LeeAnne Lowry remembers when Paula Elias came to speak at Stephens College about films.
Elias asked everyone: “Who in here considers herself a feminist?”
Several hands went up. Lowry’s did not. Not yet.
But Elias’ approach to the subject changed Lowry’s expectations. Elias had no intention of converting the mindsets of those young women, Lowry said.
Instead, Elias listened to the members of the class and became as much a student as Lowry or her peers, even though she was on the college faculty.
“She wanted to have a real conversation,” Lowry said. “She wanted to hear people out and hear out the issues … and I think that’s what really worked for me.”
Paula Elias died Sept. 9, 2020, after a courageous three-year battle with breast cancer. Before she died, she left hand prints on many corners of the Columbia community including film, advertising and urban agriculture.
Lowry met Elias through the Citizen Jane Film Festival, which Elias co-founded and directed at Stephens College. The festival allowed women to present their projects to the Columbia community and build networking channels with other independent female filmmakers.
Lowry, worked for the Citizen Jane Film Festival from 2012 to 2018, believes Elias spoke truth to those she mentored.
“I just remember seeing her really transform the lives of young girls,” said Lowry, who pursued a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at Stephens College. “And then also for me personally — she gave me opportunities at Citizen Jane that maybe could have gone to someone else, but she believed in me.”
Rudi Petry would agree. Petry also worked closely with Elias as the festival’s graphic designer from 2013 to 2015. Like many others, Petry understood that Elias had a way of fostering talent and courage in others.
“She saw a part of me that I couldn’t see for a long time,” Petry said, noting that Elias would regularly bond with her mentees to get a sense of their character and empower them to realize their own capabilities.
“Because Paula was the softest person I’ve ever met, she was the strongest person I’ve ever met,” Petry said in a follow-up email. “You could tell she was on a first-name basis with her soul, and when you sat with her you walked away feeling closer to your own.”
The definition of negotiating for Elias was that everyone in the room gets what they need, Petry said.
“She just had this compassionate way of doing business. That to me was the future of the world — how the world should be running,” Petry said.
Elias’ beliefs on humanizing business led to lifelong friendships, such as the one she had with Ann Bromstedt.
Bromstedt, a partner and pharmacist for Kilgore Pharmacy, said she collaborated with Axiom, an ad marketing agency Elias founded in 2005. Although the two had known each other before, Bromstedt started to work closely with Elias when Axiom started producing advertisements for the pharmacy in 2007.
Bromstedt remembers how Elias helped her move out of her comfort zone when they recorded video advertisements.
“(Elias and Elias’ husband) Ken came to the house and interviewed me, and they found the perfect space in my house where I would feel comfortable,” Bromstedt said. “She was there for me to make me look not so silly.”
Elias was also involved with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit organization with a mission to connect people to food and agriculture.
Billy Polansky, the organization’s executive director, recalls meeting with her to discuss marketing for the garden that would produce the biggest impact.
Beyond the garden, Polansky credits Elias and her husband, Ken Leija, for naming the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s annual “Harvest Hootenanny” event.
“She produced a lot of her own ideas, but she was very open to others’ ideas and building upon all of that,” Polansky said.
Even after her diagnosis, friends say Elias never gave up on viewing the positive in every situation and honing a deeper understanding of the world with every experience.
A few days before she died, Elias called Bromstedt. Despite her health concerns, Elias kept the conversation casual and lighthearted. Then she surprised Bromstedt before they ended the call.
“I love you, Ann,” Elias told her.
“There was a proclamation of what she thought of me as a friend and what I thought of her as a friend,” Bromstedt said. “So that’s important, and that will always stick with me.”
In the past few weeks, the community has stepped up to commemorate Paula Elias. A GoFundMe page has been started to support the surviving family. A voice mailbox — 252-77-PAULA — has also been created for callers to leave stories about Elias with the idea of putting together a project to commemorate her.
“It would feel really wrong not to do something,” Petry said. “She was such a person of action. She would have done something.”