There was one key lesson Harriet M. Rowan sought to instill in her three daughters as they grew up: You don't need a man to support you.
It was a lesson she not only taught, but practiced. The fiercely independent Westbury resident was the founder of Rowan Realty, the first real estate office in Carle Place. She served as a broker for the firm for more than 50 years, retiring at age 95.
“She was way ahead of her time as far as women and women’s rights,” said Rowan’s daughter, Carol Ruggiero of St. Augustine, Florida. “She started her own business when no other woman would be doing that. She built up this empire.”
Rowan got her start at a time when female business owners were a rare sight, establishing her agency to become a community mainstay that today sells homes to the third generation of its original customers. She died on Feb. 24 at age 99 at the Carle Place home of her sister, Carole Zeilman, where she had been living for the past five years.
After retiring, Rowan left the business to Zeilman, who had been working with her since Rowan Realty’s inception. She credits Rowan’s ability to build relationships as well as her thoughtfulness and honesty as instrumental to the agency’s success.
“When you’re in real estate, people confide in you,” Zeilman said. “She never spread rumors or did anything that would hurt anybody. She respected their lives and their secrets.”
Rowan was born on Aug. 5, 1920, in New York City, the eldest of Louis and Frances Madeo’s six children. She was just 13 years old when her father was murdered.
“It turned her world upside down. She was ridiculed when she went to school and she was brought up with a stigma of her dad being murdered. Her mom became very bitter,” Ruggiero said. “As soon as she could get out to work, she did.”
After graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, Rowan became a stenographer at the Graybar Electric Co., where she met her husband, Gordon Rowan, who was 10 years her senior. The two married in 1940, purchasing a Levitt-built home on Magnolia Street in Westbury in 1947 to raise their three daughters.
And despite what was expected of women at that time, Rowan had no interest in being a housewife.
“My mother wanted to work. Being a housewife was not something she wanted to do,” said her daughter, Gail Warner of Sparta, New Jersey. “It wasn’t easy for women during those days to have those opportunities. She found a way that worked for her to raise a family and also work.”
Having already established roots in the community, Rowan became a real estate agent with Landsman and Booxbaum and La Rosa Realty in Westbury. In 1964, she launched Rowan Realty from a desk in her brother’s plumbing business, later moving to her own building at 507 Westbury Ave. in Carle Place.
“She was a pioneer in this area, it was a man’s world at that point,” Zeilman said. “She was strong enough to carry her own weight against the men.”
Rowan employed several female real estate agents, trusting them to take care of the sales while she oversaw the firm as the broker.
“She was very conscious of the fact that she shouldn’t be in competition with her sales people,” said Nora Lofgren of Westbury, a Realtor who worked with Rowan for 25 years before starting her own business. “She was a very supportive person and appreciated the people who worked for her.”
Rowan’s determination went well beyond the confines of her office. Despite her husband’s objections, she insisted her daughters attend college and become teachers so that they could support themselves.
“She thought all women should have an education and be self-sufficient,” said Ruggiero, a former educator. “Education was the most important thing to her.”
As she got older, Rowan’s independent streak persisted. Fran Calhoun recalls that when her mother was 93 years old, she decided to shovel after a snowstorm.
“[She had] just got her hair done and it was freezing but she put one of those rain bonnets on, a mink coat and shoveled the driveway,” said Calhoun of Columbus, Georgia. “She got it in her mind and she did it.”
A former member of the Plandome Country Club, Rowan enjoyed playing golf with her husband, winning bridge games, and dancing to “New York, New York” at parties. She had a weakness for Bloody Marys and Gino’s pizza in Westbury, and in her younger years, unwound before bed with a Vodka Gibson and a single cigarette — which Ruggiero says she never inhaled.
“She was a sport,” Calhoun said. “She was spunky right up until the end.”
Services for Rowan were held this month. Rowan was preceded in death by her husband. In addition to her three daughters and Zeilman, Rowan is survived by another sister, Florie Hausman; seven grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.