The Life and Letters of Kate Gleason
by Janis F. Gleason

RIT Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-933-36047-8.
Reviewed by Shawn LaTorre
Posted on 02/13/2012

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Science

The Life and Letters of Kate Gleason delivers on its promise to include not only letters written to and from Gleason at various points in her life, but also lovely photos of the spheres in which she operates. Sketches of some of her mechanical designs are presented as well as lists of friends, businesses, purchases, and Gleason business sales. It is a lovely glimpse into the life and times of a remarkable woman whose grandmother "ignored her and lavished attention on her boys" and who becomes "determined to beat the boys at their own games." But who was Kate Gleason?

For twenty years author Jan Gleason (who is married to James S. Gleason, the grand-nephew of Kate Gleason and Chairman of Gleason Corporation) carefully researched diaries, letters, and newspapers and conducted interviews. Her knack for clarity and careful attention to respectful objectivity is evident throughout. She intimates that this story hasn't been told before because the only Gleason heirs at the time were the children of Kate's brother Andrew. Andrew detested Kate, feeling that she was flamboyant, an embarrassment, and self-serving in business dealings. His children were strictly forbidden to speak her name.

Gleason certainly was a formidable force, but her legacy makes it quite apparent that her intent as a mechanical engineer and businesswoman was to have fun and work toward the development of progressive and stronger communities. She left a sizeable fortune in her will towards furthering women's studies in engineering, such that The Rochester Institute of Technology named its engineering school the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. All of her properties in France were left to the American Legion. Kate's good works were numerous and her posthumous gifts to communities, generous.

Part One: Building the Family Business provides detailed Gleason family information that may leave some readers wondering if the book will prove to be a personal family history important mostly (and perhaps only) because of the connection between the author and subjects. Quickly these feelings disappear, however, as in Part Two Kate Gleason takes the reins on various ventures to showcase her saavy business nature while showing the world that she is a force to be reckoned with. We begin to see someone who is a combination of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the humorous Liz Carpenter, and the ingenious Benjamin Franklin.

In Part Two: Another Life Given, it becomes clear that being ousted from the family business by her two brothers, while hurtful, led to an impressive "afterlife" for Kate. From designing trailer cars to concrete homes, and remodeling old buildings, she plays her hand in developments in Rochester, New York; Sausalito, California; Beaufort, South Carolina; and Septmonts, France.

This book, smooth in its delivery and skillfully linked to historical events, is a simple chronological biography. Ms. Kate Gleason, a woman almost forgotten by time and circumstances, rises like the Phoenix from the pages of this story.

Over the course of two decades, Jan Gleason's extensive research pertaining to the life of Kate Gleason has taken her from New York, to California, to South Carolina and over to France. She currently serves as Vice President of the Gleason Family Foundation and is a past Board President for the Rochester-based Writers and Books. Jan has received numerous awards for her contributions to the literary arts and civic organizations.

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