Community

Former Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek dies, aged 101

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Maudelle Shirek, who served as a Berkeley councilwoman for 20 years, died last week, aged 101. Photo: D. Ross Cameron

Update, April 24: There will be a celebration of the life of former Vice-Mayor Maudelle Shirek on Tuesday, April 30, at 5 p.m. at the Old City Hall Council Chambers in the building named after her at 2134 Martin Luther King Way. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Mayor Tom Bates, Rev. William Kruse and family member Ronald Bridgeforth will speak. After there will be a video, light refreshments served and shared remembrances in the lobby. All are invited.

Original story: Maudelle Shirek, often called the godmother of East Bay progressive politics, died in a Vallejo hospice on April 11. Shirek served in the Berkeley City Council for 20 years, leading many progressive causes, with a particular devotion to seniors and the poor.

Shirek entered politics late in life. Furious that she was forced to retire as director of the West Berkeley Senior Center aged 71, she decided to run for City Council. She won and represented South Berkeley for eight terms. She did not run in 2004 because of her team misinterpreted the changed rules on candidate signatures: she had obtained signatures from across the city, but the new rules required signatures from just her district. Her signatures were ruled invalid.

When she left office in 2004, aged 92, she was the oldest publicly elected official in California. Old City Hall was renamed for Shirek in 2007.

“She was a real warrior for many of the issues on the left,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “It’s really sad the godmother of progressive politics in Berkeley has passed on.”

Bates recalled that Shirek didn’t speak that often at City Council meetings, but when she did, “everything stopped to listen to Maudelle.”

When Shirek turned 100 last year, Rep. Barbara Lee paid tribute, saying, “Whenever I need to make a decision, I still think, ‘What would Maudelle do?'” Lee yesterday issued a full tribute to a woman she considered a mentor (see below).

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said today, “She was a powerful, inspiring figure and she gave the best speech of any local politician in the last 30 years. She got into fiery commentary peppered with personal experience and political wisdom.”

He added: “Long before healthy foods were the rage, she was a passionate advocate for eating fruits and vegetables and insisting seniors were served healthy foods.”

Worthington, who knew Shirek for over 30 years said that well into her 90s, she personally kept delivering meals to senior citizens.

“She left a rich legacy of commitment to those marginalized by society,” said Councilmember Max Anderson, who was encouraged into local politics by Shirek. “She was always there in the forefront of these struggles. She’s going to be really, really missed. Those of us still here take real inspiration from Maudelle’s life.”

Shirek was born Maudelle Miller in Jefferson, AR, on June 18, 1911. The granddaughter of slaves, she grew up on a farm, the oldest of 10 children. After seeing a relative lynched, she moved to Berkeley in 1943. She married political activist Brownlee Shirek in the 1960s.

On Berkeley’s City Council she was a pioneer in advocating needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. She launched many citizen commissions, and was instrumental in leading Berkeley to become the first city to divest from companies involved in apartheid South Africa. She was an outspoken supporter of many union fights, including campaigns at the Port of Oakland and at the Claremont Hotel.

A public memorial service is being planned. Berkeleyside also invites readers to share their memories of Shirek in the comments below.

Rep. Barbara Lee’s statement on Shirek:

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Maudelle Shirek, and my thoughts and prayers go out to her friends and family.

“Maudelle was truly the ‘godmother of East Bay progressive politics.’ The former City of Berkeley vice mayor and eight term council member was born and raised in Jefferson, Arkansas. As the granddaughter of slaves, she was passionate about justice and civil rights.   After moving to Berkeley in the 1940s, she became active in the anti-war movement, fought on behalf of unions, advocated for HIV/AIDS awareness, and helped organize the Free Mandela Movement. She was the first elected official in the United States to advocate for needle-exchange programs.

“During her tenure as a Berkley elected official, she was instrumental in creating multiple city commissions, including the Berkeley Commission on Labor. When she retired at 92, she was the oldest elected official in California at the time. In 2007, the Berkeley City Council renamed City Hall in her honor.

“I met Maudelle in the early 1970s while I was a student at Mills College. She widened my perspective on global politics during our travels around the world including Vienna, Prague, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. She reinforced the idea that we are all part of a global family and what happens here in the United States effects our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and vice versa. Since that time, Maudelle has been a personal friend, mentor, and confidante.

“Maudelle was a health aficionado. She was committed to educating seniors and the entire community on the benefits of healthy living. She loved shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables and you would often find her cooking nutritious meals at the West Berkeley Senior Center.

“We loved to walk Lake Merritt and the Berkeley Marina together where she would talk to me about acupuncture, natural remedies like cayenne pepper and warm water for colds. We also traveled to Calistoga many times because of her love for mud baths and their healing properties.

“Maudelle was a woman of great faith. During the 70s, we enjoyed attending the Church of Tomorrow (Formerly the Church of Today) together. This is where I realized that her passion for service and justice was driven by her commitment to what she called, ‘doing the Lord’s work on earth.’ I will never forget the day she introduced me to the late Rev. Dr. W. Hazaiah Williams and I will never forget the impact that they both had on my life.

“I believe Maudelle’s legacy of over 70 years of service to Berkeley, the East Bay, the nation, and the world will inspire many to speak for the voiceless and stand up for justice across the globe.  I will deeply miss her wise counsel, support, and love.”

Former Berkeley Councilmember Carole Kennerly on Shirek:

“Maudelle Shirek (born June 18, 1911-died April 11, 2013) is a former Vice Mayor and eight-term City Council member, Berkeley, California. At the end of her tenure, she was one of the oldest elected officials in the State of California. In 2007, the Berkeley City Council renamed City Hall in her honor. She was my colleague, friend and mentor.

“Maudelle and I served together on the Co-op Credit Union board of directors — I was the chair and she co-chair.

“In 2001, after the 9-11 attack on our country, we traveled to Washington DC together in support of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Barbara was the lone vote in the House of Representatives against America’s invasion of Iraq — the authorization for use of military force that ultimately gave President George W. Bush seemingly unlimited war powers. Because of that vote, Maudelle was worried about Barbara’s personal safety due to the threats Barbara had received. Maudelle asked me to travel to DC with her and I did. We shared a hotel room together and I shall never forget our first day after checking in the hotel the night before, how energetic Maudelle was — up early in the morning, exercised, had  taken her vitamins, showered and dressed before my feet even hit the floor. She was about 90 yrs young then. Amazing!!! She was patient with me and my “jet lag”. Finally, I got it together and off we went to Barbara’s Congressional office.

“Maudelle and I spent many hours sharing, debating and working on political, civic and community issues, concerns and problems. Maudelle was indeed an unusual talent, brilliant, outspoken, persistent and consistent in all that she did. She was proud of her roots, her family and the lessons that life had taught her. Maudelle was born in Jefferson, Arkansas and grew up on a farm, the granddaughter of slaves. She moved to Berkeley in the 1940s.

“Maudelle did not wait to be asked, she just saw a need and got busy. I was fortunate, along with Barbara Lee, Ron Dellums, Gus Newport and many others to be counted as a member of her family.  Maudelle did not hesitate to offer her support and love, but also did not hesitate to offer constructive criticism. She always took an active interest in the seniors and was hands-on in the preparation of the meals at the local senior center just down the block from where I live. She was a nutrition and health advocate and practiced what she preached. Her energy, commitment and dedication to her fellow human beings was limitless. I will miss her and I extend my sympathies to her family and friends. May she rest in peace.”

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no cost, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com.

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  • Mark Rhoades

    Rest in peace Maudelle, you have earned it. Although if there are inequities where you are, well you’ll know what to do!

  • InMourning

    What a tremendous loss! Maudelle was a living angel. I honor her work and for taking personal interest in me as a teenager, supporting my endeavors and making me feel that my community was proud of me for my accomplishments. I wish I had contacted her before her passing to remind her how much

    she is loved.

  • Chris J

    I imagine I would have liked to have met her–she sounds like she was quite a gal. Something about old people who are furious…maybe it spurs them on to living longer. My own mother just passed away this past week after a lengthy bout with dementia. My thoughts (no prayers–sorry, don’t roll that way) are with her family and friends.

  • Jeannie O’Connor

    I worked with Maudelle at West Berkeley Senior Center in the 1980’s. Maudelle was up at dawn , shopping at the produce market in Oakland to get the best fruits and vegetables for the seniors. Maudelle always came to work elegantly turned out, and treated the seniors with dignity. Maudelle cared deeply for the community she worked with, and placed a high value on education, getting Vista College courses brought to West Berkeley Senior Center for the seniors. Maudelle told us of her father , who started an elementary school in Jefferson, Arkansas because there wasn’t one for the kids of color. Maudelle worked hard on the redevelopment project in West Berkeley, and struggled to get low and middle income housing installed along 6th Street. She was a wonderful person and will be missed.

  • dsd510

    RIP Maudelle. She did some amazing things.