In the end, Gabriella “Gabby” Viruet had nowhere to move. Her king was trapped, with two rooks poised to attack while the opposing queen blocked the only other escape.
But in truth, Gabby, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at A.S. Jenks Elementary School and the daughter of a single parent, had already made a dramatic move – from a shy youngster to a confident leader in her class.
And she’s the reason, along with thousands of other Philadelphia school children, that Marciene Mattleman lives on, even though the feisty and tireless advocate for children died March 29 from Parkinson’s disease at age 89.
“No one in this city has done more for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia and our region than Marciene Mattleman,” former Gov. Ed Rendell said in 2015 when she retired as board chair of After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP), which she started.
Last month, Gabby and about 150 other elementary and middle school children, members of ASAP’s 24 chess clubs, gathered in the atrium of the Philadelphia School District headquarters to play in a first round of chess tournaments. ASAP serves more than 5,000 children – elementary to high school – in nearly 350 after-school chess, drama, debate and Scrabble clubs.
Had Mattleman been alive, she would have been at the tournament distributing prizes, chatting with students and thanking volunteers. Maybe she would have talked to Gabby about her game.
Gabby and 64 others compete on A.S. Jenks’ chess team. “It keeps them off the street, for one thing,” said coach Jeanne Farrell, dean of students at the South Philadelphia school. “It helps their problem-solving skills and concentration. It’s especially good for girls. They learn to be more aggressive.”
Gabby didn’t win; she was bested by sixth grader Rasheed Nicoles-Gamble from Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia. “It’s not a good feeling,” Gabby said, “but losing just encourages me to try harder.”
Mattleman would approve.
Throughout her life, Mattleman tried harder, but it didn’t look that way. It looked like one kind, gracious conversation after another — pleasant, perhaps like no effort at all. But, as a result, donors gave money, busy people gave time and, over the years, thousands benefited.
Mattleman, a former sixth-grade teacher and Temple University education professor, launched the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy under Mayor W. Wilson Goode. She then started four landmark organizations: Youth Education for Tomorrow, Philadelphia Reads, Philadelphia Futures and, finally, ASAP, a nonprofit facilitating after-school programs.
How did Mattleman do it? Assumption, connection and caring.
“My general policy is, whatever Marciene is calling about, just say yes," former Mayor Michael Nutter related. "It saves you about half an hour, and you're going to do it anyway." And besides, he said, her ideas were always good.
That might sound as if Mattleman was simply a Class A nag, persistent to a fault, famous, or perhaps infamous, for her late-night phone calls.
But it wasn’t like that.
“When she believes in something, she just assumes you, too, are going to believe in it,” said her eldest daughter, Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, who is retiring as Philadelphia’s chief integrity officer. As for the late-night phone calls and buttonholing, “she didn’t view that as an imposition or nagging in any sense.” Of course, (fill in the blank) will say yes, because that person is passionate about children, just as Mattleman was.
Kaplan said it never occurred to her mother that the person might say no.
“The kind of things she embraced: How can you not care about adults learning to read? How could you not care about children? She couldn’t envision that anyone would feel any other way. It wasn’t arrogant. It was because she so fervently held these beliefs and the drive to help people that she assumed others did, as well,” Kaplan said.
Fatigue also never occurred to her mother.
Kaplan once turned to her for advice on “burnout.” The response? A blank stare. “She did not understand the word,” Kaplan said. “It was not in her nature to relate to anything that would slow her down.”
ASAP executive director Justin Ennis agreed. “She was always pushing the envelope to do more. Burnt out? I don’t even think that factored into her day. If something good happened, it was energizing.
“Marciene had this uncanny ability to make her own rules, and you were happy to go along and play her game. It was a joy to be in her slipstream and learn as you go along. You accepted that this would be a little exhausting: My boss is going to be calling at 10 or 11 and I’m going to take the call.”
Ennis admired Mattleman’s ability to connect. “Marciene worked breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks,” Ennis said. “That was the work day. After that she’d work the phone. To me, that was night school, to watch how she’d approach these events.”
Cementing connections was Mattleman’s genuine care for others.
“One of the lovely traits about my mother was that she took a real human interest in the people she worked with,” said her younger daughter, Barbara Mattleman. Between the two daughters there’s also a son, Jon. “Even if the relationship started as a professional relationship, she took them under her wing. She wanted to know who their kids were.”
Mattleman, who was married to her husband, former Philadelphia school board president Herman Mattleman, for 68 years, applied her connection skills to matchmaking, linking Nicole Torsella Harris, the talent acquisition manager for staff at the University of Pennsylvania, with her future spouse.
More than 20 years ago, Mattleman and Torsella were outfitting the new offices of Philadelphia Reads, a quasi-public agency, when they developed computer problems. Mattleman called her friend Ed in the mayor’s office. Mayor Rendell immediately sent help – Michael Harris, on his first day as a top network administrator for the city.
Mattleman insisted on a thank-you lunch. Except, when lunch came, Mattleman bowed out. “The two of you go without me,” Torsella Harris recalled. Once Mattleman decided Harris and Torsella should marry, “we had all sorts of computer issues that were fabricated. We did sort of fib to get him to come back.”
The couple’s story weds Mattleman’s three iconic characteristics: connection and caring, and most important, assumption. “Of course, he’s a nice man,” Torsella Harris said, rattling off Mattleman’s operative assumption list. “Of course, you deserve a good man. Of course, you’ll marry. Of course, it’ll work out.”
Of course. For Nicole Torsella Harris, for Gabby Viruet and for thousands of Philadelphia children, for everyone her enthusiasm and dedication touched, Marciene Mattleman deserves the title of icon.