Friends and fellow Pittsburghers savored the life and example of a pioneering politician Tuesday at a memorial service marked more by smiles than grief.
“Sophie Masloff would not want this to be a day of mourning … rather a celebration of a life well lived,” said her longtime adviser, Frederick Frank, as he added his voice to those of the presidents, politicians, clergy and neighbors who marked the passing on Sunday at age 96 of the city’s first female mayor and first Jewish mayor at a memorial service at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.
The congregation heard condolence messages from President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton amid reminiscences of Mrs. Masloff’s ascent from an impoverished childhood in the Hill District to the grand office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building.
Praising her as “Pittsburgh’s grandmother,” Mayor Bill Peduto recalled her final words of advice as she told him that he was doing a good job but had yet to prove himself.
“Sophie proved herself,” he said.
“She was wonderful. She never, ever did anything other than what was the right thing to do,” said George Jacoby, who had served as her top aide after she assumed the office upon the death of Richard Caliguiri.
“She epitomized Pittsburgh and saw to it that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously,” said her successor, Tom Murphy, who was one of her defeated competitors in the wide open 1989 Democratic primary that paved the way for her election to a term in her own right.
Former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the city’s youngest mayor, described the woman who had been the city’s oldest mayor as a friend, free with advice and encouragement
Common Pleas Judge Thomas Flaherty, who occasionally clashed with Mrs. Masloff when they were both on council and later during his years as city controller, said: “Sophie always had the door open. She always had a serenity of spirit even when a hot issue would be on the plate. She was one who would never hold a grudge.”
In 1992, Mrs. Masloff was one of the first mayors in the Northeast to endorse Mr. Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination, a relationship brokered by their mutual friend, former city official and Oxford Development executive David Matter. In his letter of condolence, the former president referred to one of her signature quips. When he introduced himself in their first phone call, she responded, “Right, and I'm the Queen of Sheba.”
He described her life as “a remarkable journey,” but amid the fond stories that echoed the service and the exchanges before and afterward, there were also reminders of how difficult that journey had often been.
Reflecting on her “remarkable rise,” Sen. Bob Casey said, “Even today, running for office a a woman presents challenges; I can only imagine what it was like when she was coming up.”
In his eulogy, her friend and longtime adviser John Seidman noted that she was “a Jew and woman in a Catholic town traditionally dominated by men.”
“She saw the misogyny and she kept her mouth shut,” he said, noting that in addition to the obstacles of poverty and a lack of advanced education, she contended with media and board room prejudice, from an establishment that sometimes doubted her credentials for office. He complained of writers who referred to her aides as “handlers,” rather than advisers.
“They were all in for a surprise,” he said. “In politics, it helps to be underestimated, and Sophie worked at it.”
The result was the remarkable political run in which she never lost an election.
Mr. Seidman said that her political decisions, such as a controversial intervention in a 1992 transit strike, were rooted in her hard-won empathy for working people and the underprivileged. The same impulse, he said, informed her determination to pressure banks to pursue community investment polices to ameliorate the effects of decades of red-lining.
“She could not stand class prejudice or race prejudice in any form,” he said.
Mr. Frank described her rise as a foot soldier in the Democratic Party in tandem with her great friend, the late Rita Wilson Kane, the daughter-in-law of John Kane, the political boss who was a sometime ally, sometime rival of the late Mayor Dave Lawrence.
It was, he said, “an unusual relationship — a devout Irish Catholic and a Jewish girl from the Hill.”
After decades of work together in the court system and the Democratic Party vineyards, the more low-key Mrs. Kane, he said, was instrumental in encouraging Mrs. Masloff’s move onto city council and she remained a trusted friend and political sounding board through her years as mayor.
He said that Mrs. Masloff’s courage had been displayed beyond the context of Pittsburgh politics on a trip to Russia when she flouted Soviet laws to aid Jewish Refuseniks.
He said the same courage was on display as she was poised to walk into a public hearing filed with vociferous opponents of one of her budget initiatives.
“I know I’m going to be booed, but it’s the right thing to do,” he recalled her remarking.
Mrs. Masloff s husband of 52 years, Jack Masloff, died during her term as mayor. Despite a more modest career out of the public eye, Mr. Frank said, Jack “was never intimidated by her career,” rather, he basked in her path-breaking success.
“He would say to me, ‘Isn't she something!’ ”
The congregation at Temple Sinai, just down Forbes Avenue from Mrs. Masloff’s home, also included U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik, former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, state Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa, state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, city Controller Michael Lamb, county Treasurer John Weinstein, and former coroner and county commissioner Cyril H. Wecht.
Politics editor James O’Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562. Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868.
First Published August 19, 2014 11:29 AM