Four Incomparable Atlanta Leaders Pay Homage to 100 Years of JLA
By Cara Hergenroether
This weekend, the Junior League of Atlanta officially celebrated the 100th anniversary of Isoline Campbell gathering 45 of her fellow debutantes and challenging them to use their talents and advantages to improve the lives of the less fortunate in Atlanta. Since that day in October 1916, JLA has continued to bring together women with a common purpose – to improve the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.
If you bring together enough women with similar interests, lifelong friendships are likely to form. Social media tells the stories of JLA members serving as bridesmaids, celebrating birthdays and being there for each other when life knocks them down. But there is one foursome in particular that stands out.
Bobbi Cleveland, Ann Cramer, Gayle Gellerstedt and Alicia Philipp.
The readers of this publication are sure to have heard these names and each woman’s very long list of accomplishments before but may not be aware that each of them is also a long-standing, much admired member of the JLA.
The “four fast friends” as Cleveland calls the quartet joined JLA in different years –Cramer in the late 60s, Cleveland and Gellerstedt in the 70s and Philipp in the 80s. They joined under different circumstances – Cramer was a single working woman who had been transferred from Jacksonville, FL, to Atlanta, while Gellerstedt had recently decided to stay home with her children and was seeking meaningful volunteer work. They even met at different times – in 1974, Cleveland and Cramer served together on the League’s Urban Focus Committee. Philipp met Gellerstedt through her father and met Cleveland through the United Way.
But Cramer explains, “our bond was through JLA.”
“We watched each other grow in civic life and, most importantly, that was where we got to spread our wings,” adds Cleveland.
Much has changed both in society and within the JLA since Isoline Campbell and her affluent friends met at the Piedmont Driving Club. Women couldn’t vote when JLA was formed. They wouldn’t have the right to have credit until 1974. It wasn’t until 1980-81 that JLA had its first full-time working president (She was Ann Cramer, by the way). So as JLA enters its second century of service, does it remain relevant in a time when the vast majority of its members are college-educated with increasing opportunities available to them?
Cleveland, Cramer, Gellerstedt and Philipp say yes.
“There’s a rich history and a very firm foundation of knowledge,” according to Gellerstedt.
“The League is a pipeline of well-trained community volunteers,” adds Cramer.
“The League is bringing together women and providing a supportive and safe environment. Even if you fail, you’re given another chance,” says Cleveland.
Philipp mentions the opportunities JLA members have to chair committees and sit on a nonprofit board at a young age, something they may not receive at work.
“You get to be in charge, you get to lead,” she says.
It’s not just talk. The four friends continue to remain active in JLA even as sustainers, a phase of membership where women often take a step back from League responsibilities. They welcome new members with their inspirational stories, serve as council advisors and mentor new leaders.
“Sustainers owe so much to the League. The community welcomed us through JLA,” said Philipp.
“It helps us connect with up and coming leadership,” said Cleveland.
The friendship that was forged in JLA continues despite busy professional and philanthropic lives through the women’s dedication to each other and regular lunches. These lunches allow the four to confide in each other about births, deaths, divorces as well as keeping each other accountable.
“It’s a safe place for all of us,” said Gellerstedt. “We made close friendships – a debt that we owe to the League.”