The time was September 1978, the place was Boston and the occasion, the John Newton Russell Award dinner. And the National Association of Life Underwriters (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors) was about to make history.
The chairman of the event announced the winner of that years award, ending the speculation that always precedes the presentation, and it was Ellen Putnam of Rochester, N.Y., the first woman to be so honored. It was a popular choice and the audience cheered as she was escorted to the podium.
At 47″ and weighing no more than 80 pounds, she presented a diminutive figure as she came to the head table where a box had been placed for her to stand on so she could be seen over the podium. But there was nothing small about her voice or passion as she delivered her acceptance speech. Her deep voice boomed out over the audience, extolling her long-held beliefs in our products and how she had been able to “take care of her people,” and the importance of our business and our association. Her favorite and most often used word in her speech was T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C. Everything was terrific!
John Connally, former governor of Texas, our featured speaker of the evening, was sitting next to me. About halfway through Ellens talk about her life experience, he turned to me and exclaimed, “My God, what a woman,” and he was rightshe was herself, “terrific.” Ellen was the personification of Napoleons assertion that “height is measured from the eyebrows up.”
In my two previous columns, I have written about the men who led our association in its formative years and founded important institutions, and others who enlivened our meetings and taught us valuable lessons. But along the way, there have been great women who, in their own way, have provided quality leadership to our business. But the trail they blazed often has been different than the one pioneered by the men. Different maybe, but just as important.
Perhaps this can be best epitomized by looking at the life of Ellen Putnam during her insurance career. Given the prominence of women in our business today, it is a bit hard to realize that when Ellen first attempted to join the life underwriters association, her application was turned down because of a “no women allowed” rule. Persistency pays off, though, for she was undaunted by this rebuff and continued to apply. She not only gained admission to the Rochester, N.Y., association, but also went on to become its president and most distinguished member.