By JOANNE FOX
Audra Cole laughed out loud at the suggestion that she, too, was celebrating 75 years at Catholic Charities.
“No, not quite!” she insisted. “But I can tell you this, we were pioneers in the field of social work.”
The Sioux City native spent her entire social work career – from 1960 to 2009 – at the agency.
But even those numbers aren’t accurate, as the 84-year-old has been called off the bench to facilitate adoption services, to serve as an interim director and to minister to those with HIV and AIDS.
“Determined, generous and courageous is how I would characterize Audra,” said Catholic Charities Executive Director Amy Bloch. “She has established a strong foundation that we are able to build on and get inspiration from.”
Taking a special interest in Cole was “Cousin Mary.” Few people have been as important in Sioux City’s social history, to the point where an organization bestowed her name on a building, the Mary J. Treglia Community House.
“Mary wondered if I was planning to attend college after I graduated in 1951,” she said. “‘I will see to it you go and I will pay for it,’ she told me. I refused her generous offer.”
The family relationship isn’t quite “cousins.” Mary Treglia’s mother and Cole’s grandmother were sisters. Both were immigrants from Genoa, Italy, who had married brothers from their home town.
“But everybody was cousins,” Cole explained. “She was a huge part of our lives and family get-togethers.”
After working for five years as a secretary at Wincharger – a Sioux City radio and electronics production facility – and realizing that career was not fulfilling, Cole decided to revisit Treglia’s college offer.
“She must have seen some people skills and problem-solving skills in me and wanted to nurture that,” she said. “I told her I would take her up on her offer, but only on one condition – that I would pay her back.”
Cole enrolled at Briar Cliff College to work on a bachelor of social work degree. It was there she met Caroline O’Kane-Sands who spent a half-century employed with Catholic Charities.
“It was Caroline who wondered if I would like to earn some extra money by doing some typing for Father Robert Keefe at Catholic Charities in 1959,” she said.
While Cole was plucking at the keys, the agency director asked about her plans for the future, after she graduated in 1960.
“I had been so much a failure at planning ahead that I welcomed any input he would provide me,” she chuckled.
Father Keefe wanted Catholic Charities to be a mental health counseling service agency with therapists who had advanced degrees. He offered Cole a position and to send her to graduate school. This time, she embraced the proposal.
“There was no modality at the time in the field of social work,” she said. “Freud was used for psychoanalysis, but therapy was still being developed for social workers.”
Cole was crushed when Treglia died in 1959, having lost not only a mentor but the opportunity to pay back her benefactor.
“But I did learn something from her and that was I was to pass on my knowledge and any good fortune I might achieve,” she said. “We now call this ‘paying it forward.’”
Cole also credited Sister Muriel Ford, chair of the BCU sociology department for 35 years, with support.
“Sister Muriel wrote Father Keefe a recommendation letter. She believed I had the attributes of working with people and – under proper guidance – that I could be developed into a fine young lady,” Cole said, then added with a grin. “I guess that was her way of saying I was a bit unpolished.”
Cole was awarded her master’s degree in 1965 and remained with the agency, retiring full-time as clinical services director in 2009, but always a phone call away if needed.
“It’s funny to think that when I was hired, I thought I would give this job two years,” she admitted. “But I loved the work. I never had the desire to go elsewhere.”
“Audra continues to share the word to others about our work, but even more importantly is doing our work,” Bloch said. “She is a social worker through and through.”
“I remember visiting Cousin Mary at the community house and wanting to help,” Cole said. “I remember family and friends talking to me about problems and helping them to think them through.”
With a twinkle in her eye, Cole reflected, “Some in my family might say that at the time, I might have been part of the problem.”
“The greatest joy in collaborating with Audra is her playful spirit,” Bloch said. “She puts the joy in the work and is focused on the needs of the client.”
Raised Catholic and working at a Catholic agency enabled Cole to grow in her faith.
“We are here for a reason: to help one another,” she said. “That awareness of that concept of ‘do what you can for others’ was instilled in me by my parents and Cousin Mary.”
However, Cole stressed that mission of Catholic Charities was felt by all the staff.
“I would say we even felt humbled when people would confide in us,” she said. “Think of what it takes to get that client to trust us. We all believed there would be honor with that trust.”