Sally Struthers had the crowd in stitches – and tears – during her keynote address at today’s Women’s Leadership Colloquium at the University of Mary Washington.
The 24th annual event, held at UMW’s Stafford campus, fosters connections among professional women. Themed “Real Women, Real Issues, Real Solutions,” the daylong colloquium was packed with seminars led by presenters like TV reporter Jan Fox and Foode owner and executive chef Joy Crump.
But Struthers, who rose to fame in the groundbreaking 1970s sit-com All in the Family (she also held recurring parts in the more recent CBS comedy Still Standing and CW Network’s Gilmore Girls) stole the show with her opening talk.
In her debut address as a keynote speaker, the Emmy-winning performer traced her journey, from her childhood in Portland, Oregon, to her life as a public persona. Weaving family, friends and colleagues into her talk, along with jokes and hilarious impressions, she shared some simple yet poignant lessons. Always, she said, put imagination before money, find a way to turn lemons into lemonade and trust your mother … and never let others deter your dreams.
Struthers spoke of her early intentions to follow in her father’s footsteps as a medical doctor and her struggle to break into acting, recounting the time she discovered her calling as a character actress.
“From that day on, my life went in a whole different direction,” she said. “The world opened up big to me.”
After short stints on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Tim Conway Comedy Hour, she landed the role that would launch her career – Gloria Stivic, the ditzy and kind, yet somewhat stubborn, daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker on All in the Family.
“None of us knew at the time what a hit it would be,” Struthers said of the show, which held the Nielsen ratings’ No. 1 spot five years in a row, propelling her and her co-stars to fame and stripping away their privacy. “You never get it back,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing to lose.”
Struthers won two Emmys and a Golden Globe Award during the show’s eight-year run. She went on to co-star in movies with such actors as Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw; hold leads in the Fox TV show 9 to 5 and in her own CBS series, Gloria; and appear on Broadway and in a string of independent films, TV movies and voice-over roles.
In recent years, she’s graced the stage locally at Fredericksburg’s Riverside Center Dinner Theater in such productions as The Full Monty; Hello, Dolly!; 9 to 5: The Musical; Spamalot; and Mame.
In the spirit of the colloquium’s theme, Struthers kept it “real” with straight talk about her failed marriage, the emotional abuse she endured on set in the ’70s and her mother’s decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. But she also weaved in humorous tales of 38-year-old daughter Samantha and made light of her own age (she’s now 70), her diminutive stature (she stands just over 5 feet), and her lack of experience regarding technology.
“I need to go to the University of Mary Washington to get into the real world,” she joked with the crowd.
Two hundred people attended the event, where Marci Catlett, deputy superintendent for Fredericksburg City Public Schools, was presented the Patricia Lacey Metzger Distinguished Achievement Award. The honor is given each year to someone who upholds high personal and professional standards while achieving a significant career goal.
Like Catlett, Struthers urged women to speak up and stay busy, ending with a quote from her friend, actress Brenda Vaccaro.
“You’ve got to keep moving,” she said. “It creates a breeze.”