About eight months after her husband Michael’s death, Nancy Silberkleit, a mother of one and an art teacher for 25 years, faced a decision few widows would: Should she step in and help run her husband’s company?
“There was a force that wanted to buy my stock and I didn’t want to sell it. I didn’t know why,” Silberkleit told Lifestyle. She was in Manila for National Book Store’s three-day Philippine Readers and Writers Festival which ends today, Aug. 12, at Raffles Makati.
Nancy’s husband, Michael, whose father Louis Silberkleit was one of the founders of Archie Comic Publications in 1939, had been the company’s chair when he died.
Silberkleit made the bold decision to hold on to her shares and step into the boardroom, the first female executive to walk through Archie’s door, one of very few in the male-dominated field of graphic literature.
This was 10 years ago.
“I had no business experience, I thought. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized it was being a teacher that gave me my personal MBA. Teachers are about advancement. What does a company leader want to do? Advancement and growth. Same thing.”
The patience and tolerance she developed as teacher have been essential tools. “If I didn’t have that background, I don’t know if I would have succeeded.”
Silberkleit had not grown up reading Archie comics—in fact, she had never read them at all. She wasn’t much of a reader.
“I was going into second grade, I was looking smart—but my mother said to me, ‘You’re repeating first grade. You have been left back because you couldn’t read.’ I think that’s when they took the love of reading from me.”
Reading then felt like punishment, Silberkleit said, and she now feels that having access to fun books like Archie could have made a difference.
It was when she was about to become co-CEO that she finally took the plunge into the world of Archie. “Believe me, I was not looking forward to it. But if I was becoming co-CEO, I had to start reading those books, I had to start updating myself. I had no love of reading for enjoyment. I took the books home because I had to.”
She soon found herself enjoying the books. (Mr. Lodge is her favorite character. “I love when he throws Archie out of the mansion.”)
“I soon didn’t have enough pages to turn, so I started going to bookstores and reading other books. That’s how I fell in love with reading.”
That was when she realized that she had a powerful literacy tool in her hands. “I wanted to give that same experience to children in schools, so I started something called comic book fairs. What I found was as kids were giving the money to buy the book, they’re already opening the books. That’s exactly what I wanted.”
Silberkleit has introduced Scarlet, a character with autism, in a series of stories she distributes herself. “When I came in, I always said that we have to reflect who is in high schools. In the school where I taught, we had a very successful autistic program and I can tell you firsthand that for those children, friendships matter.”
The first story featuring Scarlet is called “Kindness Works.” In the second story, “Straw Thinking,” Scarlet encourages her friends to be kinder to the environment by saying no to single-use plastic straws.
“These stories are digital. To get them, people have to contact me. They can e-mail nancy. firstname.lastname@example.org,” Silberkleit said.
Yes, fans of Archie can e-mail the company’s co-CEO directly. “Once you’re involved in public service, you’re just connected to people. Titles shouldn’t put you on a different platform. I’m a person who believes that graphic literacy can move people to do things, so I want to spend the time speaking to people.”
She put up a foundation called Rise Above Social Issues. Bullying is another issue that’s important to her.
“Suicide rates are rising. There was a young man who killed himself, Tyler Clementi. And there was Mitchell Wilson, 12, a little boy from Canada who killed himself because of bullying. I wanted to let people know what gets me through my day when the going gets tough.
“Can you imagine someone telling you what you can do, what you can’t do, what you said, what you didn’t say, just making your head go wild? Don’t let yourself get in that box. You know who you are. I know how painful it is to be bullied, so I just thought I’d like to give it a shot and get that message out.”
The comic books are distributed in schools, and to help teachers, Silberkleit created teacher study guides. “As a teacher, I always felt that once I had those kids in front of me, I should teach them as much as I can. The study guides help support the teachers. Our story on plastics is also a science lesson. They have an entertaining comic, but they can also talk about geography.”
Everywhere she goes—from Rwanda to India and now Manila—Silberkleit gets wind of stories of how their comic books have touched people’s lives. “A man told me that he learned about gift-giving through Archie. When he grew up, he would go to hospitals dressed up as a clown to put a smile on people’s faces.
“Then there are stories from people who had been abused or had a family history of alcoholism, and their solace was reading Archie. That’s powerful stuff.”
Silberkleit believes that no one is too old to enjoy comics. She calls it “Archie therapy.”
“Look at me, I’m reading and I’m going to be 65. Reading Archie comics for 30 minutes, you get to recharge your batteries. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they demand their students read comic books. You’re relaxing and being entertained. Once you bury your nose in the panels of a comic book, you will find a different literacy experience .”
Archie Comics is now 79 years old and continues to thrive in a world of superheroes. “It’s genderless and timeless and ageless,” Silberkleit said. “There’s nothing else like it. In a world of superheroes, Archie is just that slapstick fun in a school, what kids do. It’s its own platform, there’s nothing else like it. Nothing else can touch it. That is being a superhero.”