Women’s History Month: PAR Celebrates With Past Presidents
By Kim Shindle | March 6, 2023 | 8 min. read
PAR celebrates Women’s History Month by recognizing women’s contributions to PAR and the real estate industry. While more than half of PAR’s membership – 62% – are female, there have only been nine female presidents in the association’s more than 100-year-old history.
The second woman to serve as president of PAR was Sally Heimbrook in 1986. When she started her real estate career more than 65 years ago, women weren’t allowed to join her local association, the Beaver County Association. After a few years, the association admitted female members and Heimbrook went on to become president.
She credits PAR President Jim Helsel Sr. (father of PAR President Jim Helsel Jr.) for urging her local association to get more involved at the state association. “Several of us started attending PAR’s meetings and we really enjoyed the camaraderie we had at the meetings,” she said. “Members were dedicated and we found we got a lot more done together, expanding people’s efforts at the state level.”
During Heimbrook’s presidency, mandatory continuing education was established. “Prior to that, the state didn’t have any requirements,” she noted. “That turned out to be very valuable. Things change every day; it’s important for agents to be aware of those changes and continuing education helps them do that.”
She noted that at the time, PAR’s headquarters weren’t particularly nice. “Several past presidents toured the building and agreed that it was time to move to another location,” she said.
One of her final memories of serving as president was a trip to the Philadelphia association. She was preparing comments but had to rewrite them to address new research about radon in homes. “Everyone was in a panic about, sure it was going to kill them,” she said. “We provided factual information and explained how it could be mitigated from a home.”
Sandra Stevens served as PAR president in 1992, less than 10 years after her husband, Thad, was the PAR president. They are the only couple in PAR’s history to have both served as president of PAR.
Stevens started her real estate career in Johnstown in 1970 and was a member of the Cambria Somerset Association of Realtors®. She served as president of the Cambria Somerset Board in 1980 and received the Realtor® of the Year award from her board in 1980, just two weeks after she married Thad. They moved to Wellsboro and she joined the North Central Penn Board in 1981, where she’s been a member since. There she has chaired and served on most of the committees. Sandy was president of the North Central Penn Board in 1987. She was broker/owner of Stevens Real Estate in Gaines, which joined with the firm where she is now licensed, Howard Hanna Professionals.
Stevens recalls meeting Howard Hanna, the founding head of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, at a seminar in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s. Hanna encouraged her to stay in the real estate business. “Mr. Hanna was my hero and I have carried his words with me through my career,” she said.
“I enjoyed my year as president of PAR and meeting Realtors® throughout the great state of Pennsylvania,” she said.
While Stevens was PAR president, the association successfully defeated efforts to have a three-day right of review, by an attorney, of all real estate sales agreements.
“A portion of New Jersey already had the three-day right to review by an attorney and we saw a push from the Bar Association to institute three-day right of review in Pennsylvania,” she said. In talking with Realtors® who were licensed in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they found the three-day right of review cumbersome, adding to both the time element in being able to close a sales transaction, but also adding to the expense of buying and selling real estate.
Additionally, during Stevens’ time as president, PAR worked with members of the Pennsylvania State Real Estate Commission to institute continuing education requirements for licensees and started discussions about the formation of the State Appraisal Board, which had been under the SREC.
PAR’s next female president, Janice Smarto, initially worked for a bank. Despite doing a great job, her manager told her she wouldn’t ever be promoted because she was a woman and the men at the bank had families to support. When she complained about the situation to her father, who was a developer, he encouraged her to get her real estate license, which her two brothers already had. She took his advice, got licensed and started working for a competitor.
Smarto recalls early on her broker taking her to a lunch meeting and some of the other men asked why he brought his secretary to the meeting. He explained she was a new agent in his office.
Smarto became active in her local association, the then Greater Jeannette Board, and served as its first female president in 1987. She was later the president of the Westmoreland West Association in 1992. And seven years later, she became the fourth female to serve as a president of PAR. Along the way, she ran for office when someone encouraged her to do so despite the fact that some members were against it.
“Rita Halverson was the district vice president at the time and she encouraged me to run, even though there were others who thought PAR shouldn’t have a woman as president,” Smarto said. “A couple of the old timers said after Sandy Stevens was president that there wouldn’t ever be another female president. This helped pave the way for me. I have a strong personality and when someone tells me ‘no’ or ‘you can’t,’ it makes me more determined.”
“At that time, if a woman was running for a PAR office, they would often find a man to run against me,” she noted. “Things have changed but back then a number of men were uncomfortable having a female president.”
In her year as president, Gov. Tom Ridge signed the legislation for the Consumer Notice as part of the Real Estate Licensing and Registration Act. “Pennsylvania was one of the last states to enact this type of legislation,” she recalled. “PAR worked on that for a number of years and the bill was totally consumer driven.”
Over time, Smarto has continued to encourage other women to become active in their local, state and national associations and to run for office. She’s served as an inspiration to many of them.
PAR’s 2002 President Ellen Renish initially started her career in a temporary job in a real estate office that was only supposed to last three weeks. Forty-eight years later, Renish is a broker and loves the rewarding feeling when she helps a family find a home.
“I worked the temporary job and the broker encouraged me to stay and I was there for several years before other agent, Joe Tarantino, left that brokerage and invited to me join him,” she said. “He encouraged me to get my license and I’ve worked with him ever since.”
She said she was fortunate to work with men who taught her a lot about the business. “There may have been some barriers when I entered the industry because there were few women, but I don’t think I noticed them until later,” she said. “I found that once people realized you knew what were you talking about, they accepted you and saw there was value that you were in the business.”
Renish said her broker encouraged her to attend local association meetings. It was at a then Central Montgomery Association meeting that she met a female president, Vivian Manilla, who invited her to Harrisburg to attend PAR meetings. “I asked her what to do and she responded, ‘find a meeting that you like and see what’s going on,’ so I did,” she said. “I found I enjoyed having a part in shaping our industry and I wanted to know about everything.”
When she ran for PAR president, a few male members didn’t think she should run at that time. “I didn’t back down and ran for office,” she said. “I think once I was in leadership and people got to know me and other women in leadership, they saw that we were all part of the team. We were all working toward the same goals for the association and the industry.”
During her term as president, there were several legislative issues including banks trying to enter real estate and home inspectors were unregulated. “We also saw the beginning of the MLSs using the internet and the old books of listings started being phased out,” she added.
“Being involved in the association helps you learn so much about the business. It’s imperative to interact with other agents; you learn so much volunteering at the association. It’s an opportunity to give back to your industry,” Renish said.
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