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RAE BIESTER: FIRST LADY OF THE PHILLY MINT

By Ed Reiter


 Rae Biester’s name means little or nothing, I suspect, to the vast majority of 21st-century coin collectors. Without her, though, our hobby might be far different today – for she was a powerful catalyst behind the proof set boom of the 1950s. 

 In 1953, Biester became boss lady of the Philadelphia Mint – the only woman ever to serve as superintendent of the nation’s mother mint.

 It was a formidable challenge. Boss ladies, after all, were far less common then, and skepticism greeted such appointments. But, by the time she left eight years later, she had won universal respect within the mint. And she also had
earned something more: the warm and enduring affection of those whose lives she touched – for while she brought a will of steel, when needed, to the work, she brought a heart of gold to the workers.

 “Everyone loved her,” Frank Gasparro told me in a 1984 interview, shortly after Biester passed away. Gasparro worked at the mint as assistant sculptor-engraver throughout Rae Biester’s tenure.

 “She was really a wonderful person,” he fondly recalled. “She got to know every employee personally, by his or her first name. And she took a personal
interest in everyone, too. Everybody in the mint got a birthday card from her, everybody got a Christmas card from her – and if anybody got sick, she’d come to their home or the hospital. She was quite a terrific woman.”

 Biester not only reached out to the staff, but also encouraged the staff to reach out to her. The door to her office was never closed, and employees were always welcome to come to her with their problems – job-related and personal ones, as well.

 “I had a beautiful relationship with everyone there,” she told me in an interview in the mid-1970s at her home in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill, Pa. “It probably took a little while to get accustomed to having a woman director, but they got used to it.”

 They also got used to doing without the siren that previously had signaled the start and end of work shifts. Soon after arriving at the mint, then located on Spring Garden Street, Biester ordered the siren silenced, feeling it represented an unnecessary nuisance for employees.

 The lady superintendent left a lasting impact on the coin collecting hobby, as well. More, perhaps, than any other single individual, she was responsible for the boom in sales of proof sets in the middle 1950s. As Frank Gasparro commented, she was the one “who really put the proof sets on the map.”

 Not long after taking charge at the mint, Biester faced a major crisis: The economy was lagging, coin production was down and widespread layoffs loomed for mint employees. She summoned the staff to a mass meeting and asked for ideas on what might be done to help save jobs – and someone in the group suggested expanding production of proof sets.

 “I never knew about proof coins before I went to the mint,” Biester told me in our interview, “but once I found out what they were, I liked them very much. And I felt within myself that they needed more promotion.”

 Promotion is precisely what she gave them. She sent personal notes to purchasers of 1953 proof sets thanking them for their orders, urging them to continue buying proof sets in future years and encouraging them to interest their
friends in doing likewise. She sent similar notes in 1954. And the orders came pouring in: Sales nearly doubled in 1954, and they nearly doubled again in 1955. Within two years, the mint’s annual output rose from 128,800 proof sets to 378,200 – and thanks to the extra workload, the layoffs were successfully averted.

 Though not a numismatist, Biester herself began buying proof sets every year.

 “These,” she said, “were the only thing I collected. I didn’t buy them extravagantly, because that wouldn’t have been appropriate. But I liked them and I felt they made wonderful gifts. Whenever my husband had a birthday or we had an anniversary, I gave him proof coins.”

 Her husband, William H. Biester, was an electrical engineer who became president of the Electro Construction Co. in Philadelphia. He died in 1966.

 Rae Biester left the mint just as she had arrived: on the winds of political change. The superintendency of the Philadelphia Mint is a patronage position –  and, as an active Republican, Biester became persona non grata when Democrat John F. Kennedy took control of the White House. She herself had been named to the job by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after having worked for his election.

 Within a few years, she was back in the minting game – this time as “Gal Friday” to Joseph M. Segel, founder of The Franklin Mint. Segel had been impressed with her work at the government mint, and in 1967, while laying the groundwork for what would become the world’s largest private mint, he asked her to come aboard as his personal administrative aide.

 “There’s quite a variance,” Biester said, “between a government mint and a private mint. At the U.S. Mint, everything was prescribed – everything was in the book; nothing varied. At a private mint, there is no book. Everything is new, and everything is solved as it comes along.”

 There were, of course, many similarities, as well – and one of the most important was the presence of Gilroy Roberts. During Biester’s time at the government mint, Roberts had been chief sculptor-engraver. Then, when she
joined the new private mint, she found him there already as its chairman.

 “My relationship with Gilroy is a very sentimental thing,” she commented during our interview.

 It was Roberts, she noted, who arranged for the preparation of her portrait after she completed her service at the Philadelphia Mint – a portrait that now hangs in the new Philly mint, alongside those of other past “supers.”

 For his part, Roberts remembered Rae Biester as a woman who “liked people and wanted people to like her.”

 “She didn’t have an easy job at first,” he recalled. “She succeeded Ed Dressel, who was sort of a martinet – you know, a tough guy – and a lot of the old standbys in the mint felt that she wouldn’t be able to handle things. In their opinion, it took a man. But she proved that she was all right.

 “She was a good organizer, supervisor and director, and she did a good job.”

 One of Biester’s fondest recollections of Roberts concerned a call she got from him during her very first month at the government mint.

 “He asked me to come up to his office,” she related, “because he was having a problem. He was working on his Eisenhower medal [the official Mint presidential medal], and since I knew the president personally, he wanted my opinion on the subject.

 “He had a large clay model on his easel, and I said: ‘It’s beautiful, but you’re getting too much hair.’ He took his knife and clipped off a little in front and I said:
‘It’s perfect; don’t change another thing.’

 “Gilroy took it down to show Mrs. Eisenhower, and she made absolutely no change in the model. And that was my introduction to medals.”

 Throughout her long life, Rae Biester was involved in community affairs, and she almost invariably rose to the very top of any organization she chose to join.

 At various times, she was national president of the American Legion Auxiliary, president of the school authority in Upper Darby Township, Pa., and president of the Pennsylvania County Treasurers Association. She qualified for membership in the last-named group upon becoming the first and only woman ever elected treasurer of Delaware County, Pa.

 When Rae Biester died on March 14, 1984, at the age of 91, obituaries noted that she left “no immediate survivors.” It’s true that she had no children and her husband predeceased her. But, in a broader sense, Rae Biester had a large and loving family: the staffers with whom she shared a deeply personal bond during eight remarkable years at the Philadelphia Mint.

 Through the years, she acquired and preserved a number of mementos of her service, and some of these hung on the walls of her home during our interview.

 There was, for example, a large color photograph of President Eisenhower bearing the inscription, “To Mrs. Rae Biester, With Best Wishes, Dwight D. Eisenhower.” There also was a letter from President Richard M. Nixon, dated June 26, 1969, thanking her for sending him a group of silver Franklin Mint medals.

 The item that impressed me most of all, however, was a plaque on which a poem was inscribed. It was titled “First Lady” and written by Esther Wood, and the staff at the Philly mint gave it to Biester at a dinner in her honor when she left.

 That poem, perhaps, sums up Rae Biester’s life and contributions as well as mere words ever could:

     You are First Lady both in heart and face.
     Your kindliness, your wisdom and your grace
     Have flown before you like the birds of day
     To point the season of a lady’s way.
     The Mint’s magnificence is stone and art,
     But stone is merely stone without a heart.
     And you have built within it, and above,
     A worthier structure made of trust and love!
    
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