Alliance Francaise: Leading with Elan



By Judy Carmack Bross




A leader is a pied piper.  You have to be passionate, energetic, strong willed, totally committed and able to recruit others. You have to able to verbalize your plan as well as get it on paper.–  Catharine Hamilton, our definition of an international leader and founder of the American Friends of Versailles and the Woman’s Board of the Alliance Francaise.


David and Catharine Hamilton.

A good leader is one who puts the ideals of the organization ahead of self, who welcomes the ideas and efforts of not only those with whom they agree but also of those with whom they disagree. It is paramount to listen, to collaborate, to empathize, to nurture and in doing so to inspire others to strive for excellence and become their finer selves. To be successful in this endeavor one must lead by example in all things and ultimately… love the job!—Mary Ellen Connellan, current President of the Alliance Francaise Woman’s Board.


Mary Ellen Connellan.

Our series on leadership–creating a culture where community change happens through the efforts of passionate people–begins with the Alliance Francaise, host not only of some of Chicago’s most magnificent galas—this Spring’s titled Versailles en scene–but also hands-on impactful in inner city outreach and education.  Mary Ellen, who retired at the end of 2017 as Executive Director of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation, said recently:


 Our Woman’s Board has an enduring interest in all things French—culturally, intellectually, and with educational outreach. We are 82 members strong. I am very proud of the fact that we have a robust pipeline of others who share a common interest in the French culture and language. We all must recognize a global world and use the French language to create understanding and cultural ties.


Mary Ellen Connellan, Chair of the Woman’s Board, and Betsey Pinkert, board member.

We spoke with Mary Ellen, Betsey Pinkert a past president and volunteer for over 40 years, and Catharine Hamilton who helped found the Woman’s Board five years after co-chairing an evening with Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givency at the Hilton where international models representing the major French fashion houses walked the runway.


Catharine, who says that she learned all about leadership from her own mother, whose own volunteer work began in Texas and extended internationally, tells how it began.


Eleanor Wood Prince.

I met Eleanor Wood Prince, who was so important to the Alliance, when I was just 22 and still living in New York. She took me under her wing and became like a second mother, and when David and I moved to Chicago she got us involved in the Alliance just as it hoped to buy its building as well as the thrift shop next door. 

  In 1989, Philip Miller, then President of Marshall Field’s, helped us plan a tremendously successful fundraiser attended by Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, who became my close friend.  Audrey agreed to come if we made a donation to UNICEF, her favorite charity. She was so lovely to everyone. I remember looking up at the balconies at the Hilton where so many people climbed to see the fashion show, hoping it wouldn’t collapse.


Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy.

 In 1994, Julius Lewis requested that I put together a woman’s board and I was able to twist the arms of many friends to lend their names.  We were so fortunate that Libby Horn was our first President. We loved working on board projects, and I think a core group of us, including Miriam Bransfield, Janis Notz, Solange Brown and Jean Brown, were there five days a week.


David and Libby Horn.

Created in Paris in 1883, the Alliance Francaise is an international French language and cultural institution located in 137 countries. Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand de Lesseps and Jules Verne were among its founders.  Jack McCord, Executive Director of Chicago’s Alliance Francaise, recently praised the work of the Woman’s Board:


Chicago is somewhat unusual in that several of the most prominent cultural institutions have retained their women’s boards. In other cities, auxiliary boards or boards of governors have replaced them. The strength of the Chicago groups come from their civic and business connections, the energy and creativity they bring to fundraising events and other projects and frankly, especially in the case of the Alliance Française, their exquisite style and taste. 


Hervé and Isabelle de la Vauvre and Jack McCord.

Chez Kids summer campers making a French tarte.

A cooking class in the Alliance kitchen (the only one of its kind in the Alliance US network).

Chez Kids Academy students with their teacher.

Betsey Pinkert, who holds a Masters degree in French Literature from the University of Chicago, and once taught French at the Latin School, said she began volunteering at the Alliance when she stopped teaching in 1974 to raise her family.


My husband suggested it because he said he was afraid that I would lose my fluency in French.  At that time we were located in a house on the Gold Coast.   When I went in I felt immediately at home, and before I knew it they had put me in charge of weekly programming.


Betsey Pinkert with Bill Gofen, who participated on a trip to Paris which Betsey planned for the Alliance.

  I love the sound of the language, the literature, the art, the music, the wine, the fashion, the gastronomy.  Speaking French is definitely not a requisite of being on the board.  But we all embrace the French language, whether it is spoken in France, Quebec, Haiti, Senegal, Madagascar, parts of Switzerland and Belgium and other places around the world.


Betsey points out the Alliance’s “real impact on the Chicago Public Schools” through the Award Towards Excellence program directed by Francine Saltoun, Vice President of the Board of Directors.


Francine Saltoun, congratulated by her students after receiving the French Order of Merit.

In 1998, the Alliance entered into a partnership with the Chicago Public Schools to offer motivated students from diverse neighborhood high schools a two-year after-school enrichment program. Classes meet once a week throughout the school year at the Alliance’s Dearborn Street headquarters and are taught by native French speakers. At the end of the second year, qualifying students can compete for a scholarship trip to France or an intensive immersion stay at the Concordia Language Villages.


The program enables students to refine their French language speaking skills and exposes them to broad cultural experiences while empowering the students by opening their minds to global thinking, building their tolerance of diversity, and strengthening their educational endeavors. CPS as well as participating teachers, students and their parents offer great praise for the program. Betsey adds:


The Woman’s Board not only raises funds for the project through the biennial Gala but also enjoys being hands-on in many ways, bringing “gouters” each week of pain au chocolat, baguettes and other French foods for the students.

The Program not only improves foreign language skills but overall grades in high school and boosts a sense of self esteem. Former students come back to watch the graduation ceremony and one recently attended the gala.


Alliance Program Director Aimée Laberge is one of the organization’s great resources, planning program which emphasize the cultural gifts from French-speaking countries around the world.  An example of her creativity is seen in upcoming fall programs which include Betsey Pinkert in conversation with Paris-based Penny Drue Baird, author of On Interior Design, who shares the secret of impeccable taste on November 7.  Former fashion editor of Elle France, Tish Jett, speaks on her book Living Forever Chic on October 23. Paris Noir, a live vintage cabaret featuring classics from Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt will be held on November 1. US premieres from the Champs Elysees Film Festival, travel lectures, and a New Wave film series show why Aimée is regarded as one of Chicago’s most skilled program planners.  These fall events are open to the public.


“Living Forever Chic” with author Tish Jett, former fashion editor at Elle France, will be on October 23.

Paris-based Penny Drue Baird, author of On Interior Design, shares the secret of impeccable taste with Betsey Pinkert on November 7.

Catch three US Premieres first shown at the Champs Elysées Film Festival in Paris on November 2. Artistic director, Justine Lévêque, and French film director Samuel Bigiaoui will be in attendance.

Both Betsey and Mary Ellen had opportunities to study abroad and remain forever grateful. Betsey said:


You really develop a respect for the culture there. You learn little things like always saying Bonjour when you enter a shop and look at the person.  You bid them goodbye when you leave.  The simplest things are done with great thought—the way a little box is wrapped.


Mary Ellen agrees:


We try to embody through our studies the refinements of French culture.  Even in a simple country meal or the flowers in a flower box, everything is placed in a most magnificent order, with a mise- en-scene aspect to the smallest detail. It is really an art of living—how you approach things and how you deal with people.





For more information about the Alliance Francaise and their programs, go to