Mollee Kruger: Never at a loss for words
Jan. 4, 2002
Bernice August
Staff Writer

Olivier Douliery/The Gazette

Backed by awards, Mollee Kruger displays her latest, the Comcast Award for Achievement in the Humanities.

"Words are feminine; deeds masculine," our state motto proclaims. As one who backs up her words with deeds, Mollee Kruger would likely take issue with that. The Rockville writer fittingly became the first recipient of the Comcast Achievement in the Humanities Award at the County Executive's Ball last month.

"I think it's more important than ever since the tragedy in September that we look to the humanities for solace and inspiration, for the knowledge we can get.

"We need languages, we need to study history, need to study great literatures so we can learn to react in times of crisis," she says.

"Science and technology are terribly important, but unless we have a soul behind it -- the humanities -- it's a pretty empty world."

Kruger, who is married to a scientist, has worked to promote the humanities throughout her life.

The former board member of the National League of American Penwomen was a founding member of the Montgomery County Commission on the Humanities, established by the County Council in 1984.

"We had to build from the ground up," she says.

The commission, she believes, was the only one in the country at that time.

"A lot of people didn't know what the humanities meant. They would say, oh, you're on the humanities board, you must be a great humanitarian!"

For anyone "foggy on the subject," Kruger defines the humanities as those branches of knowledge that pertain to mankind and its cultures as opposed to the sciences and technology.

In the commission's early days, grants were scarce. The committee members did all the work themselves -- implementing, publicizing, supervising and evaluating programs.

The author of six books of verse (three historically based), she was particularly interested in stressing history and literature.

Kruger broke into the county scene in 1982, as an organizer of Maryland's 350th anniversary celebration, appointed by then County Executive Charles Gilchrist.

The committee came up with the idea of a gala -- "like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, we'll do a show," she recalls.

Of course, she wrote the show, a composite of vignettes of county and Maryland history gleaned from her research.

To involve as many arts groups as they could, they held auditions. "A motley crew" showed up and it wasn't easy to integrate the talent, she recalls. But with the help of the talented Victorian Lyric Opera Company, among others, they mounted a vaudeville type show.

Kruger wrote sketches about an indentured servant and people who explored the wilderness. She set lyrics to 18th century songs she discovered at the Library of Congress. She found a Civil War song on a shelf in Rockville's Beall-Dawson House and wrote lyrics about a slave leaving Rockville for Sandy Spring and points north on the Underground Railroad.

Kruger had just written "Admiral of the Mosquitoes," Columbus and America in light and dark verse, in 1990 when the county council sponsored a resolution to honor the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival on these shores.

In 1976, the American Revolution Bicentenary Commission honored her book, "Yankee Shoes."

Another historical inspiration was "Ladies First, Rhymes and Times of the Presidents' Wives and Other Female Fantasies," published in 1995. Local musician Winifred Eisen set the text to music and Kruger and The First Lady Players took the "shoestring production" to appreciative audiences around the county. The show was videotaped this summer.

The virtues of history

"Since Sept. 11, there's been a lot of hearkening back to World War II and the way people grappled with crisis and carried on on the home front," Kruger says appreciatively.

She thinks the powers that be -- the Boomers and the younger generation -- should study the history of the period and learn from people who lived through it "because that generation had resiliency to weather a lot of hard knocks."

She counts herself among them.

"I'm a loose cannon like the 20th century ... my work reflects metamorphosis, molded by hard economic times, wars, prosperity and the social commandments that have filtered through the smoke. The trick is not to become bogged down in self-pity and doubt. Neatness doesn't count; survival does."

When Boomers were flower children, they said, "Never trust anyone over 30," she declares.

"We were the ones who were over 30 in the '60s. So we bided our time and thought, OK, just you wait! Then Tom Brokaw came out with 'The Greatest Generation.' It's about time!"

"It's through the humanities, we can study history and learn how to act and how to react to adversity," she re-iterates.

"I should have said all this stuff [at the Executive's Ball] and couldn't."

She hadn't known she was expected to make a speech. After she sat down, she realized also there were many people she should have thanked: Myrna Goldenberg, director of Montgomery College's Paul Peck Institute for the Humanities, "who has done wonders to make the community aware of the humanities"; Alicia Juarrero, philosophy professor at Prince George's Community College and member of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the county people -- Esther Gelman, Bill Hanna, Ike Legett, Mike Subin, on up to Doug Duncan.

"I couldn't have anyway," she adds.

What she did say with eloquence was all the more remarkable because she has lived with spasmodic dysphonia for 17 years, a neurological disorder affecting the vocal chords.

"It's better if it happens to a writer than to a teacher. I have my voice but it's more through my word processor than my larynx," she admits.

The limitations on her voice have not deterred her. For a radio interview, the spunky poet brought her daughter-in-law to read her verses. When the program was finished, the engineer came over and shook her hand and said, "Boy, you've got chutzpah (nerve) to come on the radio."

Indeed, in 1997, Kruger received the Courage Award from the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.

She was selected by the Friends of the Library as one of 25 Montgomery County notable authors in 2001 for their 50th anniversary.

As usual, she had appropriate words.

Kruger says she was born in a library -- her parent's second-floor apartment on Main Street in Bel Air had been a lending library in the 1920s.

"I am, therefore, I read. Consider me more than a Friend of the Library; I'm a live-in relative," she quips.

She published her first poem at 12 in the Harford Gazette (no relation to this paper). A University of Maryland graduate with a major in English and a minor in French, she was asked to donate her papers to her alma mater. They include: four years of letters to her parents chronicling undergraduate life in College Park after World War II and manuscripts of work done for the county as well as her writings.

For 16 years, Kruger wrote a syndicated weekly column of light verse, carried locally in the Jewish Week until 1983 and picked up by similar newspapers in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other places. Her 1983 book, "Daughters of Chutzpah," is used as supplementary reading in Women's Studies classes.

She went through a bad patch with her voice and stopped writing verse for a time, she says. But when things improved, she returned to writing.

"We freelancers go our bemused way year after year. We execute u-turns, navigate cul-de-sacs, choose life and chug away toward the future. On spec," she says.

Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post Style section and on Christmas Day 1994 in the Outlook section. She wrote a reminiscence about the final USO dance on New Year's Eve 1945 at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. At 16, she had gone with her older sister, a USO hostess. The Post called it "The last waltz on the way to war."

But Kruger lives very much in the present.

December was "a fantastic month," she says.

In addition to the humanities award, she finally made "Who's Who in America."

She explains that she has been listed in "Who's Who of American Women" since the early '90s but had never made "the big one." Her husband Jerome, a materials scientist who retired from the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and then went to work at Johns Hopkins, has been listed in "Who's Who" for years.

"So now we're on the same page," she says with pride.

Because of that, she ordered the books.

"I want our children [Len and Joseph] to have it!"