TOOTING MY OWN HORN: And Hoping I Don’t Blow it

In January, I was told that I had been chosen as an Outstanding Woman of the Year in Somerset County by The Somerset County Commission on the Status of Women (SCCSW); the award category was for Public Service. A dinner to present the awards was to be held in March to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Chaired by Paula Marasco of Bernardsville, the SCCSW committee sifted through many names and ultimately recognized nineteen women in various categories for their “ . . . personal accomplishments and dedication . . . ” to their communities. I was one of those nineteen.

An estimated 300 people filed into the dining room of The Imperia in Somerset, NJ on March 23. The evening was lovely and crowded with family and suppporters of the award recipients, all milling around and talking excitedly.

I was honored by the award but panicky that I had to stand up and give a speech, one out of nineteen. Then I discovered that the categories were listed alphabetically in the program and the speeches, of course, were tied to their categories. Public Service was speech number 18. Uh Oh! That meant I not only had to worry about what to say but whether or not people will hang around long enough to hear me. Or, on the other hand, perhaps they might be too drowsy to listen to me speak. I desperately needed a glass of wine.

Wine did not help one bit and my food was put on hold. But the night was fun-filled. Jokes and laughter abounded and I loved it all. Except when I thought about speechifying.

The first seventeen speakers were heartwarming and those women were well chosen for their accomplishments. Which made me even more nervous.

To my surprise, the time and the speeches flew by; all spoke well and with passion. Equally surprising, the audience seemed wide awake and attentive. Most important, however, given the circumstances, my public speaking juices and my innate sense of competition had finally heated up.

The need to cut Abigail Adams from my speech, though, was disappointing. I originally wanted to praise her for her grit, but my speech was running over the time limit so I’ll tell you now what I wanted to say that night in honor of Abigail and Women’s History.

Abigail Adams, in March 1776, wrote to her husband, who would become our second President, “John, I desire you would remember the ladies,” and she bothered him about women’s rights throughout their marriage. Continuing on a firmer note, she cautioned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound to any law by which we have no voice or representation.”

She was some woman, that Abigail, courageous and wise at a critical time in American history. Remembering her, I thought, this speech is not about “foment(ing) a rebellion”; this is merely a talk in front of friendly folks. I can do that!

I heard my name. Ed was poking me. It was my turn.

I stood up, walked to the podium, looked out at my audience, and began:

Thank you, Paula, and thanks to the Somerset County Commission on The Status of Women for my award in Public Service. Also, thanks to Carolann Garafola, the Mayor of Warren, and Bunny Flanders of The Valerie Fund for their efforts on my nomination.

And a very special thanks must go to my husband Ed, my other half. My Muse… My Lodestar… My Exemplar. Together, in all manner of things, we have taken care of our children, worked in our business, and shaped our public service goals. And, as an aside, he has suffered through, and opiniated on! every single draft of every single thing I have ever written.

As you can see, I’ve found the right guy. Thank you honey for being you, and for encouraging me to be all that I can.

My lost loved ones, too, have played their very important roles.

My older brother Stan was the first to push me toward public service. Our mother died when I was nine. Stan was fourteen and he was my best friend. Twelve years later, when he was twenty-six, Stan died in an auto accident. But by his example in his short lifespan, he taught me to feel concern for others, to avoid self-pity, and to be strong.

Shortly after his death, I took my life’s savings, the entire $20, and mailed it to Stan’s Hebrew School administrators telling them to offer a scholarship in his name to a young person in need. I didn’t analyze it at the time; I just knew I had to do something.

As it turned out, making that donation comforted me, and I did it yearly.

Fast forward to early 1970: our three-year-old daughter Valerie was diagnosed with bone cancer and treated at Babies Hospital in New York, over an hour’s car drive from our home. There were no pediatric oncologists in New Jersey in 1970 so most of our time was spent in caring for our ill child and traveling to and from the city. Stacy, our older daughter, was separated from us too many times to count. The guilt was overwhelming.

We lost Valerie in 1976, and soon after, The Valerie Fund — I called it our third child — was born in the living room of our Warren home. One year later, we opened The Valerie Fund Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Overlook Hospital.

We didn’t need an organization to remember Valerie — memories of her j’oie de vivre still make us grin — but we did need the comfort of knowing that other families with seriously ill children could find treatment closer to home, right here in New Jersey. Ed and I and all the people who volunteered their time and gave of their money worked hard to make The Valerie Fund successful. Today, The Valerie Fund supports seven children’s centers throughout our state and one in New York City. The Valerie Fund also runs a free one-week overnight summer camp, Camp Happy Times, with on-site medical care for children who have or have had cancer.

Fast forward again to 1989: our surviving child Stacy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a determined young woman, close to us, her parents, in every way as she battled her illness, thoughtful and loving in marriage and in child-rearing, and with a straightforward sense of reality. She was a model for living life as fully as possible. We lost Stacy in 2001. She was thirty-seven.

A few years later, Ed and I joined the fight against breast cancer with a focus, this time, on research as well as clinical care. In Stacy’s name, we supported fellowships for two young M.D./Ph.D. scientists, both young women, working in breast cancer research at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

In 2009, in collaboration with The Cancer Institute, we renamed their breast cancer center the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center. And when we see our two scientists over lunch or in their labs, I give them orders, “Work faster! Work harder! Find that cure!” We all smile; we all know that I’m serious.

I believe that the bedrock of public service includes the voices of our loved ones, a deep-rooted concern for others, and a lot of determination mingled with the gift of j’oie de vivre — a joy in LIFE. And on that path to public service, we learn, again and again, that when we give, we also receive.

Thank you for being here and for listening. This is an award I will always cherish.

And I will. I will also cherish the knowledge that I was the only speaker to receive a standing ovation that night. Astonished at the response, I left the podium to walk back to my table but was stopped by the many people in that dining room who were either cancer survivors or who have or have had loved ones with cancer. One woman told me she was a breast cancer survivor and had a son who was also a cancer survivor. Another, a man — a husband, brother, father? — simply touched my shoulder, nodded, and stepped away.

So. For all of us, our work is not yet finished, not by far.


Suzann B. Goldstein lives with her husband Ed in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey. Sue is co-founder of THE VALERIE FUND, has her Master of Arts degree in medical sociology from Rutgers University, is a published author and poet, and has just recently completed her memoir, Unexpected Lives.