Michelle Madoff-Scheske, the former Pittsburgh councilwoman and anti-pollution activist whose larger-than-life personality made her one of the city's more memorable characters, died Saturday at Banner Health Hospice in Peoria, Ariz. The cause of death was leukemia, said her husband of 12 years, Fred Scheske. She was 85.
Ms. Madoff-Scheske moved to Pittsburgh with her then-husband, physician Henry Madoff, in 1961. Having grown up in Ontario, Canada, where the air was relatively clean, she was appalled by the region's foul air, which aggravated her asthma. In 1969, she convened a group of neighbors to discuss an action plan. The outcome was GASP -- the Group Against Smog and Pollution. She always said they elected her president while she was in the kitchen getting drinks.
GASP created "The Dirty Dozen," singling out lawmakers whom they deemed to be overly indulgent of heavy industry at the expense of clean air. Today, the University of Pittsburgh has a collection of materials, the Michelle Madoff Papers, in its archives, relating to GASP and its activities.
"Michelle loved Pittsburgh and her time on council, even with all the problems," Mr. Scheske said, "but GASP was her proudest achievement. We tried starting a similar group out here because of all the particulates in the air."
One of her Pittsburgh adversaries was Jones and Laughlin Steel, so it was ironic that the couple became close friends in Arizona with Diann Wall Wilson and Bill Wilson, who had been manager of air quality control for J&L.
"He saw her picture in the newspaper talking to a truck driver coming out of one of the gravel plants because they wouldn't let her inside," Mr. Scheske said. "He thought, 'I can't believe it, I can't get away from this woman.' But then he called."
"She was in shock and invited us to dinner," said Ms. Wall Wilson, who was a member of GASP before she met her husband. "They had butted heads all the time, but we became the greatest of friends. When she married Fred she asked Bill to give her away, and he did."
Ms. Madoff-Scheske ran unsuccessfully for city council several times and once for Allegheny County commissioner, finally winning the unexpired council term of Richard Caliguiri. Her career on council, from 1978 to 1993, coincided with the tenures of several other strong-willed politicians -- Jim Ferlo, Sophie Masloff, Ben Woods and her most stubborn nemesis, Eugene "Jeep" DePasquale.
Their frequent conflicts led observers to call council a "circus," although one of the most famous quotes from that era is a matter of dispute. It involved Ms. Madoff-Scheske allegedly telling Mr. DePasquale that he could kiss a certain part of her anatomy under Kaufmann's clock, but the councilwoman denied having said any such thing. She and Mr. DePasquale buried the hatchet in later years.
As only the fourth female council member in Pittsburgh's history, Ms. Madoff-Scheske had to face down a lot of sexist attitudes, said Jeanne Clark, a longtime local activist for environmental and women's rights.
"Michelle's very first fight on council was over bathrooms, if you can believe it," Ms. Clark said. "The men could use the bathroom next to the chamber, but the women had to go all the way to the end of the hall. Previous women had not spoken up about it, but Michelle did. It does something to your dignity and reputation when that's your first battle."
The councilwoman also spearheaded a law requiring parking garages to have lights and security at night, when women were especially vulnerable, over the objections of four male colleagues who didn't see the need. Such precautions are now common in most places.
"I remember her as a woman of courage," Ms. Clark said. "When she believed something needed to be done, she just did it, regardless of what people said about her."
She was born Pauline Radzinsky in Toronto, where she attended Central Commerce High School and Brown's Business College. In 1958, when she became a U.S. citizen, she changed her name to Michelle Rodin. After marrying Dr. Madoff, she moved to Pittsburgh for his job and the couple had a daughter, Karenlin Madoff.
"My mom was always very fun," said Ms. Madoff of Los Angeles. "For my 10th birthday party, she had all the children dress up like adults and all the adult dress like children. She sang silly songs in the car, which was a little terrifying because she was not the greatest driver."
She remembered a story about her mother coming from some an event one night to find police all over one of the bridges.
"She did what she always did, which was stop to find out what was going on. It turned out a young man was going to jump. She talked him down. There was a picture of her in her long coat with her arms wrapped around him."
When she lost her council seat, Ms. Madoff-Scheske left Pittsburgh and lived for a while in South Carolina, then Las Vegas. In 2001 in Las Vegas, she married Mr. Scheske, whom she met on the Internet. They lived in Surprise, Ariz., then Montecito, a retirement community in Peoria, a suburb of Phoenix.
"Arizona is a great place, but she still had Pittsburgh in her heart," Mr. Scheske said.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Madoff-Scheske is survived by two stepchildren, Daniel Scheske of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Catherine Scheske Dallal of Dallas, Texas.
A memorial service will be held next week at Camino Del Sol Funeral Chapel in Sun City West, Ariz. Contributions may be made to Banner Hospice of Peoria Inpatient Unit, 8977 W. Athens St., Peoria, AZ 85382.
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published October 13, 2013 12:17 PM