Descendants of Katharine Elkus White and local officials at Friday’s dedication of the roadway in Marine Park to the late mayor and ambassador. White, seen below in 1948. (Photo above by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Amid reminiscences of a “strong-willed” woman countering the casual sexism of the day, Red Bank’s first and only female mayor, Katharine Elkus White, was honored Friday when the road in Marine Park was named for her.
In a brief ceremony on a cold, blustery afternoon, some of White’s descendants joined local officials in unveiling a wooden sign designating the loop road as “Ambassador Katharine Elkus White Circle.”
Brothers Rob and Carl Colmorgen, as interviewed by acting library director Elizabeth McDermott about the effort to honor Katherine Elkus White. Below, White grandchildren Katharine White Mulvey and Tom Cohen. (Video by Suzanne Viscomi)
The unveiling marked the end of a campaign launched three years ago by borough crossing guard Carl Colmorgen to call attention to White’s achievements, which were previously alluded to only by Ambassador Drive, a private road that leads to the Elkridge condos on the former site of her family estate off Spring Street.
White served as mayor from 1951 to 1956, two decades after she first ran for council as a 27-year-old Democrat, facing an opponent whose slogan was “Let’s Keep Katie in the Kitchen,” according to according to ‘Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women,’ by Joan Burstyn. White lost by only 13 votes.
During one of her runs for mayor, Republicans disputed her residency in town; Elkridge straddled the Red Bank-Little Silver border. When GOP partisans, accompanied by a reporter from the Red Bank Register, showed up on her porch and asked to see her bedroom so they could determine where she lay her head at night, she rebuked one with, “George, you as a gentleman should know that a lady only brings her husband into her bedroom,” and threatened to call the police, Mayor Pasquale Menna told the Friday’s gathering of about a dozen.
White later headed the New Jersey Highway Authority during its construction of the Garden State Parkway, and was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to serve as Amhassador to Denmark.
As for politics, “she wasn’t in it for herself,” said Menna, who organized a tribute dinner for White at the Molly Pitcher Inn in 1984, a year before her death at the age of 78. “She was in it to make the world a better place.”
“She was very strong-willed, and now I have two daughters who are very strong-willed as well,” said 53-year-old White grandson Tom Cohen of Virginia, who fondly remembers “sitting around the big dining room table” at Elk Ridge with his grandmother and cousins.
Katharine White Mulvey, of Middletown, and her brother, Clifford White, of Westfield, Indiana, remembered their grandmother as worldly and adventurous.
“She met her husband [Arthur] on a trip around the world,” said Mulvey. At home, “she would ring a bell for the help to come” at cocktail hour.
Clifford White recalled visiting his grandmother during her ambassadorship when he was six years old, and her insistence that he complete a diary entry about every significant event while it was fresh in his mind. Slated to attend a royal reception, White said he was too tired to write, but “Grandma wouldn’t let me come down and meet the with the King and Queen of Denmark until I wrote in my diary that I went dot Deerhaven or whatever I did that day,” he said.
Others cited White for her efforts to advance the rights of women and minority group members; she was the first to appoint African-Americans to borough positions, according to Burstyn. Former Mayor Mike Arnone, who played pickup football games on the Elkridge estate, remembered her as “a trailblazer.”
“She was literally our Eleanor Roosevelt,” said former councilman and now Freeholder John Curley.
Menna said he chose the location overlooking the Navesink River after rejecting a number of suggestions that he said didn’t feel equal to White’s stature.
“I drove down here one day and thought, this is a woman who opened Red Bank to the world, and this spot also opens Red Bank to the world,” he said.
For more about Katharine Elkus White, see this redbankgreen article from 2011.