Friday, November 2, 2007

Isabel Spencer

Edith Stephens and Isabel Spencer, beneficiaries manager for The Annie Tinker Association for Women (photo: Ann White).
By Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s tough for women to make it to the top,
so I eagerly follow at Isabel Spencer heels as she starts the march up the five floors to her office at the top of the Parish House of The Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village.

The trail-blazing newspaper woman climbs carefully and gracefully, her sensible black flats taking her steadily upward. This is hard work and doubly so because she doesn’t have to be here today. As the beneficiaries manager for The Annie Tinker Association for Women, she works only two days a week, and this doesn’t happen to be one of them.

New York Daily News says goodbye to Isabel as she takes the helm at Annie Tinker in 2001.
Half way up, she stops in an alcove that at one time would have been the butler’s pantry in the parish house, and does something I never would have expected: She makes coffee. After all, during her career, she got ahead precisely because she didn’t do what other women in the newsroom were expected to do, which was make coffee.

She was so far ahead of her time that there’s no room to list all of her accomplishments, so suffice it to say that she did tours at the Main Line Times, The Delaware County Daily News in Chester, Penn., the Philadelphia Daily News, The Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey, the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, The Star-Ledger in Newark; The Daily Journal in Elizabeth, New Jersey, The Denver Post and finally the New York Daily News before retiring and taking the helm in 2001 at Annie Tinker.

Spencer’s a one-woman show for the national charity, which was established by Annie Rensselaer Tinker to provide modest financial help to older women, most of whom have worked in the arts or related fields, so they can remain in their homes. The bequest of Tinker, a member of a prominent banking family, is all the more remarkable because she didn’t live to old age: She was only 39 when she died in 1924.

Isabel with Kitty Carlisle Hart
When we get to her rented office — Tinker is not associated with the church but Spencer is a congregant — Spencer plops her coffee cup down on her desk, which, in true newspaper tradition, is a pyramid of paper that looks as though it were tossed there by a tornado. “What makes us different,” she says, “is that we encourage our beneficiaries to know each other and to socialize. And every nickel that people give goes directly to the women.”

Right now, Annie Tinker has 70 women on its roster, and a list of at least 20 worthy applicants waiting in the wings it doesn’t have the money to help. These are women, like Spencer, who have made a difference, and the $100 to $200 the association sends them every month makes a big difference in their lives. “You could not find a set of braver and or more outstanding people to be helping,” Spencer says. “We get people who never want to take money or anything else. We specialize in artists and writers, so they feel comfortable because they feet it is a grant for the work they have done in their lives, not charity.”

Through the years, The Annie Tinker Association for Woman has helped a variety of people, including the first woman to hold a pilot’s license in Hungary; a member of a girl group that was the lead-in act for singer Pearl Bailey; and a dancer whose eponymous avant-garde troupe dazzled audiences around the world. “We would like to help more,” says Spencer. “But it’s hard to raise money for older people. And these women are so deserving.”

The organization, whose greatest supporters included national advisory council member Kitty Carlisle Hart, doesn’t have a high profile or a website so people are referred by word of mouth. “These are people who have fascinating lives,” says Spencer, who interviews each one personally.

She knows all of their names and immediately recognizes each of their voices when they call. Her office, which is little bigger than a newspaper cubicle, is filled with artwork given to her by appreciative clients. There is a picture made of computer circuits that looks like a rising sun and two framed prints of golden room dividers.

The Annie Tinker Association for Women, she says, is more about friendships than finances, and she never considers it work. And just as she did during her long career in journalism, she learns something new every day.

About all those flights of stairs. She tells me that she never makes the beneficiaries climb them because of their age. So the 66-year-old meets them at the front door and ushers them into a meeting room at street level. Being artists, they appreciate the great beauty of the church, whose McKim, Mead & White interior includes a spectacular mural of the Ascension and art-glass windows by John La Farge.

Spencer doesn’t mention whether she makes her Annie Tinker visitors coffee, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she does.

For more information on The Annie Tinker Association for Women, e-mail Isabel Spencer at or write to her at 12 W. 11th St., New York, NY 10011.

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