Elsa Anne Ekenstierna came to Marietta in September of 1952, a blue-eyed and bushytailed native of Roselle, New Jersey, prepared to start her college education.
Her high school guidance counselor convinced her that Marietta College would be the perfect choice. Nine students from her high school had attended or were currently attending Marietta College. Her mother drove her out – an entire day’s drive in those days before interstate highways.
Immediately, she fell in love with Marietta’s small town charm. She studied English and drama at Marietta College and pledged Chi Omega. It was there that her life changed forever when she met my grandfather, William H. (Bill) Thompson, Jr. I’ve heard the story more times than I can count, but it never gets old, so of course, for the purpose of this very professional and detailed interview, once more wouldn’t hurt.
“I was in the midst my senior year. I was a singer, and he was a musician, a jazz pianist. We’d never been introduced, but someone said to him “you oughta get to know Elsa.” As it turned out, we were in the same 16th century English class together. One day after class, he introduced himself and asked to hear me sing.
We walked to the college music room and I sang “Lover Man,” (a Billie Holliday tune) for him, as he accompanied me on piano.
He asked me to join his band for a telethon on WTAP, which I agreed to. So, a couple of days later – must have been a Saturday -the Chi Omegas were having a rush party, and someone called me to the phone. I heard a voice on the other line say “Elsa, this is Bill, can I come out to pick you up and we can rehearse at my house?”
Well, you’re never supposed to leave a rush party, but I didn’t care. I left. We practiced, and I met his mother, out in their old farm house, which sat where today’s Exit 1 off I-77 is located. We were driving on the way back when suddenly he said “I don’t suppose you’d go out with me?”
I was pinned to someone else at the time (essentially, engaged), to someone who was away from school. Besides, all of my sorority sisters were always going out on dates, so I agreed. He picked me up the following night. We went to the American Legion, since he was a veteran, having played in the Second Army Band. We drank some beer, danced, talked, and after he drove me back, he parked in the President’s driveway across from the Chi Omega house. All of a sudden, he takes off his glasses, leans over, and kisses me. He says “Elsa, I think we should get married.” I said, “I think we should, too!”
The wedding was the following June, and the rest is history. These days, my granny can be hard to get ahold of – she’s always at it, whether “it” refers to working nearly full time at Bird Watcher’s Digest (BWD), volunteering at Campus Martius Museum, serving on church council at St. Luke’s Lutheran (where she often organizes fellowship events), participating in Morning Rotary, and on the House Corporation for Chi Omega Sorority (National). She’s also a former trustee of Marietta College, one of the founders of the Marietta Natural History Society and the Marietta Farmer’s Market, and she just got invited to be a board member of the Salvation Army.
The woman is busy. Call her home phone, and either she’ll pick up (accompanied by the background hum of law and order SVU, steam releasing from the iron, and the occasional dog bark), or you’ll be treated to her self-recorded singing voicemail. The voicemail chimes, in typical Elsa fashion, “What’ll you do when I am far away, and can’t speak to you, what’ll you do? Huh? Leave a message? What a GREAT idea!” CLICK. Believe it or not, I got ahold of her on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
“HELLLOOOOO! I heard on the other line.
“This is Annalea.”
“WHO??” she replied, accompanied by a cackle of laughter.
She’d just gotten back from helping plan the German Faschnacht dinner at church; a yearly event full of joyous music, congregation members dancing, and homemade soups (even take-out!).
I wanted to know about our family business. My first question for Granny was an obvious one: How did BWD come to be? She had her answer ready. “Well, Bill had a degree and Master’s in journalism, he’d worked with the college as the VP of Development, while I had taken up an interest in bird watching. A friend and professor at the college, Bill Sheppard had previously launched Pro Football Digest, and was willing to help us by editing the first issue. We hired a clipping service to clip any newspaper articles about birds, bird watching, etc. Before you knew it, we’d identified hundreds of writers and columns. There seemed to be a lot written about birds, and many astute birdwatchers. We wanted to put something together to form a compelling and informative publication about bird watching. We started the business out of our house – we went to a local printer with the articles and decided to have it be digest size. Richardson Printing did it for us, and they had a perfect binder we needed for our digest-sized publication.
Sept 1978 was the first issue – we sent out about 34,000 copies to every name we could identify. We got a small response, about a 7-8% return, which wasn’t amazing, but it was encouraging enough that we decided we would continue. One of the first issues happened to go to Roger Tory Peterson, probably one of the most respected bird watchers of all time. He sent us a very detailed critique of the issue, including what we should and should not include. It was very good advice. We were in our house with the business for five years, and it was tough on the children (Billy, Andy, Laura).
The whole first floor of our home was an office. Your grandfather used to joke that I’d open the mail in the kitchen and get mayonnaise on the new subscriptions. After five years, we realized we needed to have a more professional setting, more business-like. We went out to the Norwood area, to a building that was owned by a cousin of Bill’s – he’d rented out the top floor to an oil and gas company (which was in sort of a slump) so they’d moved out. We rented out the upstairs, but eventually, grew to a place where we needed more room. We had a great big computer that took up an entire room on its own (can you believe that?). We looked all over town, but couldn’t find much. Bill came back to his cousin and asked for the 1st floor as well, and the cousin offered to sell the building.
The next day, we had Chinese food, but Bill was unsure about our big purchase. I opened a fortune cookie, and wrote “CONFUCIUS SAYS: BUY THE BUILDING!” I glued it back together and Bill happened to open it. After that, we bought the building. We’ve been in that building since 1983.”
Of course, I wanted to know the stats now. “What are the stats these days?” I asked.
Counting family, she answered, we have 11 employees, over 40,000 readers, 6 bi-monthly issues, and an alternate publication (Watching Backyard Birds). We have subscribers all over the world.
And what about the nature of a family business, as compared to other businesses, I inquired. “It can be a struggle to keep a professional attitude toward one another, and when you’re at work, everybody has to be treated as an employee who does a particular job, and has certain responsibilities. And I think that there are businesses where family members are employed and don’t necessarily take their responsibilities seriously, but in our family, we do, and we definitely don’t treat the non-family employees as if we’re the inside and they’re the out. That’s very important.”
She mentioned that what truly makes it special is the personal touch they’re able to provide as a family-owned business. As an example, Elsa has established relationships with many subscribers, who recognize her voice as soon as she answers the phone with: “Bird Watcher’s Digest… Elsa speaking.” As we were on the phone, her kitten, Willie Nelson, came in with a big beetle in his mouth. “What is that in your mouth? What is that?” I heard, along with some rustling. “You little monkey, you caught a beetle? Give me that,” she said, but he scampered away and she gave up.
Back to the interview. Now, I had a few more laid back questions for her.
I asked, what are your three favorite things about Marietta? Her reply: “The rivers, the lovely, thriving downtown, and the campus of Marietta College, of course.”
Death row meal? “Oh boy. Well first of all, I’ll have a Manhattan. And then, I think I’ll have a nice, rare, filet mignon, a stuffed baked potato, a nice salad. And, for dessert? I offer my own strawberry-rhubarb pie.” I have to agree on that one, the pie is damn good, and she can make a mean Manhattan.
I thought I should include some of her favorite childhood stories, as well. So I asked her, what’s the first story you remember? “Well, lived in Bayonne, New Jersey, before we moved to Roselle. We were on the third floor, in an apartment house. One floor was stacked on top of another – you went on a stairway past the first and second floor doors up to ours on the third. And my mother would wash clothes, then open the kitchen window, and hang the clothes on a clothesline that she could pull in and out. In the wintertime, she opened the window and pulled in my pajamas (footie pajamas) and they were frozen solid, and it stood up in the middle of the kitchen floor. I was just a baby, probably three years old.”
Something that we both share is a love of Halloween. Truly, I’ve had many nightmares of missing the entire night of Trick-or-Treat, as a child. To this day, she dresses up as a witch, every single year. She has a silver cauldron (sometimes used for making spiced apple cider and whiskey) but around this time of year, specifically for pounds of candy for miniature ghosts, goblins, vampires, and the like. She gets great joy from Trick-or-Treat night. When my grandfather was alive, he’d play spooky music on the piano, just on the other side of the porch window, and crack it open, with orange, glowing candles as his only light to see. “I always loved Halloween. One Halloween, I was 5 years old. This was after we moved to Roselle. I loved to get dressed up in costume. Back then you just went to your neighborhood, not two towns over, the way you do now. I’d so look forward to it. One day and night of Halloween it was pouring, and I cried and cried, “Mama, I’m going to miss Halloween.” My mother said, “Oh no you’re not!” and dressed me in a raincoat, and gave me a fishing pole and a bucket. So I was a fisherman, and people threw treats in my bucket. It was great.” Of course, I’ve heard most of these stories, bits and pieces over the years, told by my grandfather, my father, my uncle and aunt, usually at family dinners, or during cocktail hour, as a fire crackles behind us in the fireplace.
“Why do you do all that you do?” I asked her. She paused,
Well, I’ve made up my mind a long time ago to be a happy, satisfied, contributing person, in my community and my life in general. I guess my rationale is that you can consciously make up your mind to be fulfilled and fulfill the lives of others, or always be looking for something or someone to make you happy. And if you look at life that way, happiness may never come. You make yourself happy.
And what would she change about her life, if she was able to? “I love everything I’ve been, and there’s a reason for everything I’ve seen. I can’t think of anything that I’d change. I’ve had an incredibly wonderful, blessed life, and I can’t think of a single thing I’d like to be different.” To Elsa, the legacy she leaves includes many things – the family business, of course; but above all, her children and her grandchildren. Of course, I had to ask the question of all questions. But what would you want people to know after you’re gone? “That I loved every moment I was alive.” What about to the ones you love? “I’ll see you later.”