Montgomery County honors advocates

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Rebekah Sewell

Sarah Gotbaum, who has advocated for women’s issues for over 60 years, is one of two winners of the 2016 Path of Achievement Award.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Gotbaum

Sarah Gotbaum is the very definition of a firebrand. Now 91, the sociologist and social justice advocate has been a champion of women’s issues — from equal pay for working women to protecting the rights of retired women — since she earned her master’s degree in social work, with a focus on community organization and group dynamics.

For her many services to Montgomery County, Gotbaum will be presented with the county’s Neil Potter Path of Achievement Award, alongside Gene Counihan, another local volunteer and activist.

The Path of Achievement Award was established in 1998 by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to honor county residents 60 and older, whose lifelong efforts through work and volunteerism had a positive impact on the local community and made them role models for all ages.

Later, the award was named in memory of former County Executive Neal Potter, who passed away in 1994. The awards are co-sponsored by the Beacon Newspapers and the Montgomery County Commission on Aging.

Championing women workers

Gotbaum’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine. She was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

After graduating on a full scholarship from Brooklyn College, Gotbaum was granted a fellowship from Columbia University to earn her master’s degree.

Decades later, she went on to earn her doctorate in urban sociology from Yale University at the age of 65. Her dissertation focused on the effects of education and first jobs on the lifelong occupational status of men and women in the 1960s — an early look at the issue of pay equity for women, which she has continued to fight for.

Her son Josh described Gotbaum’s early activism as primarily volunteer-focused. “While we were growing up, she was much more like the women of her generation. You didn’t work for pay then,” he explained.

She and her then-husband Victor lived in Evanston, Ill. with their four children. Among other things, she was the service chair of Evanston’s League of Women Voters, ran a local youth group, and volunteered on political and social justice campaigns.

Following the couple’s divorce, Victor relocated to New York and led an active career as a labor leader. Sarah eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where her advocacy and career switched into high gear.

Gotbaum was appointed to the Clinton-Gore transition team, where she assisted in a nationwide search for the best female candidates to fill federal executive and sub-cabinet positions.

Under President Jimmy Carter, she served as coordinator for a group promoting women for federal judgeships. Carter had been persuaded to name a female to the U.S. Court of Appeals. After much research and discussion, the group recommended Ruth Bader Ginsberg for her abilities and her defense of women’s rights. Ginsburg was appointed to the court in 1980, and went on to become the second female Supreme Court Justice.

After earning her PhD, Gotbaum worked as a researcher for the Department of Labor’s Glass Ceiling Commission, where she gathered testimony from young women who were struggling to find employment after graduating. “They were very interested in making opportunities for those women,” Gotbaum said.

As she got older herself, Gotbaum “wanted to work on behalf of women aging,” she said.  As chairperson of the Member Advisory Council of the Group Health Association, she founded a senior advocates group to address their concerns about managed care.

She also focused on aging in place and senior health and wellness issues during her years as an active member of the Montgomery County Commission on Aging.

Gotbaum said one of her “proudest achievements” was as founder and program chair of the Older Women’s League of Montgomery County (now called Elderly Women’s Aging Alliance). She continues to run the group’s monthly meetings to educate members on their rights and bring resources to their attention.

Though her volunteer service and career work have been long and varied, Gotbaum said she did not know she’d been nominated for a Path of Achievement Award. When she found out, “she was thrilled,” said her son Josh.

According to those who know her, many of her accomplishments were made possible through her diligent pestering of those in charge of public policy and legislation, sometimes to their chagrin. For example, she remembers calling many local legislators to tell them that cutting Social Security was a terrible plan.

“Most of the time, as an advocate, she’s been thought of as kind of a gadfly,” her son explained. So, getting an award for her efforts comes as a pleasant surprise. “It’s relatively rare that someone says thank you for advocating on behalf of those who can’t.”

The icing on the cake? The ceremony will take place on May 2, Gotbaum’s 92nd birthday.

A life in education, politics

Gene Counihan co-founded the Universities at Shady Grove, and is a commissioner of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
Photo courtesy of Gene Counihan

Gene Counihan also didn’t know he’d been nominated for the award, though his record is just as storied and committed as Gotbaum’s.

Counihan’s work has primarily focused on his commitment to local education — from his early work as a teacher, to his transition to being an administrator, to becoming a “founding father” of the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Md.

Counihan, 75, says that loving his work is what keeps him going. “I really enjoy what I’ve been doing. Some of my greatest senses of satisfaction have come from volunteer things that I’ve come to along the way,” he said.

Counihan’s early life taught him that civic duty could be rewarding. He was active in student government and committees throughout his education. “I learned as a kid there are lots of ways you can help a community, as well as the individuals within that community,” he said.

Counihan began his career in the county as a public school teacher in 1963. He spent six years in the classroom with the students, and learned there was much to be done to improve the educational experience. He spent the next 24 years as an administrator, a role where, he said, he felt he could make more of a difference.

During this time, he also served three terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. After retiring from both his legislative and administrative positions, he began work as a government relations officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“Metro gave me flexibility to be involved in a number of community activities,” he said. “I went hyper in community involvement because I felt I wanted to give back for what the community had done for me.

“I was awfully active, and chaired half a dozen boards in the county. I really enjoyed doing that. My experience had trained me how to get things done.”

After Counihan left WMATA, County Executive Ike Leggett appointed him to his current position as a commissioner on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Bringing higher ed to Montgomery

Counihan’s crowning achievement, though, was as a “founding father” of the Universities at Shady Grove — a Montgomery County college campus where students can earn undergraduate and graduate-level degrees.

Before it opened in 2000, area students who completed coursework at Montgomery College, a two-year institution, had to seek four-year and graduate degrees elsewhere. The mission of the new campus was to keep those bright minds in the county, where they could contribute to the local economy.

Today, the campus of the Universities at Shady Grove offers more than 4,000 transfer and graduate students access to 80 of the most popular degree programs from nine other colleges in Maryland.

Over the years, Counihan has worked with numerous projects and organizations, including service on the board of Olney Theater and as a trustee for Montgomery College.

It’s important for older adults to stay active “so they don’t become potted plants,” Counihan joked. “It’s important to model that community involvement as a senior citizen,” he said.

Counihan feels doubly committed to illustrate what one can do because of his age and his physical disability. After a surgery, he contracted a MRSA infection, which led to the eventual amputation of his left foot. He also had to get reconstructive surgery on his back, where the infection spread.

Today, after months of rest and rehabilitation, he can walk with the assistance of a crutch.

He hasn’t let it slow him down, though. Counihan and his wife recently said goodbye to Montgomery County and moved to Easton, Md., to be closer to their grandchildren. He is already involved in the local goings on there.

Counihan’s newest interest? He’s recently begun kayaking with “wounded warriors” at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He calls it a “good exercise” for his back.

For more information about the Neil Potter Path of Achievement Awards, visit