Throughout her life, Merry Adler, GSEHD BA ’82, MA ’83, has looked to her late grandmother Rose Friedenberg as her guiding star. While “Nana” passed away in 1976, she remains vibrant in Adler’s memory. With the desire to share the story of her beloved Nana alongside the memories of other people’s grandmothers, Adler wrote and edited Grandmothers Who Inspired Us Across The World (Marble House Editions, 2018).
The book—an anthology of 31 memoirs, including Adler’s—is filled with reminiscences of grandmothers throughout the world. The authors who put memories to paper of their grandmothers range in age from 7 to 90 and chronicle women born both in the United States as well as in 10 other countries.
Each memoirist used a template provided by Adler that includes demographic information—dates of death and birth, hometown, the name used by each grandchild for their grandmother—as well as anecdotes about the grandmother’s life and their relationship.
Adler writes in the prologue, “A good, loving grandmother is no different whether she lives in Mississippi or Morocco. The languages of these grandmothers, their culture and religions may variety, but their love is the same.” She says that the common thread “is the strong bond and enlightening relationship of one’s grandmother to oneself.”
Her grandmother’s love was a balm throughout Adler’s childhood, which was marked by the illness and untimely death of her mother, one of Nana’s beloved daughters. Naomi Adler was diagnosed with a severe case of multiple sclerosis at the age of 38, when Merry was only 11 years old, and died 11 years later.
Adler found the maternal nurturing she needed through the letters, calls, and visits with her grandmother, who served as Adler’s mentor and role model in learning about self-respect, intellectual pursuits, the arts, giving back to others, and having a strong work ethic.
That work ethic took root in Adler who began working full time at the age of 19 and continued for 50 years. After receiving an associate degree from Mt. Ida Junior College in 1963, Adler decided not to go on to a four-year college. “I just found that I was someone who loved working and was eager to focus on that,” she says. She went on to work as an administrative assistant in four Harvard-affiliated hospitals.
Adler moved to Washington, D.C., 16 years later. While working as a temp, she received encouragement from a female lawyer, which prodded Adler to make a change in her life. “When she asked if I had a college degree, I told her ‘no,’” says Adler. The lawyer replied, “You look like a lawyer, you sound like a lawyer: go back to college.”
So, at the age of 36, Adler took up the challenge and enrolled at the George Washington University. “I’m a late bloomer,” says Adler. “GW was the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me the self-confidence that nothing ever had before. You’re not a different person with a college degree, but with education, so many other possibilities open up,” says Adler. For her, that was a career as a health care leader. She went on to hold directorship positions at The George Washington University Hospital and Inova Health System in Falls Church, Virginia.
Adler says that choosing to spend her career working in hospitals stems from her mother’s illness. “I value doctors and believe in medicine more than any career,” she says. “I wanted to give back.”
And she did.
Whether it was creating the George Washington University Hospital’s customer service department from the ground up, strengthening patient care provided in the nation’s first Seniors Emergency Center at Holy Cross Hospital, or any of the myriad accomplishments on her CV, Adler was committed to facilitating the best results for patients and colleagues.
One of her greatest honors was visiting the Republic of Estonia in 1994 with a prestigious group of health care professionals to share knowledge about how the US provides medical care. “Estonia was just three years post communism and it was an incredibly fascinating visit,” she remarks. “We witnessed an operation in their operating room, got to know many physicians each evening, and gave speeches to all who wanted to hear about how a well-known university medical center operated. We were so fortunate to have met such wonderful Estonians.”
Her dedication and passion earned her a “Service Legend” award at Inova Health System, and special recognition for customer service at Inova Alexandria Hospital.
Adler says that the 12 years she worked at GW’s Medical Center reinforced her love for the university. “I had a great mentor, Sharon Dougherty then the CFO at GW University Hospital—who will always be my mentor to this day,” says Adler. “Sharon told me, ‘Merry, you were born to manage.’”
While Adler retired five years ago, she remains actively involved with the community, including GW. She serves on the George Washington University Hospital Women's Board, a nonprofit group whose mission is to support “George Washington University Hospital, University and surrounding community in the areas of education, healthcare advancement initiatives, patient advocacy, healthcare awareness promotion and medical research.”
Since 2014, Adler has been active in SMHS’s Adopt-a-Doc Scholarship, which supports a GW medical student, with other physicians, throughout the student’s medical school career. Adler, currently the only non-physician contributing to this four-year commitment, is sponsoring her second medical student.
“I adore this effort because you get to actually meet the recipient of your generosity,” says Adler. “I wanted to give back to a GW medical student because even though I’m not a physician, my entire career was in health care, on the provider side, working solely inside hospitals.”
Adler’s philanthropy, love of education, and community involvement can be traced back to her grandmother. “Writing this book was a dream of mine for years,” she says. “I’m thrilled that I was able to create this testament to Nana and other grandmothers.”