Lynne Gillette remembers the long-ago encounter with a real estate agent like it was yesterday.
It was around 1970. Gillette and her family, including two children, were looking to buy a house in the Greater Hartford area. The agent said he found an ideal neighborhood, one with "no colored people or Jews" living there.
"It still takes my breath away," Gillette, now 75, says. "To think that anybody would have the audacity to make that assumption about people. … But, after all, we were white privileged people buying a home, so therefore [the agent thought] I would want to know that."
What the agent didn't know was that Gillette — born in 1941 in Syracuse, N.Y. — was an ardent civil rights and women's rights activist. She volunteered with the YWCA, whose goal was to eliminate discrimination.
The encounter with the agent served as an epiphany. "I felt if I could do anything personally [to promote equality], real estate seemed to be an answer," Gillette said. "My answer."
In the 1960s, she put herself through school, working as a secretary at Syracuse University by day, while attending classes there at night. She graduated in 1965 with a degree in business. Several years later, she moved to Connecticut.
Gillette earned her sales and brokers' license shortly after responding to an advertisement to train real estate agents. The initial experience was a troubling reminder of her interaction with the bigoted agent.
"I witnessed some agents talking on the phone with people who were interested in buying a home,'' Gillette recalled. "They took their name and number, and after they hung up the phone they tore up the card … because (the caller) had an accent, or they knew from talking to them that they were black. I was appalled.''
In 1976, she opened Gillette Real Estate in Windsor. For the last 40 years, her mission has stayed the same.
"I didn't come into this business to make money,'' Gillette said. "My goal was really about empowering people. I made up my mind that whoever called me wanting to look for a home, I would do my best to get them a home. I didn't care if they were green. I love doing what I'm doing. And I think that's an important part of being happy.''
When asked how many homes she has sold over the past four decades, Gillette laughed; she said it's like asking a pizza maker how many pies he's cooked over the years. The answer: A lot. "I never focused on the numbers. I focused on the individuals,'' she said.
The future of the Connecticut real estate market, Gillette said, is unpredictable. Increasing taxes, decreasing jobs and inclement weather have spurred residents to move out of state. The construction of upscale apartments in the state is on the rise, though, with interest from empty nesters who no longer want to pay property taxes; and young professionals who want to stay unencumbered and are willing to share rent with a roommate.
The foreclosure market remains a target for fix-and-flip investors. Racial bias, Gillette said, still exists in the industry, though not as profound as 40 years ago. These days, she said, agents mention phrases such as "the school system," as a way to steer clients to more homogenous neighborhoods.
Her journey in real estate has been beset by setbacks and comebacks. About 25 years ago, Gillette filed for bankruptcy and lost her home. She concedes doing a poor job managing her money in the feast-or-famine world of her industry.
A spiritual woman, Gillette credits her faith with sustaining her through bankruptcy, bigotry, divorce from her first husband, the death of her second husband four years ago and a debilitating case of rheumatoid arthritis. The ailment has left her wheelchair-bound for the past 15 years, and with declining eyesight.
"I live in the moment,'' Gillette said. "I think it's so important to not live in fear. Acceptance is an important thing in life."
Her daily routine is aided by a driver and a personal assistant. Though encouraged that one of her grandchildren has expressed interest in real estate, Gillette is not thinking about retirement.
"I like the personal involvement,'' she said. "I like knowing the people. I like seeing them grow.''
Her mission to empower others extends to her staff, as well as clients. Gillette speaks proudly about how her last three agents — all women — left to open their own real estate firms. Gillette Real Estate is now down to six agents, from a high of 10.
But the boss is hiring.
Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of "The Stan Simpson Show," which airs Saturday, 5:30 a.m., on Fox 61.