National and local political figures, along with city staff, family members and other loved ones, came together Tuesday night in Berkeley to celebrate the life of former Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek who died April 11 at the age of 101.
The memorial event took place in the building re-named in 2005 to honor Shirek — a Berkeley councilwoman for 20 years — known widely as the “godmother of progressive politics” due to her work in the peace movement, and in the fight for social justice, nutrition, fair housing, HIV/AIDS education, civil rights, human rights and an end to apartheid.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee described Shirek as “the heart and soul of the progressive movement,” and a figure who was “larger than life,” who inspired black leaders such as Lee herself and former Congressman Ron Dellums to run for office.
“She knew what oppression was all about…. Who else could help us understand how to fight for justice?” asked Lee, noting Shirek’s position as the granddaughter of a slave, and a black woman in America during many difficult decades. “She didn’t let that take her down. She showed us all how to lead.”
Shirek was passionate about food, and an advocate for healthy home cooking that focused on hot peppers, herbs, garlic and quality ingredients. She was recognized multiple times Tuesday evening for her work cooking and serving nutritious food to seniors in the community.
“Maudelle, way back in the day, talked to me, like many of you, about healthy living, about nutrition,” recalled Lee. “‘Stop eatin that salt.’ ‘Use peppers,’ right? ‘Use herbs.’ ‘Use cayenne pepper in warm water if you have a cold.’ You know what I’m talking about. ‘Use a lot of garlic.’ ‘It’s OK to eat pork.’ I said, ‘Oh no, Maudelle.’ ‘That white meat is good for you.’ Oh my gosh. She’d get up early, go shopping: Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market. And she was so proud of that. The senior center, and all those other places where Maudelle cooked and served, benefitted from her culinary skills, teaching senior citizens and myself and others how to cook, really. And I think this community is healthier because of Maudelle.”
Mayor Tom Bates recognized Shirek for her optimism and commitment to following projects through: “When she was involved in something, there was a good chance it was actually going to happen, by force of will if by no other way,” he said. “She set a standard for us in our community that’s not going to go away.”
Shirek, who worked at a credit union, also developed a reputation for granting loans to many people in the community, such as students and minorities, who often were blocked by other lenders from financial support. The Rev. William Kruse, Shirek’s pastor at the Church for Today in Berkeley, said he had been one such recipient.
“Maudelle had a very deep faith. It was her anchor,” he said, noting the parallels between Shirek’s life and the biblical passage Isaiah 58. The verse emphasizes fighting for the oppressed, and repairing social rifts. “God was her bulwark, for at 101 she continued to attend worship services…. Even near the end with some of her last breaths she would sing songs and spirituals.”
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner noted Shirek’s efforts to help launch numerous political careers, including former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, who also was in attendance, and to fight the expansion of poverty.
“Maudelle was my colleague,” said Skinner. “She was my friend. She was someone I deeply respected. And she was someone I was afraid of. Maudelle would tell me: ‘Nancy, Nancy, now you get that fixed.’”
Mike Berkowitz, Shirek’s close friend and former campaign manager, organized Tuesday’s memorial. He said Shirek likely wouldn’t have approved of an event solely focused on her, and recalled her commitment to recognizing the work of others, even if it sometimes took “half the meeting.” He also paid special tribute to Shirek’s unwillingness to back down in the face of adversity: “Sometimes, when you’re told that you’re too old to run the senior center you founded, sometimes you find you’re just old enough to run the city…. You’re kept out of the building that has your name and you get to build a coalition for progress.”
(Shirek was inspired to run for City Council when, at age 71, she was forced to retire from her position as the director of the West Berkeley Senior Center. When she left office, in 2004 at age 94, she was reportedly the oldest elected official in the country.)
Former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport lauded Shirek’s sharp intellect and dedication to the community. He recalled weekend visits from Shirek that would lead to the two of them scrubbing floors or doing other work for causes around town.
“I may have had the title of mayor but, in fact, she was the mayor,” he said. “She would come and get me on Sunday mornings and say, ‘Put on your jeans, boy, we got work to do.’ …’ She did so many things people didn’t know about.”
Newport said Shirek was a woman who “swayed from nothing,” who wasn’t afraid to get arrested if that’s what it would take to win a battle.
“She was absolutely the most complete fighter for justice and peace of any individual I’ve ever known in my life,” he said. “Whoever was fighting for social justice, Maudelle was there.”
Rodney Brooks, chief of staff for Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, said Shirek was a woman who “changed all of our lives,” a woman to recognize accomplishments but also to pull no punches when she felt people had made mistakes. Brooks read a county proclamation in Shirek’s honor, and also shared his own memories of the progressive leader. One, in particular, stood out.
“I remember her being at a rally and … she was a bit older, a bit frail, one of the last speakers,” said Brooks. “She just came up to the microphone. And all she said was: ‘Look at me. Continue the fight.’”
Former Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek dies, aged 101 [04.16.13]
Would you like a digest of the day’s Berkeley news sent to your inbox? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.