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Lifelong Bostonian bridges the world

Posted by Shivaji Mudambi  March 14, 2012 08:58 AM

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Anna Castleman, who marks her l00th birthday next week, has been a Bay State resident for all of her life. Most interestingly, she has also had an extraordinary number of experiences over the years as a live-in house guest in a variety of countries and villages throughout the world including, among others, a month in Rio de Janeiro, visits to Guatemala, Columbia, Spain, South Africa, Uganda, Ireland, India (for three months), Japan, Cuba (during several changes of government), and Israel, both before and after the ‘67 War.

And what better way to learn about a culture and a way of life than to actually participate in it as she has!

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Anna and her husband, Benjamin.

Anna’s late husband, Dr. Benjamin Castleman, was renowned as the Chief of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1953 to 1975 and Shattuck Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. He was frequently asked to speak and advise at hospitals and health centers in various countries and areas. Anna always accompanied him on these trips, and as the custom at the time was for visiting professors to be at-home guests of the hosts, there was Anna living as part of the household in an extraordinary variety of places.

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Anna accompanying her husband on his travels.

Profound changes happened at MGH under Dr. Castleman. He recruited and added to the staff a number of doctors and technicians, again from many countries and areas around the world. They came eagerly to work at the legendary MGH under Dr. Castleman. It was, however, as can be imagined, a difficult transition for the newcomers, and for their families in particular, coming from areas so different from the one they were used to and facing the challenges of establishing a so different kind of home in urban Boston.

Enter Anna together with other MGH wives. This is how she tells it, minimizing, as she always does, her own leadership role:

“Some of the wives decided to help fill whatever non-medical needs we could for the newcomers, so we formed a ‘Service League’. It was not fund raising. It was entirely service.
There were many young men, some from Japan, many from the South American countries, who came to study at the General and who had very little money. Their young wives and young families would come with them, and for many of these young women, it was their first time being away from extended family living. Here they were alone in this city with these little children. I remember one woman who didn’t dare leave her apartment (and you can imagine what kind of an apartment it was) for her whole first year.

“We started a service desk that would help these young people find apartments and we also had a furniture exchange to help them get beds or whatever they needed for their homes. We would arrange hospitality visits for these women to bring their little children to so they could meet one another. We helped them find out where the supermarket was, the laundry or whatever…
For hospital in-patients we organized concerts in the chapel because, in those days, many patients, especially orthopedic patients, stayed in the hospital for quite a while and were not that ill…we also initiated information desks at many intersections of the hospital’s great maze of corridors to help people find their way wherever they wanted to go.”

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Around this same time, too, Anna was pleased to be invited to be on the “Ladies Committee” at the Museum of Fine Arts (yes, those were the days when there were inevitably ladies committees). “I loved everything about the work at the Museum," she says. "It was both intellectually and socially stimulating and I felt, as an individual, was making a real contribution.” In her work on the Committee, she and her associates led tours through the museum and were the first to be speakers on the tours around Boston. Later, they worked with the public schools to provide guided tours of the Museum’s exceptional Greek and Egyptian sections.

For Anna, this was a special treat because ever since her youth as a student in religious schools, she has been a history buff. She insists (though no one believes her) that she never was a great student except for those classes that dealt with history.

Still other “firsts” in Anna’s personal history: She was involved in the early days of the League of Women Voters, serving as its first education chairman. She was also among the pioneers in the concept of parent-teacher organizations. When the family moved to their primary home in Brookline, there were no parent-teacher structures in any of the area schools. She was among those who set up the first PTA and served as the first president of the school her children attended.

Ever since it opened eleven years ago, Anna has been a resident at Lasell Village, the on-campus retirement community at Lasell College in Newton, and is so widely appreciated for her ever present smile that no one questions her own summary of her life as she turns 100, ”I have a wonderful family. I have had numerous groups of friends over the years. I had a good marriage – what more could I ask for? It has been a very good life.”

When asked about that hallmark smile of hers, she replies, “If I don’t feel cheerful enough to smile, I simply don’t leave my apartment.”

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Perry Norton, Globe Staff
Anna today.

Myril Axelrod has been a writer for newspapers, magazine and professional journals for many years. She was a reporter for the New York newspaper PM and a vice president of Young and Rubicam advertising agency. She was a pioneer in adapting focus groups and in-depth interviewing for the marketing community. For the past four years she has lived at Lasell Village in Newton.

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