In 1992, when Sally Steele Metzger retired from the professional world, she made a promise to herself to write a book.
It was to be a family history, for one thing.
It would include stories about her grandmother’s youth in Russia, the family’s narrow escapes from Cossacks during pogroms, the tragedies the family suffered there; and about her mother, a legal stenographer in Denver, who once faced down a gun-toting, disgruntled wife of a client and lived to tell the tale.
The book would also be something of an autobiography.
She would write about her days as a writer for the Intermountain Jewish News under Max Goldberg and Bob Gamzey, about her career as a musical actress in a host of Denver productions, about her 25-year tenure at Rose Medical Center, where she became an indispensable and much-admired professional marketing guru.
Problem is, the book still hasn’t been written.
“You known what?” Metzger says in 2013, more than 21 years after first discussing the book idea. “I found it to be too confining.
“I tried to put it all into a recording machine. That didn’t work. Then I sat down and said well I’ll just write it out by hand. But I’m a people person. Everything I did — with the Jewish News, with the theater, with Rose — those were all people related.”
Sitting by herself in a room and recounting stories of the past, Metzger says, never struck her as a “people related” activity. It was too quiet, too solitary.
“I’d sit there and say to myself, ‘You shouldn’t be sitting in the house. Get out of here.’ So I’d postpone it for another week and then another week. Then I said, you know, I’m just not going to do that book.”
She backs off from that conviction just a bit, however, when she starts contemplating some of the things she’d like to see put to paper.
She recalls the plethora of things her grandmother and mother told her, about their lives in Russia and long-ago Denver.
She remembers how much she liked Goldberg and Gamzey, how much fun it was getting out into the community to do stories, how amazed she always was at how much Goldberg and his wife Miriam loved each other.
She recalls the musicals she headlined in Denver, the actors and directors she worked with, the songs she sang before appreciative audiences.
She recalls Rose Hospital and the brilliant and dedicated people who ran it.
“I still see friends from all those walks of life,” Metzger says.
“I have so many friends from my childhood era, my school days here, days at the Jewish News, days at Bonfils Theater — and nights and matinees — and of course at Rose.”
So maybe, she concludes, it might not be such a bad idea to have another try at that book after all.
“I still have that book in my head,” she says. “Maybe I’ll still write it, who knows? That’s what makes up my life.”
If any simple phrase could be employed to describe Sally Steele Metzger, it would likely be “people person.”
She has always liked people, whether she was interviewing them as a reporter, performing for them as an actress or dealing with them as a hospital PR executive.
“I knew everybody,” she says, and the members of Denver’s Jewish and general communities would verify that claim.
Now a widow (her husband, Jerry Metzger passed away in 1995) and 83 years old — “I can’t believe it!” — Metzger is fully and happily engaged in her role as a mother and grandmother.
Her children Craig and Nancy Steele of Denver and Shelley and Bruce Gaynes of Atlanta, and grandchildren Dylan, Laura, Melanie, Jonathan and Carley are all sources of tremendous pride and nachas to her.
Metzger is no more immune to the lure of nostalgia than anyone, but she emphasizes that she still gets out in the community as often as she can and maintains as many of her many friendships as is humanly possible.
“I try to see friends from all the days, all the decades, of my life,” she said in a recent interview in her spacious and gracious Denver condominium.
“I go out with them, do dinner, go to the theater or the movies. That way I keep in touch with what’s going on.”
Born and raised in Denver as Sally Price, Metzger graduated from North High School and the University of Denver. It was during her years at DU that she worked at the IJN, from 1948-51, as a feature and society writer.
The newspaper’s offices were then located downtown, in the long-gone Mining Exchange Building downtown, and she remembers working late on many nights.
“I enjoyed so much working there because I learned a lot,” she says. “I always felt I gave a lot and I learned a lot.”
Later, after her first marriage, Metzger spent a few years in New York and then came back to Denver.
From the late 1950s to the early 70s, she was enamored of the stage. With admirable acting and singing skills she found plenty of opportunities to showcase her talents.
“My show business career started at the Green Spider coffee house,” she says, referring to a beatnik hangout in the Uptown district, where the stage was tiny and the audience sat very close to the actors.
“We did a show called ‘Sarah and the Sax’ and it was with Jonathan Parker, the father of Cleo Parker Robinson. It was an emotional piece, both comedy and tragedy, a tragic-comedy, I guess you’d call it.”
She went on to become the lead singer in “Carnival” at the Third Eye, another Denver playhouse, and later was the musical lead in several shows at the famed Bonfils Theater, including “Guys and Dolls,” “Bits of Junk,” “Pal Joey,” “High Button Shoes” — and “Fiddler on the Roof.” In that fabled play, Metzger played Golda, Tevye’s wife.
“It was such a thrill to do that show,” she says. “That had such a special meaning for the Jewish people. They took it all over the world and everywhere it played, every nation, people could relate to it.”
During her stage career, Metzger performed in only one drama, in which she portrayed Emily Dickinson’s mother.
“I really was too young to play the mother,” she says with a smile.
She can sing any of the songs she performed during her theater days and demonstrates that her vocal skills have not diminished significantly over the years.
After singing a song from “Carnival,” she says, without a hint of boasting: “I could get up and do that whole role right now.”
But Metzger dismisses the idea of getting back into acting.
“What part would I play?” she asks.“‘A Little Night Music’ has a part for a grandmother but she doesn’t have a good song,” Metzger says with a laugh.
“And I always want to be the leading lady.”
It was at General Rose Memorial Hospital (later Rose Medical Center) that Metzger’s skills as a people person really came into their own.
She joined the hospital in 1967, starting out as director of women’s activities and later becoming director of public relations. Closer to her retirement, she served as associate director of the Rose Foundation, not to be confused with the Rose Community Foundation which later sprung from the proceeds of the hospital’s sale.
She never regarded herself as a feminist trailblazer, even though she occupied a demanding position well before the feminist movement really got underway.
A surprising number of women from her generation chose the professional path, she says, as well as many others — like herself — who opted both to raise a family and find professional fulfillment.
She is frank in expressing how much she loves her family, and equally honest about how much her years at Rose mean to her.
“Those were growth years,” she says, “years when I felt I contributed a lot. I worked with some very interesting people.
“And I miss it so much. I wish I was still there. Retirement is okay, but I think that working is an inspiration and I loved those 25 years.
“I loved working for those brilliant men and for the other people who worked there. The board was always so sensational. They had the best people in the city on that board. They cared. They had such feelings for the community.”
Her mentor at Rose, former president-CEO Joel Edelman, always stressed the hospital’s obligations to the patients, people “who put their lives into their hands,” Metzger says.
Edelman’s message and overall leadership, and the hospital’s ethical strengths, remain sources of great pride to Metzger, who supervised the hospital’s relations with the public and the media.
One of her duties was to oversee Rose’s fundraising efforts, including the Rose Celebration (which she actually named) and the Leadership Luncheon.
These events brought to Denver such celebrities as Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Ben Vereen, Steve Lawrence and Edye Gorme, Debbie Reynolds, Shecky Green, Art Buchwald and others.
“I was in charge of the whole thing, basically,” Metzger says. “I dealt with contractual arrangements, with the managers and with the eccentricities of the stars.
“The toughest thing was meeting the requirements of the stars and then I found out it really wasn’t the stars who were the problem, it was their managers. Their managers were tough, but I enjoyed doing that so much.”
A few years after her retirement, Rose was sold to a national hospital chain, ending an era that Metzger has always viewed as a glorious one.
Although saddened by the sale, she says she is happy that the Rose Community Foundation, which started with funds from the sale of Rose Medical Center, has continued the hospital’s close connection to the Jewish community as well as its tradition of helping those in need.
“I hoped it would be for the best,” she says of the sale. “Thank G-d they still say that Jewish tradition is a big part of what they do. That’s very thrilling. They reach out to the entire community of Denver and Colorado. I’m just so proud to have been a part of that.”
Over the years, Metzger says, people have asked her why she didn’t put her talents and skills to use on a higher professional level, perhaps in a position that provided better compensation.
“But I always said that I was glad to be at Rose. I will never regret that.”
Still a people person, Metzger remains active in Jewish community life through the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Family Service, whose popular Reel Hope event is another name she came up with.
“I’ve come up with a lot of names in my career,” the natural PR person says. “Names sort of pop into my head.”
She stays close with the Atlanta branch of her family by spending several months each year in that Southern city.
“I travel to Atlanta to visit my daughter and her family. I’ve made friends there over the years and I see the same people all the time. They’re always telling me to move to Atlanta.”
This native Denverite, however, remains closely tied to her hometown.
“I love Denver, I love Colorado,” she says simply. “I’ve been here my whole life.”
Although she spent much of her career in the health care field, Metzger doesn’t concern herself too much about the political debate now raging over Obamacare, which recently went so far as to shut down much of the federal government.
“They say that today people are living longer but nobody knows how to take care of them,” she says. “I just hope that everything will continue to improve for people who are able to live longer, so that they can live longer and happier.”
She remains fascinated by medicine, however, especially the enormous strides in treatment it has made in recent years.
“I never had the talent to be in the medical side of it but when I see what’s going on now, with the miracles, I’m so fascinated.
“Did you ever dream in your wildest dreams that things would be what they are with medicine? I want to stay alive so I can see what happens.”
It’s clear that Metzger’s age is not holding her back. She remains engaged with her family, her community and her passions in life. She loves to go to movies and plays, read good books, collect the interesting art that fills her living space, everything from colorful harlequin masks of tragedy and comedy to an Art Nouveau-inspired painting that depicts a woman leaning on a piano.
“Sometimes I think it’s me,” she says with a smile, “singing away.”
It’s not the number of years that matters, Metzger suggests. It’s the way one approaches those numbers.
“I have a friend who always tells me I’m going to live to be 100. I say, what happens at 100? Why are you limiting me?”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News