Sunday, October 12, 1997
Era of firsts and one last

The Cincinnati Enquirer

She was chronically first. The first female vice president of retailing. Of an ad agency. At the University of Cincinnati. The first woman on the board of this or that. Anybody who knows her knows that she's often the first - male or female - to say what everybody else is thinking.

Fearless, direct, funny and completely brilliant, she has a knack for stepping on toes without breaking any bones.

When she was born 73 years ago, I'll bet she took a quick look around the delivery room and smiled at the doctor who seemed to be in charge. Then he probably ordered up the best bassinet for her.

M.J. Klyn - nobody calls her Mary Jeanne - also was the first woman in her circle to divorce. It wasn't her career plan. ''I was Leave It to Beaver's Mrs. Cleaver,'' she says, ''living in Mentor, Ohio.''

To her surprise, she became a single mother of three, getting $50 a week child support. She said to her priest, ''my first job counselor,'' that she supposed she had to get a job. That was 1958.

Saying no to Nelson

She called some of the men she'd met while she was a ''society lady'' and asked for a chance, ''just a three-month trial.'' She had a degree in communications from Northwestern University, which she never expected to use.

She was hired as, of course, the 'first woman'' marketing director of Lake County National Bank. Two years later, she moved a little southwest, to Cleveland, where she spent ''the best part of my life, where I was young and contributed the most.''

After a string of jobs in advertising and public relations, she was public relations director for the Cleveland Growth Association, the city's hybrid chamber of commerce/business committee/arts council. She became a person to know in politics.

No learning curve

Nelson Rockefeller asked her to be his press secretary in 1974, but the pay was not terrific. Her daughter volunteered to ''make all my clothes'' and her son said he'd find cheap housing. ''It just seemed too risky.'' So she said no.

But the idea was planted that maybe she could try something else. UC's president, Warren Bennis, was looking for a ''legislative liaison.'' Everybody in Cleveland told him to try to swipe M.J. No learning curve.

After 58 separate interviews with everybody from students to faculty to union leaders, she was hired. And then, the woman who says ''you can be anything you want to be - I'm living proof,'' pointed her formidable energy at the University of Cincinnati.

The practical result is about $2 billion in state money that has come our way in the past 22 years. That includes money for Cincinnati that had nothing to do with the university. She was an equal opportunity mentor.

When Joseph Steger became UC's president, M.J. ''marched me off to Columbus and introduced me to everybody.'' She showed him how to cut through the basement to the Senate and a few shortcuts to the power as well.

Many credit her fierce, personal determination for the completion of the Shoemaker Center. And many other not-so-tangible projects. She'll be quick to tell you that somebody else did it, planned it, asked for it. But everybody knows that if a door was closed, M.J. could pry it open.

A colleague once said, ''The rest of us have to make appointments. M.J. goes where she needs to go.''

There's speculation about who will replace her, and my guess is it will be an agency, a whole company. They probably won't have the time or the smarts to make friends with the secretaries of important legislators. I can't imagine they'll be making meatloaf casseroles for the governor. Or that they'll know the dates of his kids' birthdays.

I've heard that the days of the personal, individual lobbyist like M.J. Klyn are numbered.

So maybe, for once, she'll be the last.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.