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Mary Bert Siegel Gutman, 96, longtime leader of childcare group FELS

Mrs. Gutman was gracious, optimistic, and a great listener, said a colleague at FELS, a childcare nonprofit. When she spoke, everyone listened.

Mary Bert Siegel Gutman
Mary Bert Siegel GutmanRead moreCourtesy of the family

Mary Bert Siegel Gutman, 96, formerly of Elkins Park, a volunteer leader who helped shape an organization offering education for the very young, died Monday, Nov. 27, of congestive heart failure at the Hill at Whitemarsh, Lafayette Hill.

Mrs. Gutman loved children, was fascinated with the field of child care, and brimmed with energy. When she saw that there was a dearth of child care for the littlest students, whose parents were going to work in increasing numbers, she drew on all three qualities to close that gap, her relatives said.

Starting in 1953, she volunteered with what is now Federation Early Learning Services (FELS), a Philadelphia-based organization with Jewish values geared at providing care and education for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and children transitioning to kindergarten.

The nonprofit has no formal affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Over 64 years, Mrs. Gutman served on various FELS committees and was the first chair of the board of directors, fighting for respect for the program and grant money to sustain it. In the early days, it was difficult to get the public to understand or accept the FELS mission.

"We used to resent the fact they called us a baby-sitting organization," she told Plymouth Patch in 2011. "People thought we were just expensive baby sitters; they didn't fully get what we were trying to do.

"Early childhood education is vitally important," she told Plymouth Patch. "This is a time of life when children are growing the most, and so families need the support and knowledge that their children will be prepared when it's time for them to enter school."

Calling upon her training as a social worker – she had graduated from Smith College in 1943 and written a thesis on child care – Mrs. Gutman became a leader and authority at FELS. That association put her on the map in Philadelphia, especially in the Jewish volunteer community.

Despite that, Mrs. Gutman was humble, self-effacing, and soft-spoken, said FELS president and CEO Maddy Malis.

"She was gracious, a visionary, generous, and optimistic," Malis said. "She was a great listener and only spoke when she had something important to say — and we always listened. She never lost focus of what was important; her determination was unstoppable."

FELS runs early-childhood centers in Wallingford, Elkins Park, Melrose Park, Broomall, and Blue Bell, and two in Philadelphia. In 1991, when Mrs. Gutman turned 70, she was honored by FELS, which named its Melrose Park site the Mary Bert Gutman Early Learning Center.

"Some people retire," she told Plymouth Patch. "This is the type of work young people should be doing, and I suppose it's selfish of me in many ways to keep doing it, but I love being involved and helping these children and families."

In addition to her work with FELS, Mrs. Gutman served on the board of directors of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Pennsylvania Ballet, Jewish Family and Children's Service (JFCS), the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Museum of Jewish Art, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. She also served as vice president of the Child Welfare League of America.

Born in Selma, Ala., Mrs. Gutman graduated from Selma High School in 1939, attended Stephens College in St. Louis as a dancer, and completed an undergraduate degree in sociology at Smith.

She enrolled in the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans, but left school to marry Alvin P. "Vene" Gutman. The couple moved to Elkins Park, where they reared three children and she immersed herself in the children's school activities.

Her family said Mrs. Gutman had the instincts of a journalist, her conversation peppered with questions. That curiosity drove the Gutmans to explore the interior of Africa, the mountains of New Guinea, the war-torn fields of Southeast Asia, and Antarctica, with its biting cold.

She enjoyed summers in Vermont with family and friends. "Her Southern charm, perennial optimism, and boundless energy will be missed by all who knew her," the family said.

Mrs. Gutman's husband died in 2011. A son, Paul, died in 1990.

She is survived by a son, Jim; daughter, Jane; seven grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 1, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia 19123. Burial is private.

Memorial donations may be made to FELS, 10700 Jamison Ave., Philadelphia 19116, or Congregation Rodeph Shalom at the address above.