Gerson, 88, former school board president, dies

Sophie Gerson with Al Gore in 1988.

Sophie Gerson with Al Gore in 1988.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Sophie Gerson, a beloved Greenwich Village neighbor and Democratic Party activist who served two terms on the local school board after retiring from a teaching career, died Saturday in Beth Israel Hospital at the age of 88. The cause of death was an infection.

More than 200 mourners, including city councilmembers, community board members, Democratic district leaders and residents of the LaGuardia Place co-op where she lived with her family since 1967, paid their respects at the Mon., Dec. 31 funeral.

Her son, Alan Jay Gerson, former city councilmember, who spent the past year or so helping his mother to get around the neighborhood as her health became fragile, recalled her devotion to her family and to the things she cared about.

“She cared about the world. She cared about injustice and she cared about righting wrongs and making things better,” her son said.

“When the neighborhood had a problem a few years ago about motorcycle noise, my mother went right up to the Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse on E. Third St. and spoke to a leader — his name was Bird, and he listened,” her son recalled.

She was an early member, with her husband, Herman, of the Village Independent Democrats (V.I.D.) and joined the breakaway Village Reform Democratic Club (V.R.D.C.) to support Mayor Ed Koch when V.I.D. supported Mario Cuomo for governor over Koch. Herman, who is 100 years old and survives her, remained with V.I.D. and served as its president.

“It was a mixed marriage for our family,” Alan said. “My father was in one Democratic club and my mother was in the other Democratic club.”

A stalwart labor union member, Sophie was active with the United Federation of Teachers and supported the union in its 1968 strike over community control of school boards.

“She had a falling out with Koch later over an argument about the U.F.T. but she was still very fond of him,” Alan said. Sophie was also a friend and supporter of Mayor David Dinkins.

“I was told that Bill Passanante [the late state assemblymember representing the Village] used to say that my mother put his bumper sticker on my baby carriage,” Alan said.

A girls’ physical education teacher throughout her 36-year career with the New York City public school system, Sophie pioneered as an advocate for equal sports opportunities for girls.

“She cared about her students and she cared about teaching,” Alan said.

“She enjoyed politics like it was a sports contest,” he added. “But she didn’t like the nasty backstabbing and the fact there were no umpires or referees — so she always tried to act as an umpire at political meetings”

Sophie ran as a Democratic Convention delegate for Albert Gore in 1988; she attended the convention in Atlanta but, since Gore lost the state nomination to Michael Dukakis, she wasn’t a delegate.

Sophie Greenberg was raised in the Bronx by struggling immigrants from Romania. Her mother was often ill and her father lost his business in the Depression. Sophie was great at street sports, like ringolevio and box ball. In high school she won the admiration of classmates for reaching the top of the rope-climb ahead of all the girls and some of the boys. She graduated in 1941 from Walton High where she said in her yearbook entry that she wanted to be a girls’ gym teacher. She graduated from Hunter College four years later and earned a master’s degree from Teachers College at Columbia in 1947.

She retired in 1988 and won election to the local school board where she served from 1991 to 1999.

“She edited the best and the shortest political speeches I every made. She was organized, always on time, everything in its place…. Some traits skip a generation,” said Alan, who is known for long speeches and for often running late for appointments, eliciting some light laughter from those gathered.

“She loved life and made my friends a part of our extended family. She loved country music. Her favorite song was Willie Nelson’s “On the Road.” When she retired I took her to Nashville and we sang “You Are My Sunshine” on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

“Mom, you’ll always be my sunshine, every day, every moment,” Alan said, overcome for a moment by emotion.

In addition to her son and her husband of 56 years, a daughter, Rikki, and two grandchildren, Lance and Dillon, survive.

Beth Abraham Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker St., was in charge of arrangements. Burial was in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.

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