Tucson women blessed with friendship spanning almost seven decades

Vivian Ackerman, left, and Selma Paul Marks (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)
Vivian Ackerman, left, and Selma Paul Marks (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Friendships may be coveted throughout life, but how many span more than 65 years? Selma Paul Marks, now 91, was pregnant with her first child when she attended her friend Vivian’s wedding to Harry Ackerman at the Stone Avenue Temple on March 23, 1947. Years later, Marks and Ackerman, 89, have fashioned an extended family of sorts. Marks attends all of the University of Arizona football games — with Ackerman’s son-in-law.

The comfort of the women’s friendship is palpable, as they share laughter along with memories in Marks’ living room. “Selma is the other grandmother for my grandchildren,” says Ackerman, adding that each of them has one great-grandchild and is expecting another. Both women still drive and frequently go to a movie, lunch or dinner together.

And each reflects decades of local Jewish history. Marks, who is a native Tucsonan, was born at the Storks’ Nest maternity home on North Court Avenue, on Oct. 10, 1923. “I took so much for granted growing up,” says Marks. “My father did well. He owned the Skora Leather Company, which was the only such business in Arizona.

“We belonged to both Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Anshei Israel because he wanted to be loyal. I was the only Jewish student at Sam Hughes Elementary School. My three sons went there too. I never ever experienced anti-Semitism,” she says. “Tucson has always been a wonderfully friendly place. And the Jewish community has come such a long way.” As a UA undergraduate, recalls Marks, “Jewish girls were asked to pledge Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority. They weren’t asked to pledge non-Jewish sororities.”

Marks married her first husband, Aaron “Archie” Paul, in 1944. His parents owned the Pueblo Hotel with the iconic diving girl neon sign on Sixth Avenue. “Aaron was a freshman at the UA and I was still at Tucson High School,” says Marks. “We were introduced at Temple and he invited me to the ZBT [fraternity] dance. Everyone teased him” because he went out with a high-school girl.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, left, receives a recognition pin from  Vivian Ackerman, Mrs. U.S. Savings Bonds, at the United Nations in 1961. (Courtsey Vivian Ackerman)
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, left, receives a recognition pin from
Vivian Ackerman, Mrs. U.S. Savings Bonds, at the United Nations in 1961. (Courtsey Vivian Ackerman)

“She was a beautiful green-eyed redhead,” interjects Ackerman.

“After two of my sons were born, I went to the UA law school,” says Marks. “It took me six years, part-time, to get my law degree.” Her first husband was an accountant who had a good sense of humor. He also had diabetes. “From the time he was in high school I’m sure he was aware he wasn’t going to live a long time,” she says. “Archie wanted to take three months off from work so he could take his two children and his pregnant wife to Europe. He went to the Southern Arizona Bank and borrowed $10,000. And off we went.” The family took extended trips more than once, “always returning to London or Paris,” says Marks. Paul died at age 47 in 1969.

“I always felt terrible that I wasn’t there to be with Selma” at that time, says Ackerman. Her husband, Harry Ackerman, was twice elected as Pima County Attorney. He also served in the Arizona State Legislature and State Senate, and later moved to Washington, D.C., for a career in the U.S. State Department. “Harry and I were gone for 20 years, from 1962 to 1982. He was appointed mission director in three Latin American countries. Archie died while we were in Panama. Selma came to visit us everywhere we went.”

Both couples were involved in the Young Democrats during the 1950s. “There were no Republicans in the early days. Conservatives [in Arizona] were called Pinto Democrats. Everyone registered as Democrats in the primaries,” says Ackerman, who had arrived in Tucson from New York at age 19.

“I finished my third year at Hunter College. My mom had asthma,” says Ackerman. “The minute we hit Tucson she felt better. I advertised in two local papers in 1945 as a tutor, for $5. I took the bus to tutor at kids’ homes or go swimming at the El Conquistador pool on Broadway. That’s how I met Harry,” who introduced her to Selma and Archie. The two men were such good friends, they even shared one tuxedo for formal events.

Following their marriage in 1947, the couple had two sons and a daughter. “After the children I returned to the UA to finish my degree,” she says. “We belonged to Temple Emanu-El, first when Rabbi [Joseph] Gumbiner was there and then with Rabbi [Albert] Bilgray. Harry was asked to join the Temple board. ‘I don’t know if you want a quasi-agnostic on the board,’ he told Rabbi Bilgray, who replied, ‘That’s okay. You’ll represent half the board.’”

Marks worked as an attorney in the Pima County Attorney’s office under Ackerman. “I prosecuted cases where the parents didn’t support their children or to establish paternity. I would argue in front of Superior Court Judge Jack Marks, who may have been the only Jewish judge,” who became her second husband.

“It’s my opinion he fell in love with you while you argued in front of him,” says Ackerman.

“Oh, baloney,” retorts Marks, smiling. “I think he felt sorry for me.”

“I’m one of Selma’s biggest fans,” Ackerman tells the AJP.

Ackerman also had her day in the public eye. In 1961, she became Mrs. U.S. Savings Bonds, a role supervised by the U.S. Treasury Department. She racked up 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country to promote U.S. savings bonds. Ackerman was one of the three finalists in the Mrs. America competition when she was asked by the treasury department to give up a chance at the crown. For most of a year she was on the road, calling home to her husband and three kids in Tucson. Harry Ackerman died Sept. 25, 2003.

“I appreciate being alive and sharing our lives and history,” says Ackerman. Selma and I “both feel blessed with our families and long friendship.”

“We have our differences. I drink lots of green tea, lots of water and watch my exercise and stress. It’s really funny because I’m such a health nut and Selma breaks all the rules. I suppose it’s good genes,” she says.

“I’ve been eating ice cream and chocolate since I was 8 years old. I drink lots of coffee,” says Selma. “Enjoy the good stuff. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”