The Lady in the Photograph
In the black-and-white graduation photo, she’s impossible to miss.
The petite 21-year-old stands front and center, surrounded by a sea of 250 men who earned bachelor of engineering degrees from the University of Southern California in 1947.
The Los Angeles Times reported then that Adela Wolf was the lone “girl” in that year’s graduating class, referring to the Brooklyn native as a “brunette miss.” Now Adela Steinman, she was one of the first female graduates of what is now the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
For that graduation ceremony, she wore a dress she made from fabric her father had bought her and navy blue high heels that her classmates jokingly passed around after she took them off following the long walk from the engineering school to the ceremony at the L.A. Coliseum.
“A lot of the guys in my graduating class were older — many had been in the (military),” said Steinman, who celebrated her 90th birthday in February.
Although today 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students in the U.S. are women, there were almost none just after the end of World War II.
“I think there was a woman in the 1930s who was the first to graduate from the USC School of Engineering — I think I was the third or fourth,” Steinman said during a recent visit in her two-bedroom condominium near Beverly Hills.
The first in her family to attend college, she considers the quality of her education at USC very good.
“I had some very devoted professors,” she said. Nonetheless, she added, “Looking back, I think the professors were harder on me than they were with the boys. And they were very lenient with the boys who had been in the service.”
Besides the passing-around-the-high-heels incident, Steinman said she mostly was treated like just one of the guys during her two-plus years as an industrial engineering major at USC, following some college classes in New York.
“I don’t know why,” she said of the male-dominated environment, “but I just didn’t feel uncomfortable.”
Her role model?
Eleanor Roosevelt, the progressive and independent-minded first lady from 1933 to 1945.
Coming to California
Steinman was 19 when her father, a cab driver, relocated the family to live near relatives in Southern California after he lost his job at a Navy shipyard. Morris Wolf opened a store near Little Tokyo that sold used clothing. Her mother, Caroline, also worked — which helps explain how Adela ended up at USC.
“When it came to an education for me and my sister,” said Steinman, referring to her younger sister, Muriel, who became a nurse, “there was no limit to (financial support from our parents).”
Tuition was $500 per semester at USC in the mid-1940s — at the time, a lot of money. But why engineering?
“My mother and father decided I should take it up,” Steinman said. “They said to me, ‘You’re going to be an engineer.’”
The idea didn’t totally come out of left field. As a child, Steinman had excelled at science and math. And her father was “very much into science” but drove a cab to support the family.
“He always wanted to be an engineer,” Steinman said, “and I was supposed to be a boy.”
At USC, Steinman was very active in Hillel, the Jewish student organization. Today, Jewish students account for about 12 percent of USC’s total enrollment.
“I had a very good friend — he was Italian,” Steinman recalled. “We broke our friendship off because we started to get too close. He would never marry someone who wasn’t Catholic, and I would never marry someone who wasn’t Jewish.”
She remembers playing a lot of bridge in the community room of the engineering building — maybe too much. She blames the game for causing her to fail Material and Processes —her only F.
“I needed to pass that course to graduate,” Steinman said, “so I took it again. I think I got a C.”
After graduating, Steinman wanted to go to work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. But that didn’t work out, so she latched on to a career in accounting, which was part of her curriculum at USC and one of her favorite classes. She took some extra accounting classes at UCLA after she landed work as a bookkeeper and accountant at a glass factory in Los Angeles.
She returned to New York to attend her sister’s wedding, and decided to stay. She landed an accounting job there, and later met her husband, Jack Steinman.
The couple relocated to California in 1978 after their only child, Maure, graduated from the University at Albany. Maure Gardner, now 58, lives nearby in Beverly Hills and is director of Employee/Labor Relations and Compensation at UCLA Health.
“My mom is an extraordinary person, yet she always made our lives seem normal and regular,” Gardner said. “She was a role model for me while I was growing up. It is really at this point in her life that I see all of her incredible accomplishments, the respect of her peers and mine, as well as modeling a life lived with dignity and love.”
Steinman said her USC industrial engineering degree “rounded out” her thinking.
She went back to USC in 1997 for the 50th reunion of her graduating class in the School of Engineering.
The 70th reunion is next year. She plans to be there.