"The senator said I had five minutes. I was trying to get $100,000 for some day care centers, and I'd told him I had 20 organizations behind me, but there was no one there in the hearing room. I was in a panic. And then the senator said, "Well, we might as well take you first."
Nettie Ottenberg was 75, and the senator talking to her was Robert Byrd of West Virginia. it was 1962.
"So I talked the five minutes, and then he gave me five more minutes to read some testimony. All this time I had my back to the audiance, so I still didn't know if any of our people had showed up.
"Finally he looked over my head and akked those who were supporting me to stand. My heart was in my mouth. I turned around. The whole room was standing up."
People call Nettie Ottensberg, the mother of day care, because the $50,000 she eventually got from the Senate was the first public money ever put into day care in the District, Land very nearly the first anywhere.
Since then she has lobbied, by phone and in perosn, so persistently that "sdome congressmen hate to see me coming." Her main projects included medical screenig of the children involved, day care at factories, and a $1.5 million showcase program in the District run by the National Child Day Care Assn. Which she organized.
"Right now," she said, "I'm trying to get another year's federal grant for therapy for slow learners in the public schools. We've set up a conference on slow learners for 1979. Also, I'm trying to have the apartments of working women who use day care recognized as a business so they can get some tax amortization. My third objective is the granny patorl. I'm trying to get a grant to provide, say, $2, an hour of kids in gangs to be escorts to old people. I think these kids rob old women for kicks and because they need a little money. I wrote a letter to The Times about it, and there is now a granny patrol in the Bronx. Exactly my plan. It might have been a coincidence..."
Nettie Ottenberg is 90 years old. Every morning she does yoga on the floor of her apartment in a large tower complex off Connecticut Avenue, then goes for a swim. When she winters in Miami Beach she walks three or four miles a day.
"I don't have time to think about old age." she said. "I try to listen to the problems of today."
In a way, the whole thing about day care was an afterthought. Because day care became a problem only when women began to work outside the home, which in turn had something to do with women's increased self-awareness due to the suffrage movement. And Nettie Ottenberg worked on suffrage from the time she was 21, in 1908.
It was a time when society women dominated the movement, hera and in Britain, and some leaders saw a great need to get "out of the parlors and into the streets."
She was Nettie Podell then. She had come here from Russia at age 5, lived on the lower East Side of New york in the great Jewish ghetto, literally stumbled into social work when, at 16, she fell over a starving women in a tenement hallway and rescued her with the help of neighbours.
One thing led to another: She worked for a charity organization, was appalled at the hostile attitudes towars the poor (in those days distitute immigrants were deported) and talked her way into a pioneer shcool for social workers, supporting herself with a $5-a-week job as secretary.
"It was the day of Jane Addams and Hull House," she said. "We learned firsthand how to administer charity. And we learned the first rule, that charity today is justice tomorrow."
There was no money for her schooling. Her oldest borother, Morris, put himself through Cooper Union, became an engineer. Another brother, David, became a top antitrust lawyer, a dollar-a-year man in the Roosevelt era, helped organize the Small Business Bureau." The youngest brother, Jack, also worked his way through Columbia to become a lawyer.
"I didn't go to high school," said Mrs. Ottenberg "but I graduate in the first class from the School of Philanthropy which became part of Columbia, so I'm a Columbia graduate too."
At 19, interested in juvenile courts, she moved to Philadelphia, became a probation officer ("I never committed one boy to an institution") and worked with great radical Scott Nearing, who was then secretary to the Pennsylvania Child Labour Committee.
She seems to have had a knack for connecting with the famous: She talked Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont into financing rentals of "political settlement houses" for suffragists; a nonviolent militant, she was escorted home from a rough rally once by Osward Garrsion Villard, son of anti-slavery leader William Lloyd Garrison. And Al Smith threw her out of his office once.
Nettie Ottenberg's list of projects cover pages. She fought the abuses of taxi dance halls and baby brokers, who for reform of women's prisons, child labor, helped wirte the District's juvenile court bill, campaigned to make proprietary day care centers, nonprofit, arranged tax benefits for firms that attended to day care. At her 90th, birthday last April, Vice President Walter Mondale, a longtime ally, sent her a letter signed "Fritz."
Married since 1912 to Louis Ottenberg, son of the Ottenberg Bakery founder, she has three children, including a psychiatric social worker and a Pulitzer prize writer, and grandchildren who teach in Isreal or work with juveniles or perform other useful services. Louis died in 1960.
How does this happen? Where does this drive come form? This fierce need to help?
"It was my father," she said. "He just lived for others."
A born linguist, Max Podell was the only one who could write in his village near Odessa. People would come to him with letters from America for him to read to them, and before long he got the bug. Landed in New York in 1293, in six months got a job as bookkeeper, sent for his family (who had to cross the Russian border in haste after bribing Czarist officials) and settled in a New York tenement.
"Father used to collect rents, and if someone was short he'd pay it. He'd go down to the Broadwalk in Far rockaway, where the millionaries and summer places, and he'd talk rich people out of money. He'd get clothing manufacturers to donate clothes for the children at Passover."
Once she met a Hollywood executive who told her that her father had given him a first suit he ever owned, and had gotten TB treatment for his sister. When Max Podell died in 1922, people lined the streets, crying.
Nettie Ottenberg rose to her full 5 feer and glanced sharply around the apartment, rich with paintings and family photos, started toward the telephone, her weapon. She was still talking to the interviewer.
"Now, I have this other project I'm working on after I wrap up the day care package..."