Gerri Kay, a lifelong champion of Pittsburgh’s underserved who was known for her creativity and undeterrable commitment to the many causes and people for which she advocated, passed away Monday morning after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 70.
Kay was born on Sept. 10, 1943, to the late Irwin Porter and the late Rachel Rakusin Porter in Squirrel Hill. Her grandfather, Joseph Porter, was one of the founders of Giant Eagle, and her father served as its chairman from 1968 until 1994.
After graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School, Kay attended Syracuse University, then the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a master’s degree in social work.
It was her passion for helping others that was the pervasive driving force in her life, according to her brother, Chuck Porter.
“She always had a passion for equality and social justice,” Porter said, noting that she began her career helping others at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic before she became the director of the Reizenstein Consortium, a community-based coalition supporting the desegregation of the Pittsburgh Public School District’s middle schools, and helped found afterschool programs for underserved children.
“She was always engaging kids and their families,” said her sister, Idy Porter Goodman. “And she always created collaborations and created stakeholders.”
Kay had no patience for injustice, according to Goodman.
“She couldn’t stand injustice,” she said. “Voter IDs, redistricting. She was a true liberal in the best sense of the word. She was true to her convictions. She was a very active member of the ACLU — that was the perfect place for her.”
Kay went on to work at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and became director of the Public Education Fund. She then took a position as vice president for program and policy at the Pittsburgh Foundation.
While at the Pittsburgh Foundation, Kay worked with Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, in creating an after-school and summer camp program for children in public housing communities. Kay devised an innovative funding approach to ensure programming for 2,000 children each year, Cherna said. The Beverly Jewell Wall Lovelace after-school program is Kay’s “legacy,” he said.
“Gerri was extraordinary,” Cherna said. “She was a great friend and a great advisor. And she was fearless in staying true to her values, and helping people. She cared deeply for people and figured out how to get things to happen. She was a real force of nature. She will be missed.”
Kay worked extensively with the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh on issues such as education, criminal justice, civil rights, housing and health care, according to its director, Terry Miller.
“Whatever area of work she was doing with vulnerable populations, she always did it with an eye toward developing the intrinsic value of individuals, and by empowering them,” Miller said.
By listening to the people she served, Kay was able to help address their real needs in meaningful ways.
“She listened to them and helped to shape programs and policies around what their needs were,” Miller said. “She listened with her heart as others were speaking with theirs. She always got it right because she listened to what people were saying to her. And she always focused on the self-worth of the individual. She was far and away one of the best and most thoughtful leaders Pittsburgh has ever had.”
Following her retirement, Kay took a more active role in leading local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. She served on the board of its executive committee, as the chair of its planning and funding committee, and as its community-building chair, all between the years of 2009 through 2013. Several colleagues referred to her as a “straight-shooter.”
“She was never shy to speak up to express her opinion or point of view,” said Jeff Finkelstein, the Federation’s president and CEO. “Gerri cared deeply about the lay/professional partnership in our work and was the model lay leader for all professionals.
“In her role as our funding chair, Gerri was a staunch advocate for Federation’s continued core unrestricted funding of our beneficiary agencies and of deepening the Federation’s relationships with those agencies in order to strengthen our Jewish community.”
She also became active on the board of the Squirrel Hill Health Center about two and a half years ago. As chair of its nominating and governance committee, she laid the foundation for the organization’s continued good practices in non-profit governance.
“We recruited her because of her incredible experience with nonprofits and underserved populations,” said Susan Friedberg Kalson, CEO of the SHHC. “I was struck by how passionate she was. She threw herself into it. It was quite extraordinary.
“Her contributions to our board are lasting,” Kalson continued. “She was unflagging in her determination. We are enormously grateful to her. And personally, I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with her.”
Kay was also a devotee of the arts, and held board positions for many local arts organizations, including the City Theatre, Quantum Theatre, the Society for Contemporary Craft and Squonk Opera.
“She had a passion for the arts,” said friend and colleague Carol Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986 to 2001. “We shared an interest in emerging artists and new works, and Gerri brought arts to communities — particularly culturally diverse communities.
“She had a personal commitment to help younger artists,” Brown continued. “She knew the arts began with individual artists who are very often supported and nurtured by small and mid-sized arts organizations.”
Kay also was a big fan of jazz and was supportive of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz programming, as well as jazz programming in New York City, according to Brown.
Family was of utmost importance to Kay, and she never missed a family bar or bat mitzvah, wedding or funeral, said Goodman, adding that although she had no children, she was a “very special aunt,” and remained close to her cousins, as well as her cousins’ children.
“She always paid attention to what was going on with people,” Goodman said.
Kay’s funeral was held at Temple Sinai, the congregation her parents helped found, on Wednesday.
In addition to her sister and brother, Kay is survived by her brother-in-law, William Goodman; niece Mollie Goodman (Andrew O’Brien); nephew Jacob Goodman (Sean Shepherd); niece Abby Goodman (Rose Covert); sister-in-law Hilary Tyson Porter; and nieces Marisa and Gillian Porter.
Donations can be made to the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania; Squirrel Hill Health Center; the Institute of Politics, University of Pittsburgh; and City of Asylum Pittsburgh.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.