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August 29, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: No mystery about good works done by PEO


Daily Star

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I get a lot of requests for speaking engagements.

A lot.

Most of the time I actually know who the audience will be. I've addressed more than 50 historical societies, dozens of reading groups, several museum groups and enough Rotary and Kiwanis luncheons to make me feel like the Toastmaster General of the U.S.

But some groups are trickier. Sororities and fraternities with their archaic Greek symbols confuse me. And there have been "secret societies," loosely formed reading circles, and clubs with names like "Pioneers," "Innovators" and "Star Gazers." They all proved far less mysterious in realty than they sounded.

Which leads me to PEO.

A few months back I was invited to keynote a banquet for PEO at the Traditions at the Glen Resort in Johnson City. I had no idea who they were.

They turned out to be a group of 75 energetic and charitable women who focus their activities on the advancement of women through fellowship, financial largesse and a spirit of sisterhood. I had a great time.

Three weeks ago, I was invited to keynote a banquet for the PEO in Peterboro. Upon arrival at the stunning Charlotte Amalie Inn, I was confronted with another 50 women from around central New York who also belonged to this group.

Hmm. I sensed a pattern forming here.

Last Saturday, I was the featured speaker for yet another PEO chapter at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown. More than three dozen women made this a most pleasurable experience for me. They were from Oneonta, Cooperstown and all the surrounding communities. I knew many of them.

It was time to get serious. What the heck is PEO? Is there a secret handshake involved? Are there behind-closed-doors rituals and incantations? Was there a mascot?

Hardly.

The Philanthropic Educational Organization is an amazing group of women with an incredible track record of benevolence and involvement. PEO began in 1869 at Iowa Wesleyan College. As an alternative to a sorority, this loosely based group was formed to help one another reach goals that seemed somewhat out of reach to women a century and a half ago.

Today, there are a quarter-million members of PEO in the U.S. and Canada. Their main thrust is educational philanthropy, and they contribute to the betterment of women everywhere with more than a half-dozen well-funded scholarships.

The PEO ladies I have come in contact with are from all stages of life. Most are 60 or older, retired, caring and all with a deep passion for helping women gain a toehold on the ladder of success. There are businesswomen, writers, housewives and a preponderance of retired educators. I have been richly rewarded to have been in their midst.

And this is one ambitious group, too! They even own their own college. A real-life, bricks and mortar, ivy-covered-walls college. It is Cottey College, built in 1884, in Nevada, Mo. It covers 11 city blocks, and awards bachelor's degrees in several fields of study. Three hundred and fifty students attend annually. And PEO owns it all _ lock, stock and dorm rooms.

I mean, who owns a college today?

I decided to contact Cottey College's president.

"Cottey is a special place," Dr. Judy Rogers, president, told me. "Each year we have students from more than 40 states and 20 countries enroll with us. We have a 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. And of course the PEOs love and support their college, which they have owned outright since 1927. They support Cottey through their dues, personal gifts and scholarships."

I asked Dr. Rogers if the school had a motto.

"We often say, 'Cottey is for women, by women and about women,'" she told me.

Cottey's oldest financial outreach program is the Educational Loan Fund (established in 1907), which provides for women who desire higher education and are in need of financial assistance. Regional PEO chapters suggest applicant names. Other programs funded by the sisterhood are merit-based, or for cross-border education with Canada, or for doctoral or post-doctoral studies. They even have a fund, established in 1973, for women returning to school to support themselves and their families after their studies have been interrupted.

PEO is a great organization. It does a tremendous amount of good but does it quietly. Very quietly.

I mean, have you ever heard of PEO before? I didn't think so. (It does have its own college, don't you know.)

If you'd like more information about this sisterhood, find PEO online at www.peointernational.org, or, locally, call Ginger Heitz at 547-9735.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.