Elvadianne “Elva” Culbertson spent much of her adult life analyzing military maneuvers and strategy for a Washington, D.C.- based U.S. Navy think tank.
Nowadays she analyzes the governmental maneuvering of South Palm Beach for a monthly newsletter she writes for the Southgate condominium. She rarely misses a town meeting.
Both jobs require similar skills — persistence, close observation, objective analysis, an ability to drill down to the core of an issue, and a keen interest in current affairs.
Culbertson’s wry sense of humor adds a refreshing layer of whimsy to otherwise serious topics.
“You know the old joke — I can’t tell you exactly what I did for the Center for Naval Analysis or I’d have to kill you. But I was a documentation analyst,” Culbertson said. “I looked at military strategy and naval exercises for ships, subs and aircraft.”
Culbertson was one of few women in the field at the time, and her work was prized for its attention to detail. She specialized in anti-submarine warfare strategies.
More than 30 men on maneuvers at sea would report on their ships’ effectiveness and weaknesses, and Culbertson would “put it all together and give an analysis of it.”
Later on, Culbertson worked in environmental research and then returned to naval strategy.
Upon retiring from military life 17 years ago, she moved to South Palm and took a job writing the town’s newsletter.
She found the job “stifling,” saying her work was so heavily edited by a council member it barely resembled her original text.
After leaving that job, Culbertson served on the Town Council for 21/2 years, first as an appointee and then winning the seat when she was unopposed.
In the past couple of years she has enjoyed a more private life with Denny, her husband of 36 years. She has two sons and a stepson.
Culbertson says she attends almost every town meeting — including advisory board meetings — and reports back to her neighbors via the Southgate newsletter.
“I think I am considered the elder statesman,” among the town officials, she said.
— Tao Woolfe
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I started out in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, replete with Revolutionary War history, and went to a high school for “gifted girls.” That, coupled with being an accountant’s daughter, made me incredibly focused on detail — a factor which has been both a blessing and a curse.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: A young woman starting a career in the early ’60s did not really have the advantage of looking at her job as a profession. It was a time of, “It’s nice you graduated college, honey, how fast do you type?”
But I started out in a social planning agency (the forerunner of the United Fund, which evolved into the United Way), where I gathered statistics for over 200 health and welfare facilities ensuring that services were provided where most needed.
I moved to the Washington, D.C., area where I worked for the Navy think tank, with which I still maintain contact; there I mostly reconstructed naval exercises.
Next, in Massachusetts I worked for an environmental research company at the dawn of the passage of the Environmental Protection Act. As a documentation specialist, I turned input from 17 disciplines into cohesive environmental impact statements.
Lastly, I returned to D.C. where I was employed by a federally funded research center — again supporting the Navy. Here my responsibilities increased to coordinating multiphased efforts concerned with expanding intermediate maintenance activities’ repair capabilities; preparing generic integrated logistic support detail specifications and associated contract data requirements lists for naval aircraft; and serving as administrative and graphic coordinator for an extensive portion of the Naval Sea Systems Command integrated logistic support training program.
That was where I had my proudest professional moment because I was awarded a letter of commendation from Adm. Robert Long, program executive officer of tactical aircraft programs, for my “part in the F-14 Program’s winning of the 1997 Secretary of Defense Superior Management Award.”
Although not far behind was winning first prize in international competition as newsletter editor for the Washington, D.C., Society of Logistics Engineers. They granted me an “Award of Excellence for Significant Contribution to Attainment of the Goals and Objectives of the Society.”
Then there is also a bit of pride in having an article I co-authored in a college textbook referred to as one that “will serve as an essential reference to all social impact assessors.”
Q: What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A: While you ought to choose a career in which you have the potential to make a comfortable salary, more importantly you need to choose a field that will hold your interest, recognizing also that it is bound to change somewhat, so you also need to be flexible.
If you come to a point where others might perceive that you have failed, recognize that at worst it was a mistake, and in any event it is a learning experience. Move on, always maintaining your self-esteem.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in South Palm Beach?
A: To tell you the truth, I wound up here because one of my sons had looked at South Palm Beach after he accepted the position as treasurer of the South Florida Water Management District. He really liked what he saw [at Southgate condominium] but felt his neighbors would be older than his social preferences allowed. Well, as I was clearly old enough to be his mother — if that’s all that was the matter — I was ready to move in.
Q: What is your favorite part of living in South Palm Beach?
A: South Palm Beach is a family — big enough, small enough, close enough, remote enough and financially stable. COVID has degraded that somewhat, but I have high hopes we’ll get back to enjoying each other’s company.
If we wind up with a new Town Hall, let’s hope we go for Mayor Bonnie Fischer’s idea of structural insulated panels so we can go back to spending money on events for the townspeople instead of millions of dollars for a building beyond our best interests.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. It’s this month’s South Palm Beach Book Club’s choice. While often the choice is not one I would make independently, I relish discussing the story with the others, a pleasure I do not have with my independent selections.
Q: What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A: Before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, I would have said the 1812 Overture, but now it doesn’t feel right to celebrate Russian victory. I guess I need to find another candidate. As far as relaxing, I go for flute and piano on YouTube — no vocal.
Q: Do you have a quote that inspires your decisions?
A: My mom used to always quote, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone. For this old Earth must borrow its mirth, but has trouble enough of its own.”
It might not seem inspirational, but it helps to remind you that whatever you are facing is small compared to global issues. So, maintain a positive attitude and you’ll keep your friends (and your willingness to keep trying).
Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: I’m not sure whether you can call family members mentors, but I really lucked out in that category. I had grandparents who came to this country with nothing but the desire to make a good life in America; parents who loved their kids and saw to it that they knew where they came from and where they were going; and siblings who set such good examples of joy and compassion. What else could I ask for?
Q: If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A: If it can’t be my granddaughter, I’d go for Mary Steenburgen. She’s versatile and accomplished with a warm smile and a quick wit. OK, she’s not exactly my twin, but she’s a good actress.