Obituary: Gerri Kay / Passionate supporter of social justice, civil rights and the arts

Sept. 10, 1943 - Sept. 1, 2014


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An advocate for civil rights, social justice and the arts, Gerri Kay of Squirrel Hill died at home early Monday morning after a struggle with ovarian cancer. She was 70.

Ms. Kay’s early career involved social work at what was then Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty, the school that pioneered in desegregation starting in the 1970s. Her work continued through the Reizenstein Consortium to help diversify Pittsburgh public schools. Reizenstein closed in 2006 and was razed last year after Walnut Capital bought the land to build Bakery Square 2.0.

Her unflagging advocacy on behalf of fair and integrated schools led to her position as director of the Public Education Fund, which allocated education funding from the Ford Foundation to 50 cities.

“She was the most fierce, persistent and focused proponent of civil rights and racial justice I have ever met,” said David Bergholz, who worked at the fund with her from 1983 to 1989. He went on to become the director of Cleveland’s George Gund Foundation until 2003.

“She was a steady force when it came to integration and providing support for urban public schools, not just in Pittsburgh, but around the country.”

With The Pittsburgh Foundation, Ms. Kay later worked with Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, to form the Beverly Jewell Wall Lovelace after-school program, which continues to serve 1,000 children every year. She also helped him in the establishment of the Human Services Integration Fund in 1997 to help improve county services.

“All she cared about was helping to make the world a better place,” Mr. Cherna wrote in an email. “She certainly succeeded.”

Ms. Kay was essential to the flourishing of the arts in Pittsburgh, said Carol R. Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986 to 2001.

In addition to her service on the boards of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill Health Center, Ms. Kay held positions in the city’s numerous arts organizations, including the Chamber Music Pittsburgh Advisory Board, City Theatre, Quantum Theatre, Society for Contemporary Craft and Squonk Opera. In addition, she advised the Pittsburgh Dance Council and Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz programming.

“The depth and breadth of her knowledge was formidable,” Ms. Brown said.

Although Ms. Kay loved institutional arts organizations, Ms. Brown said, she was exceptionally passionate about supporting young or new artists, many of whom she had ferreted out during visits to Philadelphia and New York City, often accompanied by Ms. Brown.

“People would ask us where we went to dinner and we’d laugh because we’d have meals in a taxicab as we were driven from one museum, gallery or performance to another,” Ms. Brown said. “And just when I thought we’d call it a night, she’d suggest we catch the last set at Blue Note Jazz Club.”

In those trips to New York, she was also “a great facilitator of family,” said her brother, Charles Porter of Pittsburgh.

When his daughter Gillian Porter moved there a couple of years ago, Ms. Kay gathered her, along with a nephew and several cousins “to make sure everyone in the family got to know each other,” he said. “She was generous with them and generous with absolutely everyone.”

Her generosity extended to many anonymous donations to civic and cultural organizations, as well as gifts to her family so they would buy books, join museums and attend theater, dance and music performances, said her sister Idy Porter Goodman, who lives in Milwaukee.

Her enthusiasm for the arts extended to the far reaches of the world. Ms. Goodman recalled a visit to China when Ms. Kay insisted on seeing an avant-garde play about the viral respiratory disease SARS, performed in Hong Kong after the outbreak in 2003. Needless to say, it was in Mandarin.

“Initially, I thought it was absurd, that we wouldn’t understand it,” Ms. Goodman said. “Yet it ended up that the person who sold us the tickets happened to be the director of the play. She gave us a synopsis and it was incredibly helpful. This was usually how things went with my sister. She dragged us everywhere to see exhibits and performances and things usually turned out wonderful.”

Ms. Kay was the daughter of Rachel and Irwin W. Porter. Mr. Porter served as the chairman of Giant Eagle for 26 years until 1994. He joined his father, Joseph, among the five families that shaped a Penn Avenue grocery in East Liberty into the region’s largest supermarket chain.

Ms. Kay’s parents were among the founding members of Temple Sinai at 5505 Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill, where a funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday following visitation from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In addition to her sister, Ms. Kay is survived by a brother-in-law, William Goodman and their children: Mollie Goodman and her spouse, Andrew O’Brien; Jacob Goodman and his partner, Sean Shepherd; and Abby Goodman and her partner, Rose Covert; as well as her brother’s wife, Hilary Tyson Porter, and their children, Marisa and Gillian Porter.

Donations can be made to the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania; Squirrel Hill Health Center; The Institute of Politics, University of Pittsburgh and City of Asylum Pittsburgh.


Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.

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