Pittsburghers gather to say their final goodbye to Mayor Sophie Masloff
In a memorial service marked by the words of presidents and filled with a blend of the working and political classes, Pittsburgh said goodbye to the woman most knew simply as Sophie.
“Today is a day of awe-filled memory. Today is a day of gratitude. And it is a day when we receive a charge for each one of us: to live out her legacy,” Temple Sinai Rabbi Ronald Symons said of former Mayor Sophie Masloff.
Masloff, 96, died on Sunday of natural causes.
When Masloff attended Temple Sinai, near her Squirrel Hill home, the only woman and only Jew to serve as Pittsburgh's mayor would sit beneath a stained-glass window depicting Ruth, who declared in the Hebrew Bible, “Whither you shall go, I shall go. Your God is my God. Your people are my people.”
“She was a New Deal, Dave Lawrence Democrat,” said John Seidman, her former campaign manager. “She remembered the poverty of her youth. ... People in need, without a word being spoken, knew she was their friend.”
Margaret Regina White was among more than 300 people who filled the pews and the first few rows of an overflow area in the temple for the 11 a.m. service. A retired nurse who spent 35 years working for the Allegheny County Juvenile Court, White, 75, of Edgewood once called Masloff's office when city maintenance crews failed to pick up a dead cat.
She told the receptionist she wanted to talk to the mayor, and Masloff picked up the phone.
“She said, ‘Where's the cat?' ” and sent crews to clean it up, White said. After Masloff left office, White would often see her on the 61A bus. “She was always nice to me. ... She always respected you.”
The service began as six police officers brought her flag-draped, wooden casket to the front of the temple while those present sang “America the Beautiful.” It ended an hour later as they sang “God Bless America,” while the officers took the casket to a hearse for Masloff's private burial.
Eulogists were under “firm” instructions, said friend and lawyer Frederick Frank.
“Part of the instructions for the speakers she selected was ‘a few words,' with ‘few' underlined,” Frank said. “The private person, in many ways, was the same as the public.”
Masloff was born to Jewish Romanian immigrants in December 1917, almost three years before ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. While in her teens, she lied about her age to get an Allegheny County job so she could help support her family, her friend and former chief of staff Joe Mistick said.
“She stood for something bigger than herself. She stood for the qualities that embody Pittsburgh,” Mayor Bill Peduto said during a eulogy he delivered. “She was comfortable in who she was.”
Symons read letters from former President Bill Clinton and President Obama. On the dais sat Bishop David A. Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., Rep. Mike Doyle, former Mayors Tom Murphy and Luke Ravenstahl, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and his predecessor Dan Onorato, current and former City Council members, and numerous state representatives and senators filled the seats.
“She made her way slowly, without any institutional supports — a Jew and a woman in a Catholic town totally dominated by traditional men. She saw the excesses, she saw the misogyny, and she kept her mouth shut and she waited. She kept her opinions to herself until she arrived at a position where her opinions would matter,” Seidman said.
But it was the “common touch” extolled by eulogizers that drew people such as Pam Barbour, who worked as Masloff's executive assistant.
“Wherever she went in the world, she brought me something back,” said Barbour of Beltzhoover.
After leaving office, Masloff would donate money she made from television commercials to NAAMAT USA, a nonprofit that provides aid to women, youths and families in Israel, said friend Gloria Elbling-Gottlieb of Squirrel Hill.
“She walked in high heels in every parade,” Elbling-Gottlieb said. “She always wanted to be spiffy.”
Beginning in the 1930s, Masloff helped former Mayor David L. Lawrence and County Commissioner John Kane organize the Democratic majority that still holds power. She won a special election to City Council in 1976 and, as council president in 1988, became mayor when Richard Caliguiri died in office.
Masloff never forgot about Caliguiri's family, his widow Jeanne Caliguiri said. Whenever they met, Masloff would first ask, “How are the boys?”
“She made it easy for us,” Caliguiri said.
Masloff won election in 1989 but declined to run again four years later.
In the City-County Building, Masloff's mayoral portrait will be displayed all week near a book in which mourners have written messages to and memories of the person some called the city's “little Jewish grandmother.”
“Every time I go to a meeting in the mayor's office, I look for her portrait,” state Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mt. Washington, said before the service. She said she finds it inspiring to look at the lone female face among the portraits of Pittsburgh's mayors.
“It gives me hope, and I think it gives a lot of other women hope,” Molchany said.
Masloff's final message to Peduto, delivered via a nurse at the hospital where she was being treated, was that he was doing a good job but hadn't yet proved himself.
“Mayor Sophie Masloff proved herself throughout her life,” Peduto said. “And for that, Pittsburgh says, ‘Thank you.' ”
Peduto stood alone behind the temple as police placed Masloff's casket in the hearse. When the motorcade was ready, he told the motorcycle officer in the lead, “Take her home.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com. Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report.