Mayor Sophie Masloff would often open an appearance with the greeting: “It’s great to be here. But at my age, it’s great to be anywhere.”
That was typical Masloff, an unassuming, self-deprecating Jewish grandmother who knew how to turn a phrase to connect with the people of Pittsburgh while making it her life’s mission to serve them.
“She had a remarkable gift for understanding how people think and what they were up against,” said Sen. Bob Casey [D-Pa.], who first met Masloff several years before he ran for office.
It was her “authenticity” that defined her, said Casey, adding that Masloff “knew who she was, and she acted with integrity. And she had a lot of strength.”
Masloff’s story can be read as the quintessential realization of the American dream. The daughter of Romanian Jewish immigrants, she began her career as a civil servant while still in high school, worked her way up the political ladder and, improbably, became mayor in 1988 — the first Jew and the first woman to hold that office here.
Masloff, a resident of Squirrel Hill, died of natural causes at the Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon on Sunday. She was 96.
She was in her early 20s when Eleanor Roosevelt came to Pittsburgh in 1940 to dedicate the city’s first public housing facility, Addison Terrace, and it was the first lady who inspired Masloff to enter politics.
“I was so enthralled by Mrs. Roosevelt,” Masloff told The Chronicle in a 2008 interview, “I decided that’s what I was going to do. So I joined the Democratic Party, and I never left.”
Masloff was born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District on Dec. 23, 1917, to Louis and Jennie Friedman. Her father died when she was just 2 years old, and her mother, who couldn’t read, write or speak English, was left to raise four young children on her own.
Masloff graduated from Fifth Avenue High School in 1935, then found employment as a secretary in several county government jobs. Within a few years, she had worked her way up to becoming assistant chief clerk in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, supervising jury selections, a position she held for 38 years.
“Sophie was a political pioneer,” said Dan Cohen, who served on the Pittsburgh City Council when Masloff was mayor. “She worked her way up from the bottom, politically speaking. When she became mayor, she earned it.
“She was a tough cookie,” he added. “She kind of had to be to succeed in a male-dominated environment.”
In 1976, Masloff won a seat on Pittsburgh City Council in a special election. When Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri died in office in 1988, the then 70-year-old Masloff succeeded him, after having been elected Pittsburgh’s first female City Council president just months before.
She served out Caliguiri’s term and was re-elected in 1989.
“When she had to take over as mayor under tragic circumstances, she knew she had a lot of responsibilities, and she never flinched as to what was put before her,” said Masloff’s attorney and friend, Frederick Frank.
Still, she was “probably more prepared than she realized,” according to Casey. “She had great leadership skills, and she had dealt with public officials and public matters for years.”
It was her rare combination of tenacity and compassion that made her “a remarkable political leader and government official,” according to Joseph Sabino Mistick, Masloff’s friend and former deputy mayor.
“She could alternate between toughness and kindness within an instant,” Mistick said.
She led her administration and her constituents by example.
“She was the conscience of our administration and the conscience of our city,” said Mistick.
Her accomplishments during her years as Pittsburgh’s top executive were many, but all had a common theme: She always put the needs of Pittsburghers first, according to Mistick.
She backed developments such as Washington’s Landing, the Pittsburgh Technology Center and the Hill District’s Crawford Square, “building a new neighborhood in her old neighborhood,” said Mistick.
She non-profitized the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary and Phipps Conservatory, taking the burden of sustaining these cultural resources off taxpayers. On her watch, the Allegheny Regional Asset District was created to provide grants to distressed communities. Twice she reduced the city wage tax.
“The common theme was that she looked out for the people,” Mistick said. “She put the people first.”
And she was not afraid to act on the courage of her convictions, he added, noting that in 1992, Masloff intervened in the Port Authority bus strike that was having a deleterious effect on the city’s poor and infirm.
“She intervened even though the city didn’t really have a dog in that fight,” said Mistick. “But people couldn’t get to their dialysis treatments, and health-care workers couldn’t get to work. It took political courage to do that.”
She did not seek re-election when her mayoral term ended in 1994, but she remained involved in the community, serving as a trustee of Allegheny County Community College, as a member of the Stadium Authority and as a board member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, among other civic organizations, and continued to attend the Democratic National Convention until 2004.
She was also happy to give advice to other politicians.
“I had the honor of getting advice from Sophie from the time I was chief of staff for Dan Cohen at City Council until two weeks ago,” said Mayor Bill Peduto.
While visiting his brother, who was being treated in the same hospital as Masloff, the former mayor sent a message to the current mayor.
“She said I’m doing a good job, but I still have to prove myself,” Peduto said.
After State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), was elected, he often received phone calls from Masloff, he said.
“Usually I was doing something right,” he said. “Or she would call urging me to do something important. The last time she called, she wanted to talk about gun violence.”
Her personality, Frankel said, was “larger than life.”
“She was very unique,” he said. “Some might say she was eccentric, but I would say she was genuine and authentic, which is important for a politician. She had authenticity in spades.”
During her 1989 campaign, she was widely underestimated, which proved to be her “ace in the hole,” said Cohen, who was on the campaign trail with her when he was running for City Council.
“When I would attend campaign events with her, I saw she connected with people in a way that others didn’t,” he said. “She spoke their language in a vernacular in a way the other candidates didn’t. She was very self-deprecating about her age and the fact that she was a woman, and that served her well. She had a great sense of humor.
“She was humble,” he continued. “She came from humble beginnings, and her head never got too big.”
Part of her success can be attributed to her skill in assembling the right cohort of advisers, according to Cohen.
“She got herself around strong, talented people,” he said. “She knew her strengths, and she knew her limits. But she had strong people who were able to put together a public policy agenda for her to implement. A lot of politicians think they know pretty much everything and think they can make decisions unilaterally, but she sought advice from all segments.”
Local, state, and federal officials, family and friends, as well as Pittsburgh citizens wanting to pay their respects, filled the pews of Temple Sinai’s Leebov sanctuary on Tuesday for Masloff’s memorial service. Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Ronald Symons delivered an introduction to the service in the absence of Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who was out of the country. Sara Stock Mayo, Temple Sinai’s cantorial soloist and chaplain, led the congregation in singing “America the Beautiful.” Masloff’s coffin, draped in an American flag, was carried in, escorted by Pittsburgh police officers and firefighters.
Symons read letters of condolence from former President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
In his letter, Clinton recalled the first time he called Masloff on the telephone. The mayor was not convinced Clinton was who he said he was. After identifying himself, Clinton wrote, Masloff replied: “Right. And I’m the Queen of Sheba.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom, recited selections from the Book of Ruth, and eulogies were delivered by Frank, her friend and attorney; her former campaign manager, John Seidman; and Mayor Peduto.
“She remembered the poverty of her youth,” said Seidman in his eulogy. “People in need, without a word being spoken, knew she was their friend.”
Mayor Masloff was preceded in death by her husband of 52 years, Jack, who died while she was in office. She is survived by her daughter Sue (Nicholas) Busia, her granddaughter Jennifer Busia, her grandson Michael (Krystan) Busia, her great-granddaughter Scarlett Busia and her niece Elayne (Harold) Harris, among other nieces and nephews.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Martin Luther King Jr. Reading Center of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, c/o Carnegie Library, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org