Jan Elizabeth Phillips Alman

Jan Elizabeth Phillips Alman

Jan Alman is in the house. And she is part of the reason Our House has a new facility.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette

By Bobby Ampezzan

Photo by Staton Breidenthal

My house, your house, Our House, Jan’s house.

These last two for sure — and maybe the last three — are very special.

Our House is the shelter for working homeless that, under the stewardship of executive director Georgia Mjartan, has more than quadrupled its budget, to $2.2 million, cultivated a brigade of young volunteers, and just finished a $5 million capital campaign for a new, three-story children’s center to expand capacity for the children and adolescents of the adults served to 150 or more. It opens June 7.

Jan’s house on River Oaks Circle overlooking the Arkansas River and Burns Park is another special place, for any who’ve visited. Designed by Noland Blass and constructed in 1962, it has been added onto at least twice, for a total of 6,000 square feet.

Two Christmases ago, while she and husband Larry visited her mom in Tulsa, an uncharacteristically heavy winter storm dropped several inches of snow and ice on central Arkansas, snapping power lines like uncooked spaghetti. The Almans’ house is wired into a backup generator, and as the hours passed, more and more neighbors began availing themselves of the warm showers at the Almans’. The day after Christmas, it was time for a party, with all the food meant to be eaten at Christmas. The Almans poured the wine from their well-stocked wine cellar.

One of those neighbors, three houses down, is Central High School Principal Nancy Rousseau.

“She’s outgoing. She’s direct. She’s warm. She’s not a gameplayer at all, and to me, that’s a great attribute to have, especially in a leader,” says Rousseau, who called her friend “a wonderful tiger mom” before she was told that phrase now connotes an overbearing mother of Asian descent — “OK, a wonderful Little Rock Central High School Tigers … mom.”

Throughout the house are sculptures and hung pieces made from copper and other alloys collected from the family’s scrap metal yard. There are Arkansas Repertory Theatre show posters signed by the casts in daughter Sydney’s corner of the house. There are African tribal masks and ornamental New Guinea penis gourds and vernacular vessels and baskets. In a quasi-subterranean sitting room beneath the patio is a small Cuban-accented smoking lounge that bears a standing glass cabinet filled with cigars. This is Larry’s retreat.

In January, a man broke into the residence while Jan slept. As in a nightmare, she awoke to see him standing by her bed. She screamed, “What are you doing in here? What are you doing in here?” and, incredibly, mercifully, he slinked off like a cur.

“We have always felt so safe and so secure [that] we did not lock our doors. We live in a neighborhood where we all watch out for each other,” she says. “We got an alarm system the next day.”

Jan led the $5 million campaign for Our House. When she was asked to take charge, “she said, ‘I have no experience running capital campaigns, but I love Our House. … How about this, I’ll agree to do it if you all find me a co-chair,'” Mjarten recalls.

Mjartan and others played campaign matchmaker but to no avail, “and, pretty soon, everyone said to her, ‘Jan, you can do this. We’ll be your committee.’

“A year and a half in of her being co-chair without a co-, we finally just agreed, ‘Jan’s the chair.'”

She has not been disappointed — that is, Mjartan or Alman.

“I told myself years ago,” Alman says, “I was not going to be someone who writes a check. I would rather give my time. Of course, nowadays, organizations want your time — well, they want your time and they want your check.”

Part of her hope for the new children’s center is that, by giving homeless children the advantage of a brand-new after-school facility and surrounding them with a community of expectations, the children of homeless parents won’t themselves normalize the worst experiences of homelessness.

“That’s why we’ve built the new children’s center — to stop this track record that we’ve had … generation after generation of people not succeeding.”

Family taproot

Jan Alman (nee Phillips) is the only daughter of Sallye Rosen Mann and Tad Phillips, and the confluence of two prominent Jewish family lines in Little Rock. Her maternal great-grandfather was the founding president of Rotary Club 99 more than a century ago. Her maternal grandfather, “Papa,” is Louis Rosen, an insurance executive and business founder who also served as Club 99 president, as well as president of Congregation B’nai Israel, the city’s Planning Commission, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital board of directors.

Her mother, Sallye Rosen Mann, was president of the children’s hospital auxiliary and chairman of United Way in the mid-’60s, when a secret selection committee of the Junior League of Little Rock thrice voted her membership down. Ten leaguers, including Tina Poe, Brownie Ledbetter and Louise Finch, quit the league in protest over what they considered anti-Jewish discrimination. She continued to do volunteer work. Eventually, admission policy of the Junior League did change, and Jewish members were invited to join.

When Alman was invited to join the league in 1991, she sought her mother’s counsel. That advice came down, essentially, “I didn’t fight for admittance so that later you could dismiss the opportunity on principle.”

Her father, Tad Phillips, is the offspring of Mimi and Arthur Phillips — Mimi’s parents were Marcuse Stift (Stift Jewelry Store) and Albert Cohn, son of Mark M. Cohn, the department store pioneer whose name still looks down upon Main Street from above the old storefront.

Now, consider how concentrated the history of Little Rock Jewish entrepreneurialism is in Jan and Larry Alman’s daughter Sydney Brooke Alman, a newly minted graduate of the city’s most famous high school who, by summer’s end, will have matriculated to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Her paternal grandfather is Sol Alman, the locally famous scrap metal processor and hauler.

Jewish roots in the capital city run deep, but few are the nexus of such familial lines of prominent business and civic leaders like Sydney Alman.

She has managed, indirectly, of course, to bring out the Judaism in her folks. Before her, they were nonpracticing Jews who’d skipped their bar and bat mitzvahs. OK, they still are to some degree: Jan Alman does not rest on the Sabbath — “I get a lot done on that day” — and attends synagogue infrequently. She’s not kosher — “Pork? Yes, please” — nor does she light the shabbat candles.

On the other hand, she’s a member of her temple’s board of directors, and daily she lives the principle of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world.” “I’ll even go much more specific. I’m even more community minded when it comes to that than ‘world.’ I try to do a little bit in my own backyard rather than reaching out.”

On a Tuesday earlier this month Alman visited the nursery inside the old — existing — center at Our House. Like any other post-war brick building designed before the advent of modern HVAC systems, it is dark inside, and not cool-dark either. There are exposed telephone lines and sunken ceiling board. Over the four-burner range in the kitchen is a 30-inch hood that would look quaint and dated inside a home, nevermind a facility that serves hundreds of clients, from infants to retirees.

“Did you bring me any strawberries?” asks Kennetha McGruder, a volunteer who recalled a time recently when Alman brought fruit and fondue for a baby shower for an Our House social worker. “She’s always so wonderfully happy. She’s always bubbly. At Dinner on the Grounds, she was bouncing around, helping.”

Yes, Alman will bring the food. She prepared the food at last month’s Junior League of Little Rock meeting for active and new members at her home. More famously, for the last three years she has prepared monthly teacher-appreciation lunches for the entire Central High School staff (a couple hundred), not for money or even a fundraiser, but because she feels teachers should be better appreciated.

Serving up the campaign

Alman, 54, hasn’t worked for a paycheck in more than 20 years. The last full-time job she had was as a retail clothes buyer for M.M. Cohn. Despite the life of leisure this fact conjures, in truth, it has meant that when she’s asked to help, she can’t lean upon the standard excuse, things are just so busy at work.

She has led fundraising efforts for the Centers for Youth and Families, the Arkansas Aids Foundation, Potluck Food Rescue, the Rep’s Saints and Sinners ball, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Jazz and Juleps, Congregation B’nai Israel, and Tabriz for the Arkansas Arts Center. This last one in 2009, coming as it did during the worst of the recent recession, and on the eve of a pyramid-size boondoggle (the “World of the Pharoahs” exhibit) and financial mismanagement at the center, was a huge fundraising disappointment.

“It wasn’t the most feel-good thing I’d ever done for sure, for sure. It was a lot of work for the kind of money that was made.”

Still, it got done.

“She is a get-‘er-done gal,” says Carol Herzog, director of Potluck, where Alman was a board member for 14 years. “She was always one to raise her hand when other board members were ducking under the table.”

Alman will bring the food, but if asked, she’ll also serve up the campaign. The $5 million Children’s Center campaign produced a Herron/Horton-designed (Nabholz-built) steel and glass box complete with a commercial kitchen and serving line, several classrooms, a nursery space, technology space, art space, and a unifying aesthetic marked by funky modern fluorescents and bold primary colors, specifically orange and bright green. Through the front doors, affixed to the far wall, is a tall glass nameplate for all 500 or so who gave. That would be $10,000 on average if not for the substantial six-figure sums from the Windgate Charitable Foundation and, separately, the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation. Still, more than 50 individuals and smaller foundations gave $10,000 or more. Sydney Alman offered up more than $1,000 from her summer work savings.

“In a capital campaign, typically, you have a few very large donors who give a lot of money,” Mjarten says, “but it was really important to Jan and everyone who worked on this project that we would follow the community model that Our House is built on.”

On June 6, the Almans are hosting a gathering at their house for those who gave five figures or more to the campaign. No doubt Alman will be celebrated, but she’ll also be the caterer, the cook.

“One thing about my family is that they never thought we were bigger or better or any different than anybody else,” Alman says. “They tried very hard to say, ‘Everybody has the same opportunities. Let’s all work hard and do the best we can do each and every day.’ And I hope I’ve instilled that into Sydney as well. That everybody is equal: black, white, gay, rich, poor.”

Alman’s also president of Our House’s board of directors. She just wrapped up her first term, and the board re-elected her.

It was unanimous.

High Profile on 05/25/2014

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