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Woman of Grace: Joyce Olson Resnikoff is "all heart"

Published 10/16/2013 12:00 AM

Walking into Joyce Olson Resnikoff’s office in Olde Mistick Village is like walking into the wing of a small museum dedicated to a beautiful life.

Family photographs, thank-you cards and lovingly scrawled pictures from her children and grandchildren adorn the walls. There are gifts, mementos, reminders of happy milestones. Here and there are the artifacts of the life of a woman who has gathered many friends, supported many people and ideas, and sown much success in her 76 years.

It wasn’t always easy.

Resnikoff professionally came of age at a time when a woman could not obtain a bank loan without her husband’s signature; when it was understood that if a wife wanted to work outside the home, she was still expected to have dinner made, clothes laundered, house clean.

“You have to understand something,” she explained, “back then, if the husband cared for the children while the wife worked, he was ‘babysitting’” — not parenting, as we think of shared child care today.

In 1973, in her mid-30s, Resnikoff was a mom to four young sons, the only woman serving on the board of the southeastern Chamber of Commerce, and the only woman on the board of the Bank of Mystic.

She says this not to make a point about her ability — or what friends describe as her “firebrand” energy — but to illustrate the scarcity of women in those capacities at that time. But Resnikoff was determined to be defined by her work, not her gender. With twin brother and Olde Mistick Village visionary and developer Jerry Olson, she was building what would become a family legacy and standout attraction in the area. When the siblings applied for financing, bank executives resisted the idea of a female partner in an enterprise of that scope, Resnikoff recalled. They pushed ahead. Joyce capably handled the financing, marketing and leasing of the 60 village shops while Jerry oversaw the construction. At no time was she looking to fill anyone’s quota.

“The secret is, you don’t want to be the token [female]. You don’t want to stay if there is tokenism.”

There were other challenges.

During the 1960s and 70s, “blue laws” prohibiting retail business on Sundays were still in effect in Connecticut and were the subject of ongoing court battles in states across the country, according to the Maryland Law Review. When Resnikoff felt that the laws were being selectively applied, she protested — in a big way. She lodged formal complaints about certain industries being permitted to work while her tenants had to hang “closed” signs. She took on her opponents in the public arena, in newspapers and on radio programs — where she would point out that the laws seemed to do no harm to God, family or society when they were relaxed in the name of holiday shopping, every weekend Thanksgiving through Christmas.

She emphasized the necessity of being open on one of the only two days of the week that families can travel together. After all, Mystic Seaport was open, so why not the village?

With its visibility and proximity off Route 95, Olde Mistick Village had been conceived as a community and small business enrichment space, and a visually intriguing entry point to travelers.

“This is tourism. To stay in the business of tourism, you have to be open on Sunday,” she said.

Her opponents were vocal, sometimes vicious. She was referred to as “that woman” more than once. After a particularly upsetting confrontation, she cried in her car.

But here and elsewhere, the laws fell, and Mystic’s reputation as a multifaceted destination grew.

Her colleagues in tourism say that Resnikoff’s brand of leadership is unparalleled and deeply appreciated.

“Joyce is the mother, the ‘Auntie Mame,’ the cheerleader, the pioneer of a multitude of cultural, regional initiatives that have impacted almost every institution I know,” said longtime friend Steven Sigel, executive director of The Garde Arts Center in New London.

“When she first took me under her wing — in the years when the dream of a restored and expanded Garde theater was mostly documents and renderings — she galvanized, motivated and prodded so many individuals and businesses to rally around — not just the Garde but a city she loved [New London]. The restoration of the Garde and its new lobbies are a permanent testament to her leadership and generosity.”

The word “generosity” is one that surfaces often when people talk about Resnikoff. The local theater, musical and visual arts programs, youth sports, charitable and nonprofit ventures that the Olson family have personally and professionally supported over the years are too numerous to name. There’s a collective understanding, though, that Joyce never wanted to just succeed. She wants everyone to succeed.

“I have admired her, and been inspired by her for years,” said Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce.

“She is an incredible force for good.”

Last February, while people in Misquamicut were literally picking up the pieces of their businesses after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Resnikoff hosted a fundraising reception at Go Fish to share the scope of the work ahead. She wanted the tourism community to truly understand how the restoration of Misquamicut was essential to the continued vitality of the area. Konicki said people were inspired by Resnikoff and her personal generosity, and an astonishing $57,000 was raised in the first seven minutes of the event.

“She has an unbridled passion for tourism and an unparalleled compassion for the non-profits in the region. Her contributions are inspiring and her energy and generosity seemingly know no end,” Konicki said.

Peter Glankoff, outgoing chief marketing officer of Sea Research Foundation and former CMO at Mystic Seaport, echoed that sentiment.

“Nobody comes close to being Joyce. Since I came to this area, she has alternately been a mentor and a critic and a friend. At the end of day though, she’s all heart.”

Resnikoff’s perspective is simple: We’re all in this together.

“We’re very fortunate that our family has been successful,” she said. “Giving is a thank you. If we didn’t have this community, we wouldn’t be here, 40 years later.”

40 years of memories

It is a testament to the vision of Jerry Olson that people think of Olde Mistick Village as a tourist destination. No one thinks of it as a mall; no one even thinks of it as an outdoor mall — which technically, it is. But when you build something with attention to place — when you bring in, as Jerry did, native trees and anchor them deeply; when you hang birdhouses and fill flower boxes and make sure there are plenty of places to sit, the place takes on the character of a home — with a distinct personality and reality. People love visiting, whether they leave with an original oil painting, or a block of cheese and a sock puppet. The village is an experience. And shared experience is at the heart of what family means to Resnikoff.

“Creating memories” is one of the most loving things a parent can do with a child, she said. “It goes so fast, and if you don’t take advantage of that” you miss out, she said. Resnikoff, who relishes time with her own four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, said it’s an honor that the village’s yearly special events have become traditions for many families. She loves to see children discover the duck pond and water wheel; she loves to see people return for the art and antique vehicle shows, for the thousands of sparkling lights at Christmastime, for the chowder cook-off which snaps the doldrums of our long New England winters.

“When I walk around, I’ll hear parents say, ‘You know, I came here as a child.’ And now they’re bringing children, grandchildren — and dogs,” she said, smiling.

And she loves the way the village has served as an incubator for original business ideas and a location for enduring ones.

“The women here have done very well,” she said proudly, adding, “We rarely have vacancies, and in today’s day and age, that’s a miracle.” She cites Richard and Karen Douglas, two self-described hippies who founded the funky Imagine shop and have been selling rare vinyl, ethnic clothing, posters and humor gifts for 33 years. She cites Grace Malloy, who was a mother of five with business ambitions when she founded the iconic village shop The Toy Soldier 40 years ago because, Resnikoff said, “as a mother, she knew what she wanted to see in a toy shop. And she did it.”

Beginning with family

Resnikoff remembers her father, Martin, reading the Bible aloud with her mom, Julie, each night. She remembers hearing them pray “for people who were not healthy, or who had a problem.” She remembers them praying before meals. She remembers her parents, who were married for 53 years, holding hands and kissing each other good morning each day. She remembers how her father, (a pioneer retail developer who built the Groton Shopping Plaza in 1952), would stand up at town meetings and speak candidly and eloquently “from his heart” she said, with no prepared notes. She remembers how she loved going with him and being “his sidekick” as a child. She remembers her mother as her father’s best friend.

Joyce and Jerry dedicated The Meeting House in Olde Mistick Village to their parents, and it is the site of a sweet tradition, where the Rev. Marie Tyler Wiley conducts free weddings on Valentine’s Day each year.

Wiley said that Resnikoff “embodies what I believe every woman is capable of being and that is strong, intelligent, beautiful and unrelenting. She knows how to get things done and with flair.”

Resnikoff’s early grounding in spirituality has resonated through her life. She was raised Episcopalian. With her second husband, the late Israel Resnikoff, she found herself deeply drawn to Judaism. But she believes the many avenues of faith join in the same destination.

“Some people find it in a church, some people see it in nature,” she said. “I believe God listens and you can talk to him anywhere.”

Nowadays she brings her own prayer list to synagogue on Saturdays. “You have to believe,” she said. “It is important for the soul of a human being,” she said to know that “there is a higher being you can talk to when you are sick, or afraid. To know unconditional love.”

She sometimes gets goosebumps when she talks about things like this, the things she lives by and knows in her heart to be true, she said, pausing.

“Oh. Look at my arm.”