Irene Pollin, standing next to New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, reacts to winning the number-one NBA draft pick. Photograph by Michael Karas/the Record/MCT/Newsco.
Two images of Irene Pollin linger. The most recent is of Pollin, dressed in mustard yellow, her eyes wide and mouth agape: She’d just won the NBA’s 2010 number-one draft lottery pick for the Washington Wizards. Photos of her classic double-take flashed around the world.
The other image is a composite drawn from decades of photos—and, if you’re a sports fan—from gazing toward the owner’s box at the old Capital Centre and then the Verizon Center. It’s of a perfectly groomed woman, dressed attractively but without flash, always at the side of her husband, Abe Pollin, to whom she was married for 64 years until his death in November 2009. Together they co-owned the Washington Wizards, the Capitals, and for a time, the Mystics. They also were major developers and philanthropists.
Abe Pollin was an astute businessman whose development projects revitalized downtown DC. When he died of a rare, progressive illness—supranuclear palsy—at age 85, obituaries mentioned the many buildings he had constructed and the charity projects he had underwritten.
Her name is on a Chevy Chase apartment building, the Irene, but beyond the image of the smiling woman in the owner’s box, we’ve never known much about Irene Pollin. She was co-owner of Abe Pollin’s enterprises. Because she didn’t sit at a desk beside Abe every day, people assumed the “co-” wasn’t a true business partnership. But it was.
“Abe used to bring rolls of building plans home at night,” Pollin says. “We’d spread them out on the bed. I did design work on every project. With the teams, we talked over players, coaches. There was nothing we didn’t talk about.”
Irene Pollin also has had a life out of the public eye. She’s the mother of two now-adult sons—Robert, an economist, author, and professor at the University of Massachusetts, and James, who runs a travel business here in Washington. The Pollins also had a son and daughter who both died of congenital heart disease—Kenneth at 15 months, Linda at age 16.
After Linda’s death, Irene Pollin went back to school at 40. She completed her unfinished college degree, then became a social worker specializing in living with chronic disease. Pollin founded and for years ran what today is Washington Hospital Center’s Outpatient Medical Counseling Center. She has written two books, both centered on living with chronic illness, one for health-care professionals and one for everyone. She was a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and has been active on a long list of civic and health-related boards, including ones at Harvard and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Of these, Pollin is most involved with Sister to Sister, the foundation she began in 1999 to teach women about heart-disease risk. Now affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Sister to Sister has screened tens of thousands of women. Pollin, 87, is pushing Sister to Sister to expand its teaching and screening programs into Africa. It already has a foothold in China.
Irene Pollin lives in the Bethesda house she and Abe built in 1960. In the sunroom, amid blooming orchids, we talked about what she’s learned.
For nearly five decades, you were around athletes. What did you learn?
That you can pick yourself back up when you get knocked down. You see an athlete at the top of his or her game get injured and then have to work back. Sometimes it takes months. It’s very impressive, the discipline it requires.
I learned about winning and losing. When we bought the Wizards—then called the Bullets—I was so emotionally involved that I carried Valium in my handbag. I remember throwing myself down and sobbing after a close game that we lost, then thinking, “Wait a minute—you’re not even a crier. You can’t let yourself get so upset.” So I began to study the athletes. They want to win, but if they don’t win, after a very short time they let it go.
Abe and I learned to do that. If we won, we’d celebrate on the way home by stopping for chocolate frozen yogurt. Sometimes we did that if we lost, too.
Something else: I learned that athletes at the top levels are pretty darn bright. I used to think that athletic ability was mostly physical prowess. I was wrong—it’s the brain, too.
You’ve experienced loss and grief, most recently when your husband died. What have you learned about going on with life?
When things are bad, I don’t say to myself, “I’m not going to make it” or “I can’t bear this.” What I say is “How do I get through this?” I hear that in my head all the time. I’m always searching for ways to get through a problem, no matter how low I am. It might be talking to a friend, getting some exercise.
You’ve said that finishing your college degree, then going on for your social-work degree, was the best thing you ever did for yourself. Why?
After my daughter died, there was such a gaping hole in my life. Besides the normal, loving relationship you have with your child, she had a congenital heart ailment, so I was always thinking about her, keeping an eye on her. Constantly, for 16 years.
At first, going to American University filled my time and my mind. Then when I found my profession at Catholic University, I could throw myself into something, be creative, and use what I’d learned to help others.
You and Abe were team owners as well as developers and philanthropists. But you didn’t always have a lot of money. What can money do for you versus the stereotypes about wealth?
I think of money as a resource. Abe did, too. When we talked about what we wanted our life together to be, when we were teenagers, we hoped we’d be comfortable. We never thought of money as a goal, as something we wanted for its own sake. That’s why we could give it away: Money is to do things with.
When I was a child in St. Louis, my parents had a small business. It was the Depression; money was limited. There was a time when I had one dress. My mother washed it every night so I could go to school in it the next day. But really, money was never an issue—it wasn’t central in our lives.
I’m grateful for what Abe and I were able to do locally using our money. I’m grateful we could pay for nurses during his last years. We’ve taken some incredible trips. But money couldn’t cure my children’s illnesses. Or my husband’s.
Next: How the Death of Pollin's Two Children Strenthened Her Marriage