By Erin E. Arvedlund
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Philadelphia woman who was a pioneer in the banking industry describes her career and then gets personal. Specifically she talks about what widowhood has been like after three decades of marriage.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
When her husband died, life began all over again for Birtan Aka Collier.
A former banker and mayoral adviser, she had been married 30 years to Ralph Collier, a sophisticated voice in local radio who interviewed celebrities and newsworthy figures.
He worked for seven decades in radio, wrote a weekly travel column for the Main Line Times, and hosted a travel program for listeners until he died in 2013.
That’s when she stepped up to the microphone: She took over her husband’s interviews and began recording the shows.
“I intend to work in radio for the next 10-plus years and keep myself physically and mentally healthy and fit,” she said recently. “This is the best part of retirement.”
Widowhood wasn’t easy, not after three decades of marriage and a career. But she found coping skills, in addition to traveling globally and serving as a member of several committees at the Union League and the Philadelphia Club.
“My story is an inspiration to other women who have lost their spouses,” Collier, 72, said. “There is a new life after you lose a spouse. It’s possible to go in new directions and start all over.”
Birtan Aka wasn’t sure she’d ever get married. When she graduated from Vassar College in 1966, “my search for a job led me to banking, and I started work in the international division of Philadelphia National Bank” in Center City, she recalled.
Within three years, she was the first female credit officer of a major U.S. bank to be sent overseas to India and Pakistan.
“This made big news around the world,” Collier said. She was profiled by the New York Times in 1969; of course, it mentioned the miniskirt she wore.
Trips to Southeast Asia and the Middle East followed. She was the first woman at a U.S. bank to open a representative office in Tehran in 1975. After three years, she returned stateside to work in corporate and private banking at PNB/CoreStates Financial Corp., now part of Wells Fargo.
Collier’s second career was serving as deputy director of commerce for international trade and investments in Mayor Wilson Goode’s cabinet from 1984 to 1991. In 1984, she met and married Ralph Collier.
“He was an icon, a radio host on many different networks with interview and commentary programs. Despite our age difference — 23 years older than me — we were very happy,” she said.
After leaving city government, Collier produced her husband’s programs for radio as well as traveled with him for his broadcasts and articles. After his death, she became host of his 30-minute interview program on radio station WRDV-FM, keeping the original titles: I Hear America Talking and Tours and Detours.
“Currently, I tape weekly interviews with personalities from the arts and culture world in Philadelphia, and also authors on promotional book tours,” she said.
She emulates her husband’s style: “I learned from him. He always gave the maximum amount of time and the spotlight to the guests. He very rarely used ‘I’ and asked questions to open up the guests. They always commented that he put them at ease.”
Her program airs from 6:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday on WRDV.
Lately, she has interviewed John Lahr, theater critic for the New Yorker, who wrote a biography of Tennessee Williams; author Lynne Cheyney; and Ruth Westheimer, about whom a play was recently produced called The Doctor Is In.
What wisdom did Collier gain in widowhood?
“It was difficult the first year. Penn Medicine offered bereavement sessions, and I went weekly. They were very helpful with strategies to cope with grief. It was good to hear other people’s experiences and have professional guidance.”
Bereavement therapy taught her to exercise regularly, so she began doing yoga and Zumba and swimming.
“At least once a day, try to laugh,” she recommended. “I watched YouTube or comedies at the end of the evening, old Frasier episodes, and Sid Caesar.”
Doing the radio program “gave me motivation that Ralph’s radio legacy could continue. The people I talk to, almost without exception, are smart, well-educated, articulate. It gave me pleasure to talk to them, be intellectually stimulated. It made my life in retirement so colorful and was a great diversion.”
Whenever low feelings came on, she would look for a diversion. “Get out of the house, walk, reach out to a friend, go to a movie or theater. Be socially active,” she said. “The idea of reaching out — that came from bereavement sessions. The last thing one should do is isolate, to turn to alcohol or pharmaceuticals. The effects wear off, and you’re back to where you started. Those are coping strategies. Volunteer, go be with people and interact, and don’t use television as a companion. Don’t turn inward, look outward.”
A memorial concert for her husband “was very helpful to me to feel the pain of losing him, to be with his friends, celebrate his life, and make sure his name lives on. Some of his clothing I gave to people who had worked with him. The whole thing taught me to be resilient, and, as Dr. Ruth said, always look for the positive, even in the most negative experience. And she had lost her parents in the Holocaust.”
“I’m still learning,” Collier said. “I’m still making friends, and I’m dating again.”