Geri M. Joseph
Geri Joseph was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 19, 1923, to Sam and Edith Makiesky (Mack). Sam (1905–1983) was born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. in 1912. He was in the automotive business. Edith (1907–1995) was born in St. Paul and was a homemaker. Geri M. Joseph, a pioneer in the acceptance of women in journalism and politics, was a prize-winning newspaper reporter in an era when women were typically assigned to the society pages. She was U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Carter administration, and she was the first woman to be elected to several business boards in Minnesota.
As a journalism and political science student at the University of Minnesota, Joseph worked on the nationally-recognized student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, first as a reporter, then as managing editor. When an editor of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune called the director of the journalism school requesting an interview with her, she was reluctant because, aiming high, she had hoped to work for the New York Times. But the editor who interviewed her offered her the opportunity to do in-depth, interpretive articles on politics, women’s roles, welfare, and other topics in which she had a keen interest. She accepted. The average age of the Tribune’s reporting staff during World War II and for several years following was about twenty-six, she recalled. “We were all very green,” she said “But we were given great freedom to do challenging things—as long as we were accurate.”
Geri also made headline news herself when Sigma Delta Chi, the all-male journalism fraternity, chose her as a national award winner for her series of articles on Minnesota’s mental hospitals; she and a photographer had spent three nightmarish weeks living in these institutions to research problems in patient care and management. The fraternity had never given an award to a woman, and when Tribune editor Gideon Seymour informed Sigma Delta Chi that Geri Hofner (her name from a previous marriage) was a woman, not a man, they were shocked. But they decided to give her the award. “I went to New York for the award ceremony in the magnificent Waldorf Astoria ballroom,” Geri recalled. “That was my first experience of being the first, and only, woman in a room full of men. But it prepared me for many of the other “firsts” and “only” times that I would experience.”
During her eight years as a Tribune reporter, she won six American Newspaper Guild awards. Meanwhile, her first marriage had ended in divorce, and in 1953 she married Burton M. Joseph, whose work in the grain trade as head of the I.S. Joseph Co. involved considerable traveling. In 1954 she left the Tribune, in part so that she could travel with him, but continued as a free-lance writer for the Tribune and other publications on issues of long-time interest, including politics, welfare matters and the growing women’s movement.
Her political involvement began in 1956 as vice-chair for women’s activities in Minnesota’s “Volunteers for Adlai Stevenson for President.” Two years later, leaders of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL) asked her to run for vice-chair of the state party. (Women could not hold the top position at that time!). She agreed to run but not to campaign, and she was elected. Active in then-Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s campaigns both locally and nationally, she was elected in 1959 to the Democratic Party National Committee, which included a man and a woman from each state. She also served on the DNC’s executive committee, and Life magazine featured her in an article in 1960 as “a new face and talent on the national political scene.”
In 1964, when Humphrey was selected to run for vice president at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, President Lyndon Johnson asked her to be a member of the escort committee that accompanied him to the podium. That was also the convention where, as members of the credentials committee, Geri and another Minnesotan, Walter Mondale, voted to accept a mixed- race delegation from Mississippi to be seated at the convention. This “first” caused a walkout by some of the white members of southern delegations.
In 1968, when Humphrey ran for U.S. president, Geri headed the women’s committee for his national campaign. She and Muriel. Humphrey traveled together throughout the country, including trips to Alaska and Hawaii, to urge women to participate. Although Humphrey lost the election, he continued as nominal head of the Democratic party and asked Geri to run for vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. She was elected, and continued in that role for four years. A major emphasis of hers was getting more women to run for public office, and she and Elly Peterson, who held a similar position in the Republican Party, worked together in that endeavor.
During those same years, she served as president of the National Association for Mental Health, an organization of more than a million members. “The experience of going through those institutions when I was a young reporter just couldn’t be put behind me,” she said. She spoke throughout the country on the problems of the mentally ill, meeting with state legislators and many concerned citizens and organizations, including the Louisiana AFL-CIO.
In 1972, John Cowles, Sr., publisher of the Minneapolis Tribune, asked her to come back to work as a contributing editor and columnist in spite of her “political identity.” She accepted the invitation with pleasure, and for six years wrote a column and several series of articles, including one on Cuba and another on a trip to China, the first made by any state delegation since President Nixon’s visit. Many of her columns were reprinted by the Washington Post and other newspapers.
In 1978, Vice President Walter F. Mondale surprised her by asking her to consider a post as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. She found the decision to accept a difficult one. It meant going alone, because her husband’s business and community involvement—among other activities, he served as national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League—would keep him in Minnesota, except for occasional visits. Their grown children also had responsibilities that would keep them at home. However, with encouragement from her family, she agreed to serve. “This turned out to be an absolutely tremendous experience,” she said. “There is nothing quite so informative as seeing your country through the eyes of another country—even a friendly one.” But the assignment was not all tulips, windmills and wooden shoes. The issue of deploying nuclear weapons and other controversial U.S. decisions were creating difficult problems among Dutch pacifists. In addition, the assassinations of the British ambassador and the twenty-seven-year-old son of the Turkish ambassador created a worrisome atmosphere. When Dutch security staff informed the U.S. embassy that a radical group was planning to kidnap her because of American actions in El Salvador, she was surrounded by Dutch security agents for the several months before she returned home.
Home again, she did free-lance writing for a time. In 1984 she joined the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as a Senior Fellow for International Programs. With the Institute’s then Dean, Harlan Cleveland, she co-taught several classes, organized Institute programs, and continued writing. In 1990, she joined Walter Mondale in organizing the Mondale Policy Forum, a public affairs conference series which also included a program for thirty up-and-coming young leaders. When she retired from the Forum in 1994, she returned to the Institute as the volunteer chair of the Institute’s Advisory Committee, which she continued to head.
Long active as a volunteer, her activities included the Brookings Institution Task Force on the Middle East, vice-chair of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Tax Committee, co-chair of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Child Abuse, board member of Carleton College, founding member and co-chair of the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, and board member of the Minnesota International Center.
She also served on Boards of Directors for Honeywell, Hormel Foods Co., Northwestern National Bank (later Norwest Bank, and then Wells Fargo), Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. (later Qwest), and Twin Cities Barge Co. Her awards include honorary degrees from Bates, Carleton and Macalester colleges, an Outstanding Achievement award from the University of Minnesota, two awards for her work as a journalist from the University’s Journalism School, the Anti-Defamation League’s national “Statesman’s Award,” and an award from the Minnesota Governors’ Council on Developmental Disabilities for her work on behalf of the mentally ill. She and her husband also shared a “Service to Israel” award presented by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Geri Joseph and her husband had three children and four grandchildren. Their daughter, Shelley, became an entrepreneur whose “Rent A Daughter” business served elderly men and women in need of a variety of services. Their two sons are I. Scott Joseph (b. 1954), a chemical engineer with Koch Refinery, and Jonathan Joseph (b. 1957), a physicist and chief technology officer for a medical instrument company.