Sophie Masloff, a Pittsburgh icon who broke city political molds when she became the first woman and first Jewish mayor of the city, died at 8:55 a.m. today of natural causes.
Mrs. Masloff, 96, whose sphere of influence extended far beyond her tenure as mayor from 1988 to 1994, died at the Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon, according to attorney and family spokesman Frederick N. Frank.
Current Mayor Bill Peduto ordered all flags in the city to be flown at half-staff in honor of the city's 56th mayor.
Sophie's life in pictures
Sophie Masloff, a Pittsburgh icon, broke city political molds when she became the first woman and Jewish mayor of the city. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 8/17/2014)
Mayor Peduto reacts to the passing of former mayor Masloff
Mayor Bill Peduto talks about the impact former PIttsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff had on the city. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/17/2014)
Known as much for her colorful aphorisms and self-deprecating humor as her perfectly coiffed hair and humorous malapropisms, Mrs. Masloff -- who had been serving as City Council president -- ascended to the mayor’s office after Richard S. Caliguiri died of a rare disease at the age of 56.
A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, her partisan activism had begun decades earlier as a Democratic committeewoman in the Hill District.
Her passion for the political process never abated even as she battled a decline in health. In fact, she made news a year ago after an illness caused her to miss the deadline to request an absentee voting ballot. A county judge granted her an emergency application so her no-miss voting record would continue.
While en route this morning to make his friend's funeral arrangements, Mr. Frank reflected on the woman he had known both professionally and personally for 44 years.
"Throughout her career, her only concern was for the city -- not whether she would gain a personal advantage, not whether she was rewarding friends or hurting enemies. None of that stuff entered her mind. It was always what was best for the city," he said.
The confidantes met in 1969 when he was working on a Democratic candidate's campaign and "we just became very close friends over many, many years. We were friends first, then I was her attorney," he said.
He called her warm, wonderful and "very motherly."
Asked what he thinks of when he thinks of her, he said:
"There are so many things: her simplicity, her integrity, her personal courage, her putting her duty to the city above herself, her wisdom in recognizing that she needed to have good people around her, too. And she was just a very good human being."
Others were quick to relate their “Sophie stories” today.
It was just weeks after Lew Borman, and his wife had had their first child when his phone rang; it was Mrs. Masloff. It was 1988 and just a week or so after she had risen to the mayor's seat following Mr. Caliguiri’s death.
"She was typical Sophie. 'Hey, Lew: do you want to come on board and help me do a little PR?' I wasn't sure what that meant at the time but I was interested," he recalled.
As her spokesman, he worked with her daily during her tenure but maintained their friendship long after their "morning leadership meetings" ended. He said her energy and her interest in Pittsburgh and politics at all levels remained keen, even in recent months as her health deteriorated.
In fact, Mr. Borman recalled his surprise during a recent phone call a few weeks ago. "It was the first time she seemed to be (reconciled to the end of her life being near.) She told me, 'They're just trying to make me comfortable.' I thought, 'Wow.'"
Mr. Borman, who now works in public relations for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in North Carolina, said he continued over the years to be impressed by Mrs. Masloff's unwavering devotion to government and to the people.
"She had this deep and really unique sense of what it meant to be a public servant," he said.
Mr. Borman said he views Mrs. Masloff life and character as a reflection of her environs.
As he summed it up:
"Sophie Masloff's life tells an amazing Pittsburgh story."
Indeed, in a biography he prepared, Mr. Frank paints a picture of an accomplished woman with the humblest of beginnings.
She was born December 23, 1917, in the Hill District to Romanian-Jewish immigrants Louis and Jennie Friedman. Her father died when she was 2. Her mother, who couldn't read, write or speak English, was left to raise Sophie and three other young children.
When many her age were dropping out of school due to the economic challenges of the Great Depression, Mrs. Masloff kept on, graduating from Fifth Avenue High School in 1935. She then became a secretary in county government. Within three years, she was a minute clerk in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, supervising jury selections. She held the post for 38 years.
During her nascent years of county employment, she became involved in the Democratic Party. In fact, she served as a delegate at every Democratic convention from 1960 to 2004.
In 1976, as the United States celebrated its bicentennial, Mrs. Masloff captured a seat on Pittsburgh City Council in a special election, then was re-elected in 1977, 1981, and 1985.
After Mr. Caliguiri died May 6, 1988, then Council President Masloff was sworn in as mayor. She won a full four-year term in 1989.
Mayor Peduto said his predecessor "personified Pittsburgh," calling her kind and approachable "but you dared not underestimate her. Like so many of those who built our city, she was self-made, the daughter of immigrants, and civic-minded."
"There are thousands like me who were lucky enough to know Sophie as a friend. Whenever we met for coffee, I would always think how amazing it was to get advice from her, just as David Lawrence did years before. I know I speak for the whole city when I say Sophie -- a trailblazer camouflaged in grace and humor -- will never be forgotten."
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, in a written statement issued this morning, said he was saddened by the new's of Mrs. Masloff's death.
"She served this community for many years and in many ways. Her passion and love for Pittsburgh was exemplified in all she did. Coming out of the Great Depression, Sophie saw numerous changes in Pittsburgh. She was a part of many of these changes and was the leader that this community needed. As the first woman Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, she was an inspiration to all her in generation, and for years to come. Our deepest sympathies go out to her family and friends.”
And Gov. Tom Corbett said:
“Sophie Masloff was the quintessential daughter of Pittsburgh: an outspoken, direct and honest character who embraced her work with a sense of service and a spark of joy. This daughter of immigrants helped to shape the city’s culture and persona, with a voice and flair that were unmistakably Sophie and essentially Pittsburgh.
”For a turbulent decade of economic and social change, she was exactly the right leader for the time, offering a steady hand and a forward-looking vision.“
“(My wife) Susan and I mourn her passing and join all of Pennsylvania in offering thanks for the life and leadership of Sophie Masloff.”
Mrs. Masloff is survived by a daughter, Linda Sue (Nicholas) Busia; a granddaughter, Jennifer Busia; a grandson, Michael (Kristen) Busia; a great-granddaughter, Scarlett Busia; and a niece, Elayne (Harold) Harris. She was preceded in death, in 1991, by her husband of 52 years, Jack.
In 2007, Pittsburgh celebrated her 90th birthday by designating the corner of West General Robinson and Federal streets near PNC Park as "Sophie Masloff Way."
Her funeral is at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Temple Sinai, 5505 Forbes Ave. The service will be open to the public; those attending are asked to be seated by 10:45 a.m. Burial will be private.
The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the charity of one's choice or to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, c/o Carnegie Library, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15213. Mayor Masloff served as a board member there.
Karen Kane: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-9180. First Published August 17, 2014 12:00 AM