My Trailblazing Grandmother and the Lessons She Taught Me

July 4, 2015My grandmother, Mae Glassbrenner, was a revolutionary woman, breaking boundaries in the military and in business. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1921, the youngest of four. Upon graduating from high school, she took the civil service test and was hired by the Army Inspection Office in Berwick, Pennsylvania, to work in a factory that made railroad cars.  After the Pearl Harbor attack, she quit her job and returned home to Pittsburgh to find that her two older brothers had joined the military as hospital corpsmen—one in the Army, the other in the Navy. She trumped them by joining the Marines as a member of the Women Reservists. After completing basic training, my grandmother was one of just two people to receive the top-secret assignment to train Marine Corps pilots to fly at night using a new ground-control approach known as Radar.  She rose up the ranks to sergeant, and was accepted for the September 1945 Officer Candidate Class, which wound up being canceled when the war ended.  

Though my grandmother had hoped to attend the University of Pittsburgh after the war, veterans who had returned before her filled all available slots. So she used her G.I. Bill to study machine shorthand at Duffs-Iron City College in Pittsburgh, where she also taught classes; and then was hired to teach at the Stenotype School of Philadelphia. In 1951 she moved to Chicago to teach court reporting at a school owned by Stenographic Machines, Inc.  The company sold the school to Mae and a friend in 1955, and she embarked on a new career path as a business owner.  Gram referred to her school as “a little United Nations” because she had students from all over the world.  As my grandmother saw a need for court reporting schools in other countries, she established them in Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Australia, and England, where she spoke at the House of Parliament on the benefits of court reporting and the importance of preserving the record for appeal in a democratic society. Somehow she also found time along the way to earn her BA from DePaul University in 1973, and her MA in Education from Antioch College in 1976.

Though she recently passed away, my grandmother’s pioneering spirit and passion for duty will always reside within me.  I, like her, joined the Marines, and used my G.I. Bill to complete my degree. Now that I have my BA, I’m considering what to do next with my life and career.  As I mull over the options, I think of all I’ve learned from my Gram.

  1. Always be productive. My grandmother took advantage of every opportunity that came her way—even if she didn’t know exactly where it might lead. From flying planes to teaching court reporting and ESL to running a global business, she taught me to be grateful to be a part of this world and to contribute to it in as many ways as possible.

  2. Be humble. She never boasted of her accomplishments, but she did enjoy sharing stories about her achievements—at the right place and time.

  3. Learn from mistakes. Gram admitted mistakes, but didn’t dwell on them. She’d move on and never made the same mistake again.

  4. Take initiative. Don’t wait for others to do something for you. If you want something, raise your hand and go after it.

  5. Don’t be afraid to veer off course.  Sometimes detours lead to the best opportunities. My grandmother taught me not to worry if things didn’t work out as planned. Whether it’s a school you can’t get into or a career you didn’t expect to pursue, we have to be open to different paths because you never know where they will take you.  

On this Fourth of July, I salute my grandmother’s independent spirit, and thank her for being a role model.  She’s shown me what can be accomplished—both in the military and in a civilian career. As my future takes flight, I know she is co-piloting right beside me.





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