If you had told a young Phyllis Mundy that she’d someday run a manufacturing company’s business operation and then go on to serve as a state representative in Harrisburg, she would have questioned your sanity.
But she did run a business and later serve for more than two decades in the state House, and she had the drive to make changes while there.
Dr. Susan Sordoni was raising five children when at age 45 she decided to go to medical school. She not only became a physician, but she initiated plans for a Volunteers in Medicine clinic for those hard-pressed to afford medical care.
Brenda Hage started college in her late 20s, the mother of two boys, went on to earn two doctorate degrees. She now heads Misericordia University’s Graduate Nursing Programs and is co-medical director of The Hope Center clinic in Trucksville for the uninsured and under-insured.
They are just a few of the local women who exemplify the kind of achievements celebrated nationally this month during Women’s History Month.
Women’s History Month originated in 1981 when Congress requested the president proclaim the week of March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” But in 1987, the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress, and lawmakers designated March as Women’s History Month, requesting the president to issue a proclamation.
Presidential proclamations have been issued each year since to “celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields,” according to the National Women’s History Project, which champions the accomplishments of women.
Politics not in plans
Mundy, 66, Kingston, the first woman from Luzerne County elected to the state legislature, didn’t set out to be a politician or even to run a business. But that’s where her life took her when she couldn’t find a full-time job after graduating with a degree in secondary education and French.
“I remember my mom and dad suggesting to me I should choose a career in teaching or nursing so I would have something to fall back on, ‘in case something happened to your husband,’ ” she recalled.
She did substitute teaching for a while, but when she got divorced, she needed a full-time job with benefits. She got a job in in the office of a manufacturing firm and worked her way up to managing the business end with the owners.
“I’m pretty smart and learned,” she said. “But if you had asked me if I would be running a manufacturing company, I would have said, ‘Are you nuts?’ The same with state representative.”
Twenty-four years after Mundy was first elected to the state House, making her one of the longest-serving women in the General Assembly, she said times are changing for women.
“Women are aspiring to many more careers than I thought possible,” said the Democrat, who decided not to run again this year so she could care for her 96-year-old father.
When she first went to Harrisburg, she was mistaken for an aide or as the wife of several other legislators she was standing next to in receiving lines. At the time, there were 21 women in the House of 203 members. Today, there are 37, including Reps. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, and Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township. In the state Senate side, there were four women in 1991 and now there are twice as many, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, among them.
But Mundy said she doesn’t want to be known just for being the first woman from the county elected to the state office, but for what she accomplished for her constituents.
“If I were to pick one of the legislative initiatives, kind of in general terms, it would be public policies on early childhood education, public policy initiatives I would take some credit for how far it’s come with regard quality child care, ages 0-3, with nurse home visits, pre-kindergarten funding, Head Start,” Mundy said.
She helped form the early childhood education caucus, which helped push for state contributions to Head Start, and with commissions with business leaders, law enforcement and the military to help children and families, reduce crime, child abuse and neglect, and improve educational readiness.
There is more she would like to accomplish, such as close the Delaware Loophole that helps companies avoid taxation and further improve the lot of foster children. She plans to become an advocate for children in Luzerne County even after her term ends, as a volunteer and Children and Youth advisory board member.
A ‘cockeyed optimist’
Sordoni, 68, Harveys Lake, originally had planned to open a private practice after graduating from medical school, but she saw a need for health care for people without health insurance, both those working and unemployed, and began planning the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Wilkes-Barre in 2004 after volunteering at a clinic in Philadelphia. With the help of a group of others, the local clinic became a reality four years later, and though she now has retired from private practice, she volunteers at the clinic and with other organizations.
She refers to herself as a “cockeyed optimist” who is surrounded by good people. She never once thought she couldn’t do something she set her mind to, but always thought what she could do next. She said she is a team player and is quick to credit those around her for making things happen.
Sordoni said she was able to juggle her studies at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and family because “I had good kids and a husband who thought the idea wasn’t crazy.”
She had graduated from College Misericordia in 1968 with a degree in biology, but she put off going to medical school after she met and married Andrew Sordoni III, and they started a family.
“I don’t look at obstacles that have to be overcome,” she said. “I proceed and make the best possibility out of it.”
Every day, she tries to be the best she can and tackle problems as they come up. She is grateful to her family and the community for making her work so enjoyable, especially to those who helped plan the clinic.
“The Volunteers in Medicine clinic far exceeded the expectations and outreach this wonderful group of people envisioned,” Sordoni said.
Inspired by a boy
Hage, Ph.D., CRNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice), associate professor of nursing as well as Graduate Nursing Programs director at Misericordia, said she is driven by a sincere desire to help people improve their health and well-being.
She was inspired several years ago by a 4-year-old boy she met while volunteering at a hospital during a mission trip to Guyana.
He had a brain tumor, and Hage was teaching in the school of nursing at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in the African country, where the Sisters of Mercy have an order.
“One of the students had brought this boy to me,” she said. “He was paralyzed on one side and he was no longer able to walk or feed himself.”
With the help of many people, including those at the John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation, Northeast Rehabilitation Associates, Misericordia and elsewhere, the boy was brought to the United States and underwent surgery in New York. Now he is a healthy teen living in the Bronx, Hage said.
Hage, 52, Dallas, also will take part in a medical and vision service trip to Nicaragua in May.
She said while she’s accomplished many of the things she’s wanted to, there are many more she wants to accomplish.
“That’s what drives me to do volunteer work at The Hope Center and here as director of nursing programs at Misericordia,” she said.
That’s because her parents always led her to believe she could do anything she set her mind to if she worked hard enough.
So she went back to school when her two sons went to school and her husband, Nafty, was having heart problems and she had to consider how she would support the family. Today, Hage is a family nurse practitioner with clinical expertise in gerontology, rehabilitation and family health. She is associated in clinical practice with the Keystone Migrant Health Clinic Program, Chambersburg, in addition to The Hope Center, where she is co-medical director.
Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Hage in December 2011 to the Pennsylvania Council of Aging, which acts as an adviser to the governor and the Department of Aging on services to older adults.
Scientist in motion
Terese Wignot, Ph.D., Wilkes University interim provost and associate professor of chemistry, was named to the interim provost position based on support from her colleagues.
The provost, or vice president for academic affairs, oversees academic affairs for the university. She’s been in the position for 18 months and will hold it until June 1, when a new provost begins work.
Wignot, 53, Wilkes-Barre, has been an associate professor of chemistry at Wilkes since 1989, according to her bio information from the university. She served as department coordinator from 2000 to 2005 and chair from 2005 to 2011. Since 2000, she has been the director of Science in Motion, a grant-funded program in which Wilkes provides outreach to secondary schools in the region.
Wignot also serves on a variety of committees, including the Admissions and Financial Aid Committee, the University Athletic Board, the Faculty Affairs Council, the Faculty Workload Task Force and the Master Planning Committee.
“My parents instilled in myself and all of my siblings that you could do all you want to do, as long as you worked hard enough,” Wignot said. “Something was instilled in me to just follow my dreams and find something in a career path you enjoy doing and work hard at it every day.”
Wignot faced the challenge of raising a child when she was in college, but it obviously was something she could navigate.
She now has four children, the youngest a sophomore in college.
She said her grandfather instilled in her mother that she should not let anyone dictate what she could or could not do.
“Another thing instilled in me when I was very young by my parents was regardless where you are, you could always better yourself and do more,” Wignot said. “That’s a lifelong goal.”
Committed to social justice
Margarita Rose, Ph.D., professor and chair of the economics department at King’s College, is driven by a commitment to social justice.
“I want to share with students knowledge that will help them understand issues of justice in the world around them,” Rose said.
She was among the founders of the Women’s Studies Program at King’s and is former program director, according to her bio.
She will lead a 13-member group from King’s College when it visits Uganda to study the East African country’s educational system from early July to early August. Rose helped King’s nab a $75,000 Fulbright-Hays grant for the Group Projects Abroad Program.
Rose, 53, Kingston, director of the project titled “Learning from Ugandan Models of Education,” said the group will parallel government-run schools with private schools, many of which are religious schools, and recently emerging independent schools. The group will include future teachers and four faculty members.
She counts raising her two teenage children as her greatest accomplishment. Professionally, she is most proud of seeing the success of her students in the 25 years she’s been teaching.
But she feels she has more to accomplish, especially with the Interfaith Resource Center for Peace and Justice in Wilkes-Barre, where one of the main focal points is providing mediation services to people and community, and where Rose helps as a teacher, guest speaker or helper at the peace camp.
While her first encounter with gender discrimination was in college, when a work-study position in the athletic department was given to a male student over her, she had very supportive parents who made her believe she could do anything she set her mind to.
“I have benefited from many international experiences and friendships that have enriched my life greatly,” said Rose, who is married to Robert Tuttle, who teaches sociology at Wilkes University. “I have a very supportive network of college women and men who helped me thrive.”
Proved them wrong
Mary Erwine, owner of Erwine Home Health and Hospice Inc. in Kingston, never believed the skeptics who doubted her capabilities.
“I was told many times that a woman cannot run a successful business, and I knew from the beginning that was not true,” she said.
Still, society’s perceptions presented obstacles.
“Being a woman, I had to work twice as hard to prove that a woman can do anything and do it well,” she said.
She established Erwine Home Health in 1993. Two years later, the agency’s private duty health care division officially became part of the business. Erwine added a hospice division in 2004.
Erwine holds a Master of Science degree in nursing from College Misericordia, now Misericordia University and is recognized in the area for her work. Erwine and her Erwine Home Health and Hospice Inc. and Erwine Private Duty Health Care Inc. have been lauded for their service, and her home health company tied with Bayada for best home health care business in The Best of The Times Leader Readers’ Choice awards handed out last week.
“Our goal was to help those in our community in need of health care, education or resources,” Erwine said. “We have accomplished that for many, but with changes in health care, there is still a lot to do.”
What drives her is “the gratification of knowing we made a difference in someone’s life.”
Still, she counts as her most significant accomplishment her two daughters, Michelle, who lives near Washington, D.C., with Erwine’s granddaughter Abby, and Megan, of Kingston.