Volume 17, Number 40 | February 25 - March 3, 2005

90 years on earth and almost 70 years of speaking out

B.P.C. activist going strong as she turns 90

By Mara McGinnis

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Pearl Scher with her beloved Jess, named for the cat she left behind when she moved from Westchester five years ago to The Hallmark in Battery Park City.

Pearl Scher, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Feb. 24 and is best known as a feisty Downtown activist and fixture at civic meetings and discussions about her neighborhood, did not speak in front of other people until her early 20s.

One of Battery Park City’s most dynamic community board members, Scher says that she was extremely shy for much of her early life, until the day when a stimulating political lecture brought her to her feet. She suddenly found herself at age 23 — to her own amazement — speaking in front of a roomful of people.

“From then on, I haven’t stopped talking,” says Scher, a petite woman with gray hair, light blue eyes that sparkle from behind her thick glasses, and an awe-inspiring spirit. At 80 years old she entered politics, becoming the oldest elected official in Somers, N.Y., where she lived until she moved to Manhattan in 2000.

Over dinner in the dining room of The Hallmark — the sophisticated and luxurious retirement community on North End Ave. in Battery Park City where she now lives —- Scher explains that she has been working for the last four years to help her fellow residents at The Hallmark and the larger Downtown community with everything from registering to vote to getting them a shelter at the nearby bus stop.

“I’m concerned about what’s happening,” she says, which is a major understatement considering that those worries translate to action for her on a daily basis. The daughter of Russian immigrants, Scher grew up in Upstate New York, left home at the age of 11 for the big city and has made her way on her own ever since.

“I’ve been working since the age of 7 – sometimes for money, and sometimes not,” says Scher, who describes herself as decisive and optimistic. “The resume I’ve accumulated is for my entrance into heaven and I don’t have to write that one.”

Her paying jobs have included teacher, principal, travel agent and real-estate agent. She also served as a Marine in World War II and was recently recognized for that effort by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The military wasn’t for her, however. “I was always in trouble and I talked too much,” she says.

But the work she does now is unpaid. The unofficial mayor of this Downtown community of more than 200 senior citizens, Scher says that she personally welcomes every new Hallmark tenant and tells them, “I’ll be around in a day or two to register you to vote.” Scher estimates she has registered nearly 300 residents in the past four years. Her latest endeavor is preparing a how-to guide for those who vote via absentee ballot, which she says is an extremely complicated and inconsistent process that affects many seniors.

“She’s the most knowledgeable person in the joint,” says Bernie Katz, a Hallmark occupant and retired New York University psychology professor.

Listening to Scher is an adventure in itself, if she can spare the time to talk. Walking through The Hallmark during dinner hour on a weeknight, she is constantly stopped by residents and friends at nearly every table. The telephone rings constantly, even after 9 p.m. in her neat, one-bedroom apartment, which is filled with various cat photos, civic awards and honors, her miniatures collection, and attractive wedding photos from when she got married at age 51. (She was later divorced and chose not to remarry despite several more proposals.)

Scher’s very detailed calendar is usually full and her various activities aren’t limited to Manhattan. She recently traveled down to Florida and takes weekend trips to gamble in Atlantic City. “The whole world disappears when I go there,” she says. “It’s just me and those foolish slot machines.” However, somewhere she finds time for bridge and folk dancing too.

In between her many, many meetings, she’ll wander the vicinity of The Hallmark to check things out. “I sit outside and meet all kinds of people,” Scher said. “I do a lot of smiling and people are always smiling back.”

Scher came to the Hallmark as one of its first residents in 2000 after resigning from her post as an elected official in the Westchester town of Somers, where she lived for nearly 25 years.

Her political career began just ten years ago, when Andrew Spano, now Westchester County Executive, called her up
to ask her to run for county legislature. She says she asked him: “Are you intoxicated? Why me?” He told her to think about what Democrats have done for her and her country. She had two minutes to decide. “I campaigned like I was 20, not 80,” she says. Eventually, she was elected to the Somers Town Board where she says she served as the “only woman, only senior citizen, only veteran, only Democrat and only Jew.”

But by early 2000, her vision had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer drive safely. She needed a place where she could have access to public transportation, found out about the Hallmark (before the building was completed) and was able to move to Manhattan, which she calls “a marvelous, wonderful, enjoyable piece of luck.”

Michelle Dewitt, The Hallmark’s program director, says the one consistency about Scher’s presence is that “she’s either at the front door coming or going.” Dewitt adds that she’s a “one-woman welcome wagon” for other residents and that she formed a political action committee at The Hallmark right away. “She’s small, but she’s larger than life,” Dewitt adds.

During last fall’s Republican National Convention, Scher rallied at an anti-Bush protest that she organized outside of The Hallmark of seniors in wheelchairs, some with walkers and canes. Her protest was covered in several newspapers, including Downtown Express and The New York Times. “I told the Times reporter that between us, we seniors had 8,000 years of experience,” she says, noting that this declaration was first observed and stated by Dewitt. She emphasizes the importance of giving people credit where credit is due.

“Pearl just has incredible energy. She never sits back and says look what we’ve done. She’s always looking forward to say what can we do,” says Anthony Notaro, chairperson of the Battery Park City committee of Community Board 1 of which Scher is a member. “Pearl has an opinion about everything that comes before our committee,” he adds. “And when she speaks, everybody listens.”

Scher spent a year and a half working nearly every day to lobby for a bus shelter near The Hallmark where the M22 stops – and won. “That falls under the heading of ‘You can beat City Hall,’ ” says Scher, who claims that her sheer persistence and good behavior is what did it. “I never demanded anything, but I’m responsible here for 235 elderly people.”

Notaro recognizes that she encountered many roadblocks in that mission, but that she refused to give up. “The fact that someone her age continues to fight is amazing.”

Scher says her mind is so full of ideas that it sometimes keeps her from getting much-needed sleep at night. “That’s the one thing about being 90,” she says. “You get tired.”

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