elk-ridge-092611Ambassador Drive, serving the Elkridge condominium complex off Spring Street, is the only public tribute to late Red Bank Mayor Katharine Elkus White, seen below in 1948. (Click to enlarge)


katherine-elkus-white-1948She was Red Bank’s first, and only, female mayor. She also served four years as America’s ambassador to Denmark, was a champion of civil rights and women’s equality, and once frosted political opponents who wanted a peek into her bedroom.

But driving around town, you would hardly know Katharine Elkus White had existed, says Oakland Street resident Carl Colmorgen.

He hopes to change that.

Colmorgen, who’s best known to redbankgreen readers as a devotee of our weekly Where Have I Seen This? feature – and second-best known as the crossing guard who sports ridiculous hats – has gotten a bee in his bonnet about the enduring slight. He plans to press the mayor and council to fix the situation at their bimonthly meeting Wednesday night.

The sole, vague allusion to White’s decades of service to town and country is Ambassador Drive, an all-but-private road that connects Spring Street with the Elkridge condo complex, says Colmorgen.

“And I bet most of the people who live there have no idea who she was or that the ‘Ambassador’ refers to her,” he said.

Elkridge itself was named after the private estate on Fox Hill that it replaced: the longtime summer getaway for the New York-based family of Abram Elkus, a lawyer who served as the last U.S. Ambassador to Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.

The estate was once the site of a surprise birthday party for Woodrow Wilson, according to ‘Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women,’ by Joan Burstyn, who details the many ways in which father and daughter were entwined with prominent Democrats of their time, from New York Governor Al Smith to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Later, the large Victorian home with the wraparound porch that dominated the property was the year-round home of Katharine Elkus White and her family. Colmorgen’s sister, Kathy Lou, recalls playing on the grounds as a child. (A portion of the property was sold by White’s mother, Sarah Elkus, to the First Presbyterian Church at Tower Hill in 1949, according to the Randall Gabrielan history, “Red Bank in the Twentieth Century.”)

It was also the center of a skirmish between White, a staunch Democrat, and her Republican opponent in one of her runs for mayor, according to present Mayor Pasquale Menna.

“The Republicans said, ‘She doesn’t sleep in Red Bank,’ because the property straddled the Red Bank-Little Silver border,” said Menna, who knew her well. “They contended that although the property paid taxes to Red Bank, her bedroom was actually in Little Silver. They wanted to inspect the house, but she said, ‘the only gentleman who has access to my bedroom is my husband.'” White won the election.

Her first run for council, in 1933, came up short by 13 votes, as her opponents waged a campaign themed as “Let’s Keep Katie in the Kitchen,” according to Burstyn. She also tried for Monmouth County Freeholder, and failed, before winning election as mayor in 1950, breaking the GOP’s 20-year lock on the office. She served through 1956.

In the interim, White was named chairwoman of the New Jersey Highway Authority, becoming, according to Burstyn, the first female to head a toll-road authority. She appointed the first African Americans to positions of stature in town government and at the authority, Menna said.

Her crowing achievement, though, was her appointment by President Lyndon Johnson as ambassador to Denmark, a post she held from 1964 to 1968. There, she won the admiration of the royal court, and when Menna organized a tribute dinner for White at the Molly Pitcher Inn in 1984, the Queen Mother, Ingrid, sent her Ambassador to attend, he said.

White died in April, 1985 at the age of 78.

“She was very instrumental in bringing Red Bank out of the dark ages, after a long line of bland leadership” with her initiatives for women and African-Americans, Menna said. “She also brought a lot of class to Red Bank, and international flavor” picked up from having lived overseas as a child and as an adult.

Menna said he agrees with Colmorgen that something needs to be named for White (and notes that White Street is named for someone else). But he’s not sure what, and says the matter deserves serious attention.

Colmorgen, though, says a good place to start would be Ambassador Drive, which the town could unofficially rename, as it did in honoring the late mayor and Supreme Court Justice Dan O’Hern when it dubbed Locust Avenue as ‘O’Hern Way‘ in 2009.

“But I think she deserves a park,” Colmorgen says. “This was a very influential person who put Red Bank on the map.”