Volume 19 • Issue 21 | October 6 - 12, 2006

Downtown Express file photo by Jennifer Weisbord

Pearl Scher, right, led an anti-G.O.P. rally outside her home in Battery Park City’s Hallmark during the Republican National Convention in 2004.

Pearl Scher, 91, community activist, dies

By Jane Flanagan

A large crowd gathered at Riverside Memorial Chapel on the Upper West Side to honor one of Downtown’s most celebrated citizens. Pearl Scher died of cancer last week at the age of 91. Judging from the comments of the many mourners who turned out, she had more influence in her six years in Lower Manhattan than most people do in a lifetime.

Scher moved to the Hallmark in Battery Park City in 2000 at the age of 85. She’d been living in Somers, N.Y., but her eyes were weakening and she could no longer drive. Instead of looking for a nearby assisted living facility, she moved to New York City, something even 20-year-olds might find intimidating.

And she took Downtown by storm.

“Somebody should have sent us a Pearl alert,” said Martha Gallo, former co-president of the Battery Park City Neighbors and Parents Association. “They didn’t warn us,” she joked. Scher was famous for “fighting city hall,” as she would say. Among her accomplishments were changing a bus route to accommodate Hallmark seniors, establishing a bus shelter on North End Ave., and co-founding the Downtown Synagogue. She also served on the Community Board, where she fought for seniors and others, including lobbying on behalf of a children’s playground. Albert Capsuoto, who often gave her a lift home after meetings, recalled her trademark position. She was famous for jumping to her feet after a lengthy discussion to say, “I don’t think that’s quite right,” he said.

Included in the things she didn’t think were quite right was the state of the nation. To say that she was a Democrat is to way understate the case. The first day she moved to the Hallmark, she noticed an anti-Hillary Clinton message slapped onto the side of a New York City bus. Clinton was running for the U.S. Senate at the time. “She spent all day working on it, and by the end of the day she got it changed,” said Noel Allen, a friend from Somers.

Scher would often stroll along the promenade in Battery Park City and was famous for the way she approached strangers. “Pearl would say, ‘You seem like a nice person, you must be a Democrat,’” recalled Christine Robbins, another Somers friend. She also registered every Hallmark senior she could to vote and organized a seniors’ pro-Kerry rally during the Republican National Convention in 2004.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, primary day, she was at an M.T.A. meeting. After hearing the news of the planes, she jumped up and said to Yvonne Morrow, former aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, “We have to go Downtown and get people to vote.” “It took us an hour and a half to get to Reade St.,” recalled Morrow. She was determined to get back to the Hallmark, and accompanied by friends, she talked her way through every checkpoint until she did. She was evacuated shortly thereafter.

Scher was married briefly at age 51. She divorced and never married again despite, as she put it, “multiple proposals.” Instead she devoted her life to her work, holding a number of jobs over her lifetime from school principal, to travel agent to real estate broker, and she was even a Marine during W.W. II stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. But it was at the age of 80 that she first ran for public office for a seat on the Westchester County legislature. She lost, but the run only invigorated her, and a year later she was elected to the Somers Town Board. As she pointed out, this made her the board’s “only woman, only senior citizen, only veteran, only Democrat and only Jew.”

As a Jew, she decided to start a synagogue in Battery Park City, along with Iris Richman, who later went on to become a rabbi and presided at the Riverside Chapel service.

During her final months, Richman visited Scher frequently and suggested that she give some thought to whom she wanted to be at the funeral. “Her eyes lit up,” said Richman, recalling a familiar Pearl characteristic. “Pearl said, ‘Oh I can do that? You know I wish I could be there to see the whole thing,’” Richman said.

She got a fair amount of press attention in her six years Downtown, and enjoyed every bit of it. Noel Allen remembered when Scher asked her to speak at the funeral. “She wanted me to write the eulogy ahead of time so she could read it,” Allen laughed.

Scher is survived by her cousins, Matthew and Eve Gartner of Brooklyn and Daniel Gartner of Grand Junction, Col.

Probably the best testament as to who Pearl Scher was comes from Linda Belfer, a fellow community board member. A few weeks ago, Belfer returned home after a lengthy hospitalization. She found a message on her machine. It was from Pearl, who was in her final weeks of life. “She wanted to know what she could do for me,” said Belfer.


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