Then she strode, this smart and dedicated physician's daughter, through Hunter College, Columbia and finally New York University's law school, graduating cum laude at each.
She would work as a student for "the Little Flower," New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; teach German and literature at Hunter and Columbia; translate books from German to English; and pursue a career as a corporate attorney and legal counsel, all before moving to Tucson in 1965.
Mulhern was far from finished. She then gave another 35 years to Tucson and Pima County Republican Party politics and numerous campaigns, brought some semblance of order to an out-of-control Pima County government, and helped sustain the Arizona Theatre Company and the Invisible Theatre.
Youthful and active to the end, Elsa Paine Mulhern died November 30 at Northwest Hospital at age 91.
"It's hard to believe she is gone. She seemed indestructible," said Winofred "Freddy" Hershberger, one of Mulhern's close friends and political beneficiaries as a former state legislator.
Indeed. Mulhern was active until slowed late last month by an ulcer and infection. She had recently made the rounds of the numerous political campaigns to which she lent her support.
"She came to everything," said Jim Kolbe, the eight-term Republican U.S. Representative whose successfulful run for a ninth term benefited from Mulhern's advice. "She was engaged right to the end. She was a key supporter on the campaign advisory committee and a wonderful person."
Kolbe and others marveled at Mulhern's drive.
"To think of the obstacles she had to overcome going to law school at that time," Kolbe said.
She did so by attending night school while raising her daughter, Virginia. She also made Law Review and, after passing the New York bar exam on her first crack, she became a lawyer at age 38 and began her career as an attorney and legal counsel for the multinational Sterling Drug Co. She married Sterling's treasurer, John E. Mulhern, and the couple, weary of cold weather, retired to Tucson 35 years ago.
Then came Mulhern's next opportunity, friends say, to set another example.
She sat on or chaired countless Republican committees on the local, state and national levels. She could as easily work the trenches in northwest District 12, registering voters or chairing district meetings. She served as president of the Arizona Federation of Republican Women and was the protocol officer for the National Federation of Republican Women. In addition, she was Sen. Barry Goldwater's co-chairwoman in 1980 and was a fixture in Kolbe's campaigns.
"When I moved back to Tucson in 1973, Elsa was one of the two Republican women I met first," Kolbe said. "She and Jackie Egan."
Toni Hellon, who managed Kolbe's 1998 campaign and is now headed to the state Senate from District 12, says Mulhern was an inspiration throughout her life.
"She was a role model for women in those early years as a lawyer in New York and then was a role model for people who are retired. She showed them how they can use their talents. She showed all of us, really, and this wasn't even her home state. She adopted us," says Hellon, who has served as an aide to Pima County Supervisor Mike Boyd, one of four District 1 supervisors to rely on Mulhern on the county's civil service board.
From 1983 through June of this year, Mulhern served on the county Merit System Commission, hearing appeals from the full range of the county's 7,500 employees, ranging from dog catchers and sewer plant operators to some executives, on the issues of firings, suspensions, demotions and reductions in pay.
While most of the cases are handled outside the glare of the media and public interest, Mulhern presided over the most tumultuous hearings in 1993, when Boyd, his then-Republican mentor Ed Moore and Paul Marsh formed a GOP Board of Supervisors majority that attempted to restyle county government. The three dumped County Manager Enrique Serna (who, while in the private sector, later served on the Merit Commission with Mulhern) and installed Manoj Vyas, who quickly canned or demoted 12 county officials.
Lawsuits flew and the Moore-Boyd-Marsh exercise cost taxpayers roughly $5 million in settlements and lawyers' bills.
Well before the settlement, and even before the first suit was filed, most of the dumped employees filed appeals with the Merit Commission seeking the right to return to the workforce. Because most were exempt--executives who didn't have civil service protection--they lacked standing. But in a crucial ruling before denying the appeals of a central group of the employees, Mulhern's commission granted a full hearing.
There, Moore, Boyd, county legal advisers and, particularly, Vyas stumbled and contradicted each other and themselves. The testimony, all under oath, provided key ammunition for the group of dismissed employees to get more damaging testimony in depositions that paved the way for a $3 million settlement in December 1995.
Mulhern brooked little of the protests and whining of lawyers and, conscious of her other interests like swimming, aerobics, travel and serving as a small claims court hearing officer, pressed for issues to move along expeditiously. Yet she was not one to ignore even the slightest details, such as who attended hearings. She had no problem briefly halting proceedings and asking in her deep voice, "Who are you?" when a reporter or someone not connected to a case would enter the hearing room.
Hershberger says Mulhern rarely missed a day of swimming and her youthfulness showed as she would exit her Mercedes for a county hearing wearing a leather miniskirt.
Besides all this, her work for the arts led to two appointments to the Arizona Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Mulhern is survived by her daughter Virginia of Mercer Island, Wash.; stepsons John Mulhern of New Hampshire and Charles Mulhern of the Bay Area; and six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
At her request, there were no services. Memorial contributions may be made to the Invisible Theatre, the Arizona Theatre Company or the University of Arizona College of Fine Arts.