When Gloria Schmidt urged Etta-Belle Kitchen to accept nomination for the presidency of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, Kitchen fired back a staccato "No! No! No!"
That was typical Kitchen talk. She comes on hot and strong: a fireball. It takes a while to find the cooler, gentler side of this woman.
Schmidt, who last year chaired the league's nominating committee, kept the pressure on.
As Kitchen tells the tale: "After Gloria called several times, I told her, 'OK, I'll do it if you become vice president.' Gloria said, 'I don't have time,' and I said, 'Neither do I,' and hung up."
Two weeks later, Kitchen picked up the nominating committee report. "There I was," she recalled, laughing, "down for president with Gloria as vice president."
Kitchen is a natural for president of almost anything. Twist her arm and she admits to being "in my 70s," but she looks 60 and thinks younger. She is a lawyer and a retired Navy commander who has managed everything from a direct-mail advertising company to the Navy's Recruit Training Command for Women. She is former president of the Los Angeles Opera Guild, president of the cooperative where she lives, a workaholic, a bit of a flirt, a woman who says what's on her mind and who deeply loves the League of Woman Voters because "it is democracy in action . . . and I am a patriot."
She tends toward pithy self-evaluation: "My philosophy is, don't tell me what's wrong, tell me how to correct it." "I have a need to be loved." "I only look at now and the future. I never look back or regret." "I love being appreciated." "I speak out. I am forthright. I am probably capable."
Schmidt, who works daily with Kitchen, observed that the League is Kitchen's raison d'etre : "She looks forward to having a reason to face life every morning, and right now that reason is the League. She's doing super.
"Etta-Belle is our leader," Schmidt declared emphatically, "She brings strong administrative capabilities to us. She has a knowledge of the League."
Perhaps nobody knows Kitchen's leadership style better than her secretary, Nima Long.
League presidents serve for two years. Long has served as secretary for nearly two decades. She has seen so many presidents come and go, and has so much league information in her head, that she half-jokes, "I boss them, they don't boss me."
Long labels Kitchen "dynamite," adding, "She knows how to talk to people, how to run meetings. She talks to people as League president, but more like a friend. She cares. She cares a lot."
Thelma Hall, a retired secretary in Richland, Wash., and Kitchen's sister, repeatedly emphasized respect and love for her sibling before describing her as, "On the one hand authoritative and demanding, on the other loving and caring. I think it is the result of her having been in authority. I've had to tell her more than once, 'You're not in the Navy now."'
A Little Tougher
Comparing Kitchen with other league presidents she's worked for, Long--who occasionally slips into understatement--observed that, "She might be a little tougher than some of the others."
The secretary said when Kitchen gets angry "she hollers a little bit, raises her voice some and tries to be taller than what she is. She usually gets her point across. In the end she and the other person she got into it with are usually laughing and they've solved the problem. It can go either way; she doesn't have to win them all."
Kitchen knows she raises her voice, but she doesn't like it. After shouting at someone she feels "ashamed and embarrassed. I stay awake at night and finally I call and apologize."
Long's passing reference to her boss trying to be "taller than what she is" gains meaning when you meet the League president, whose intense brown eyes meet yours head-on--if you're 5 feet tall.
Kitchen jokes about her stature today, but as a child it troubled her. "I guess I wasn't very popular when I was a kid," she recalled. "I was too little. I was unhappy."
Through high school in Le Grande, Ore., Kitchen's parents "kept a tight rein on me . . . maybe I've always been the different one. I guess that's true."
But when she got to the University of Oregon in 1926, life changed. She joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and quickly became "very active." She developed a "wide circle of new friends with varied interests." And those restrictive parental reins were too short to reach her.
"I did drama, I studied, but mostly I played," Kitchen said of her college years. "I was very popular in college. I was a very good dancer. I used to win dance contests. I never had any trouble getting dates on Saturday night. College was fun. I enjoyed every day of it."
Bill Whitely, a college friend with whom Kitchen went dancing and "drank home-brew," remembers the coed as "an independent little devil who didn't let people push her around."
"I had a lot of fun with her," added the retired attorney from Newport Beach, who described his former fellow student as "a hell of an intelligent little gal."
Went to Law School