Remembering Phyllis Pilisuk: Berkeley poet and academic pioneer, resilient in facing MS

Phyllis Pilisuk died Feb. 10, 2019 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, a disease she was diagnosed with at 16 years of age.

Phyllis was born in New York in 1933 and raised in Queens, the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrant parents who named their corset shop after her.

She attended Queens College, where she met Marc Pilisuk in an art history class. Her symptoms of multiple sclerosis were infrequent at this time but, even with occasional bouts of weakness, imbalance and double vision, she breezed through college with honors. In 1955, she went on to be the first woman accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Social Relations on a full scholarship.

After a year at Harvard, in 1956, she and Marc were married. She transferred to the University of Michigan where she earned an MA in sociology. She was also active with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

She dropped out of academic life to have children and was told for the first time about her diagnosis — a family secret meant to protect her and keep up her morale at a time when there was no known treatment for the disease. Learning the potential dangers of getting pregnant with MS, she remained determined to have children, despite the risks. Phyllis did indeed experience disease exacerbation after childbirth, but, as she often experienced the disease in her younger life, she recovered well and continued on, back to regular life, adapting to unexpected heath changes as needed.

During a two-year stay in Lafayette, Indiana while Marc was teaching at Purdue, Phyllis sent an open letter to high school seniors explaining conscientious objector status as an alternative to the draft for the Vietnam War.

Marc got a job teaching at UC Berkeley and, in 1967, Phyllis and Marc moved to Berkeley with their two young children. Despite ongoing health challenges and while raising her children, Phyllis went back to graduate school to earn a second master’s degree in social work from UC Berkeley. After graduating, she taught a class section on disability services and volunteered as a reading tutor at the Cragmont Elementary public school.

Later, as her disability became more pronounced, she became a peer counselor at the Oakland chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and was a founding member of its Government Relations Committee alongside daughter Tammy.

Marc and Phyllis Pilisuk in 2012. Photo: Courtesy of family

Over the years, Phyllis began using a cane, then from cane to walker, walker to scooter, and finally to using a power wheelchair. During this time, she found a new path as a poet, using poetry as a creative outlet to express her feelings and share bits of her life story. Her poems were hailed by one reviewer as “…moments of magic, reminders of richness in our own lives that we often miss. It also helps us to see, and perhaps discover for ourselves, the healing power of the creative spirit.”

Phyllis will be remembered for her four collected works of poetry, her beauty pageant smile, her easy laughter, her fondness for desserts, her devotion to her family, and the resilience she showed in her long life, always adapting to her diminishing capacities. Phyllis is survived by her sister Gloria, husband Marc, daughter Tammy, son-in-law Mark, son Jeff, daughter-in-law Philippa, and grandchildren, Caitlin and Jackson.