When we take the time to reflect on our accomplishments, it can be easy to see them solely as a product of our individual hard work. Because of this, we sometimes forget to acknowledge those who came before us and paved the way.
In many ways, the legacies that people leave are defined not just by what they accomplished in their lifetime, but how they use their position to inspire change through those who carry on their work.
This is the legacy of Penny Gerber. Though best remembered as the vice chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Penelope Gerber held many titles throughout her life: Mother, mentor, confidant, advocate. The Ceisler Media Penny Gerber Fellowship, a testament to her legacy, was created to give a recent college graduate the opportunity to gain exposure in the field of issue advocacy. Being the first fellow to represent Mrs. Gerber, I was given the assignment of writing a piece commemorating her life while also introducing myself as the newest member of the Ceisler Media team.
What began as a simple research assignment, however, eventually grew into a question of identity. Who was Penny Gerber?
Penny Gerber was someone who transcended infighting and rivalries to unite the state’s Democratic Party. “Penny was a great role model for people in our firm,” said Ceisler Media Principal Larry Ceisler, who knew Mrs. Gerber personally, “She was a true trailblazer in the world of politics.”
Many knew Penny Gerber through her political career and accomplishments in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. But, I soon realized that I needed to dig deeper to understand the legacy she left behind and my role at Ceisler Media as the first Penny Gerber fellow.
To gain a better understanding of Penny Gerber the person, I spoke with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who met her early in his political career.
“When I was coming up in Democratic Party politics in Montgomery County, there were two to four people who were leaders,” said Shapiro. “They were the ones, when there were no Democrats around, were willing to do the hard work. They really built the party out of nothing. And Penny was one of those people.”
Seeing Penny Gerber provide the foundation for the Democratic Party in Montgomery County gave Shapiro someone to look up to early in his career. “It’s taught me the importance of hard work” he said, “and laying the foundation upon which you can develop your skills as an office holder and upon which others can develop.”
Shapiro rose into his career alongside Mrs. Gerber’s son, Mike. In doing so, he came to view her not just as a mentor but a maternal figure. “When we were freshmen [in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives], our offices were the smallest and farthest away”, recalled Shapiro, “Penny made us feel at home and made sure we had what we needed, whether it was advice or just snacks.”
Beyond being a Democratic Party leader, she was a source of strength and guidance for those in her life, especially her son.
“I enjoyed watching her show up to events,” Shapiro said, “Not as the head of this party, but just proud to be there as Mike’s mom. I think that’s a hard thing to do sometimes, to separate yourself out from your official or political role. And she was just there to be proud of her son.”
Mike Gerber, now the Senior Managing Director at FS Investments, echoed these sentiments about his mother.
“She was always eager to give other people a voice,” Gerber said, recounting experiences growing up where his mother would offer guidance to his friends. In one instance, Mrs. Gerber spent time with one of Mike’s high school classmates who was having a hard time fitting in at Germantown Academy.
"He would confide in her more than he did with his own parents,” Gerber recalled, “She made my friends feel she was always there for support. There are dozens of people who would say they are who they are because of my mom. She was my best friend.”
Hearing from her son Mike and Attorney General Shapiro, I began to think about how Mrs. Gerber’s life story related to my own.
I grew up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia and later moved to Cheltenham, right outside of the city. I attended high school at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and college at Villanova University where I majored in communications. During the spring of my junior year at Villanova, I interned with Councilwoman Cherelle Parker of the 9th District of Philadelphia, who introduced me to Larry Ceisler. Shortly after I graduated from Villanova this past spring, Ceisler Media offered me the Penny Gerber Fellowship.
As I heard from the people who knew Mrs. Gerber personally, I began to see the ways in which her accomplishments paved the way not just for them, but for me as well. Certainly, there are many differences between Mrs. Gerber and me. We are of different races and genders, and come from different backgrounds. Most importantly, Penny Gerber has left a lasting legacy whereas my career is just beginning.
But even though our life experiences may have been different, her name and her lifetime of good work created an opportunity for me, just as it did for her son Mike and Attorney General Shapiro. She used her experience and platform to pay it forward to the next generation of Pennsylvania’s political leaders, and beyond her own status in the Party, that is what truly defines her legacy.
As I spend the next year of my fellowship learning as much as I can, stepping out of my comfort zone, and exposing myself to new things, serving as the first Penny Gerber fellow at Ceisler Media, I’ll be representing her name in the work that I do, and gaining experience in my career.
And when I reach the level where I can pay my experience forward to the next Penny Gerber fellow, well, that will be my first step toward creating a legacy of my own.
Brandon Boyer is the Penny Gerber Fellow in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.