York City was coming through a rough patch with a big summer blackout, high crime, disinvestment, graffiti-covered subways, and budget shortfalls. The good news -- at least for us in the field -- was that there were no real models and the blank slate gave us room to try different approaches. Elise led the charge for our little economic development militia. We helped organize professional groups -- many became local development corporations and business improvement districts. We helped real estate projects that were catalysts for future growth. We provided the first business counseling programs for those from underserved communities.
Elise was open to new ideas and concepts, even when they came from those less experienced or worldly. She also knew when to compromise and when to cut bait. And she always owned up to mistakes -- a rare quality in a supervisor, but one that demonstrated her honesty and humanity. Most importantly, she nurtured staff. Contradicting what is probably taught in management programs, her mantra was family and life first. She knew instinctively that a happy employee was a productive employee. For those of us whose first professional positions were at QEDC, this philosophy spoiled us for later jobs. When she left economic development and went back to school to get her MSW and become a counselor, nobody who knew her was the least bit surprised. Many of us knew she had the social work skills; she just needed the credentials.
Good mentorship is rare, and the best ones happen naturally. One doesn't realize the importance of good mentorship until there is some distance. As we counsel aspiring entrepreneurs, we encourage them to seek mentors, which can be difficult. In some communities, entrepreneur role models are limited. But when a connection is made, it is more valuable than an Ivy League MBA.
Elise taught me -- and so many others in her orbit -- to strive to do our best, take chances, and work for positive change. As people we love leave, I recall what a wise friend told me. "When people die, they no longer surprise you. But you know how they would react and what they would say in almost every situation, and in that way, they will always be with you." And with that, Elise will always be with me and many others whose lives she touched.