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Irma Mann Remembered as ‘Leader Ahead of Her Time’

Irma Mann ’67 LHD ’92, a Trustee Emerita and generous friend to Emerson College, and a pioneer in the world of hospitality marketing and advertising, died Tuesday, February 14.

Mann, who graduated from Emerson cum laude, founded and ran Irma S. Mann Strategic Marketing, which serviced big names in the travel industry and became the largest woman-owned marketing agency in New England, and later, IRMA Inc., a consulting company. She made a habit of breaking boundaries and creating opportunities for women throughout her career.

Former Emerson College President Jackie Liebergott remembers Mann as a “leader ahead of her time.”

“She was a top-notch executive who ran a leading [marketing] firm that carried her name when few women led companies,” Liebergott wrote in an email. “She worked tirelessly throughout her career for women’s rights, and spoke often about issues of equal pay. She loved her college, chaired, or some might say ‘ruled,’ Emerson’s Board of Trustees, and elicited spirited debate at every turn.”

She was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1987, and from 1990 to 1997, and served as chair for two years, making the completion of the Emerson Majestic Theatre renovations a high priority. She was a strong advocate for keeping Emerson in Boston, and was instrumental in preventing the campus’ move to Lawrence. From 1994 to 1996, she was chair of the Board of Overseers.

In 1992, Mann and her late husband established the Norman and Irma Mann Stearns Distinguished Faculty Award at Emerson College, presented annually to a full-time faculty member in recognition of outstanding achievement. The award can be used to further and ongoing scholarly or creative project, or to develop a new one.

She established the Irma S. Mann Strategic Marketing Lecture Series at Emerson College in 1996, which brings in marketing experts to speak at a forum for students, faculty, and alumni.

Mann and her husband were the force behind the establishment of a partnership between Emerson and the School of Medicine at Tufts University to start the first graduate program in Health Communication.

Emerson awarded Mann an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1992.

Barbara Rutberg ’68, a consultant to the College and a long-time friend of Mann’s said she had “extremely high standards,” that permeated everything she touched. The marketing experts chosen for the Strategic Marketing Speaker Series, whom Rutberg invited, had to be “dynamic, interesting” and guarantee to pack the house – or risk Mann’s veto.

“She was very bold,” Rutberg said. “She was gutsy, fearless, and I think she was very quick-witted.”

Mann, a native of New York, told Expression Magazine in 2012 that her parents had no intention of sending her to college, but because her mother mistakenly thought Emerson was a finishing school for young women, they let her come to Boston.

She left in her senior year to marry and a start a family, but returned several years later to finish her degree. She attended commencement with a child in tow.

Mann’s early career was spent in journalism and television production. In the late-1960s and early-1970s, she was a staff writer for the Newton Times, an associate producer of WGBH-TV, and director of instructional television for the Boston Public Schools.

In 1971, she moved into public service, working as a project director for the Office of then- Massachusetts Gov. Francis Sargent. There, she established the nation’s first Commission on the Status of Women, and directed the Partners of the Alliance of Americas, which used U.S. technology to advance development in Latin America.

Mann moved from the State House to the board room in 1974, when she joined Sonesta International Hotels Corp. as a senior vice president – the first woman to be appointed a VP of a publicly traded hotel corporation. There, she oversaw all advertising, public relations, marketing, and sales for the company’s 12 hotels in the U.S. Bermuda, and Europe. During her tenure at Sonesta, she founded and ran S/I/A Advertising, a wholly owned subsidiary of the hotel chain that serviced all Sonesta hotels.

She amassed numerous advertising and marketing awards throughout her career, including the American Hotel & Motel Association’s Gold Medal in U.S. Marketing and Advertising, and two Hatch Awards for advertising.

But she wasn’t all business.

She was a formidable tennis player, Rutberg said, and loved art – especially Andy Warhol and Ken Maryanski. In 2006, she donated a Joanna Pousette-Dart painting, “Untitled, Black and White,” to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Travis Small ’97, chair of the Alumni Board of Directors and a senior vice president at Solomon McCown and Company, got his first job out of Emerson working as an account coordinator at Irma S. Mann Strategic Marketing, and “by then, Irma’s legend and legacy had been well established,” he said.

She was a tiny woman with a “larger-than-life personality,” and people gravitated toward her, he recalled. In the first 24 hours after news of her death came, Facebook lit up with memories of Mann written by the people who worked for her, Small said.

The agency in the late-‘90s had a great culture, he said, and a lot of the people who worked there 20 years ago still keep in touch – some of them every day, since “four or five marriages” came out of Irma S. Mann Marketing in the three years Small worked there.

“Her legacy, [was] not just in terms of Emerson and the firms [she founded], but that she had a positive impact on peoples’ lives and generations to come,” Small said.

Mann leaves her daughter, Elizabeth Mann, and son-in-law, Matthew Miles; her son, Robert Mann, and daughter-in-law Gwen; and granddaughters, Lindsay Mann and Lara Mann. Her husband, Norman Stearns, died in 2010.