When Golden Slipper Gems needed to stuff and mail 1,000 envelopes, 82-year-old Merle Holman was one of the first to volunteer.
Holman, who still works part time as the CEO of her company Group Dynamics In Focus, never says no, said Golden Slipper Gems Executive Director Marcia Garrell. When something needs to get done, Holman just does it.
“She’s really an example of how one should live when you are older,” Garrell said. “She is very interested in doing new things. She’s a joiner. As you get older, you need to sometimes be more flexible because your body hurts or you’re having trouble with a hand. She’s somebody who’s able to get over those bumps and keep on going with the things that excite her about her life. Every time I talk to her, she is doing something new.”
Holman is an active volunteer with and board member of Golden Slipper and Act II Playhouse. Once a week, she also comes into work at Group Dynamics, which she founded in 1981.
“I’ve gotten through a lot,” Holman said. “I’m so fortunate to be doing all of this.”
She was born and raised in West Philadelphia and Lower Merion. Her family belonged to Adath Israel until they, along with a group of other families, broke away and founded Main Line Reform Temple. Holman attended Lower Merion High School. Her father ran a newspaper for Brith Sholom Lodge, and her mother was involved with Hadassah and American Jewish Congress, so volunteering was a big part of her upbringing.
She continued on to Harcum College, where she studied marketing, advertising and public relations, and was one of three students in her major. A year after graduation in 1957, she got married.
Life took a turn in 1964.
Holman got divorced, and she found herself a single mother of two young children.
No one in her family could fathom that she would be able to support herself and her children on her own. Her mother was a homemaker and told her she needed to get remarried soon.
But she managed and, eventually, thrived.
“My grandmother had come over from Russia and gotten divorced and raised three children,” Holman said. “I very much feel that she is my spirit, my living spirit. She’s gotten me through a lot of it. She can do it. I can do it.”
Holman started working for a marketing research company, a new field at the time. She wrote questionnaires, did phone interviews, recruited people for focus groups and more. Then in 1971, she started a company at home called Merle Holman Interviewing Service, which grew to about 180 employees.
In 1971, she also met a man named Alex Bruckner. The two never lived together, Holman said, but they shared 30 years of good times until he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 2001.
After running her own business for seven years, Holman decided she didn’t like working from home anymore and went to work for a company in Center City.
One day, she came in and discovered she had been laid off, so in 1981, she began working for herself once again. She started another company, Group Dynamics In Focus.
She faced challenges that many today wouldn’t even consider. She didn’t have the credit to take out a loan from a bank, and said the Small Business Administration (SBA) rejected her because she was a woman. In the end, her father and Bruckner helped her with funding.
Holman opened a focus group facility. It was groundbreaking work. Not a lot of other people were doing focus groups, and it was the first such facility in Bala Cynwyd, she said. Bruckner set her office up with some computers. She would invite people for a focus group into a hotel room or into a home, while the client sat in a different room and watched on a television.
Thirty-seven years later, the company is still going.
“I attribute my life to having decent health, friends and just following my own path because I had to,” Holman said. “It’s just luck.”
Four or five years ago, Holman’s role at the company began to change. As her volunteer work began to take up more time, she stepped back in her company role. Daughter Robin Kaplan now runs it and serves as president.
Inspired by her mother, Kaplan also started volunteering about a year ago with the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House.
“I saw how much she enjoyed it, how much she loved it, and decided it was time for me to start being able to give back a little bit,” Kaplan said. “It gets passed down. We all lead by her example. We’ve all been very fortunate to have her here for all this time and learn from what she has done.”
Kaplan’s been involved in the company since its beginning, she said. Over the decades, the company has expanded in physical size, as well as scope. It now interviews and surveys people across the country.
“It was time,” Holman said. “She had put her time in, and I was getting involved in a lot of nonprofits, which I’ve always been involved in, but this was taking a lot more time.”
Over the years, she had gotten involved in Linda Creed Breast Cancer Foundation, the Cancer Support Community, as well as Act II Playhouse and Golden Slipper.
She volunteers at Golden Slipper Gems at Adath Israel on Wednesdays. She walks out of there, she said, feeling good about the work she does. It was almost selfish.
“I’m so blessed that I have this opportunity to work with the seniors, which is Golden Slipper Gems, and on the board, and get to the camp once a year in the summer,” Holman said. “It’s just phenomenal. We’ve done some really good work, and there’s just so much to be done.”
Not long ago, Holman was asked to speak to a group of women about her life story and to inspire them as a mentor figure. About 50 women attended.
“I’m so proud of being me and the fact that people want to hear about my experience,” Holman said. “I’m a very lucky lady. That gets a lot of exclamation points.”