Remembering Lenora Berson

Representative Mark Cohen offers these words in remembrance of long time ADA Board Member Lenora Berson who passed away February 12, 2011.

Lenora Berson portrait

Philadelphia has had many political and community activists over the years. We have had only one Lenora Berson. Lenora died earlier this month at the age of 83. She was an impassioned advocate who could teach a class, do social work, organize testimony and demonstrations,write speeches, lobby elected officials, initiate candidacies for public office, mastermind election campaigns, write articles and books, take photographs worthy of being shown in art galleries, promote Philadelphia’s hidden gems, and organize events to promote the city that no else had thought of.

She was a woman of many ideas, some of which contradicted each other. But she would work through the contradictions, and arrive at courses of action. She was an activist centrist liberal Democrat, who helped interest both my father and Angel Ortiz in being council members at large, and continuously worked for candidates in tune with her ideas. She helped organize the Center City Reform Democrats, and was a key stratgist and organizer of her husband Norman Berson campaigns for the state house from 1966 through 1980, and Babette Joseph’s campaigns from 1982 onward.

There was always passsion behind her judgment, and the willingness to put in a great amount of time and effort for a cause that engaged her passions. She was a mainstay of the Americans for Democratic Action’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter, and she helped it achieve a powerful second act as a leader of the anti-Rizzo and post-Rizzo reform movements long after its initial heroes Joe Clark (an early Chairman of the group) and Richardson Dilworth had left the scene.

Most important perhaps was her belief in Center City as a neighborhood and residential destination. Her mother had co-founded the Center City Residents Association after World War II, and when she and Norman settled in Center City after getting married, it was a decision that some questioned. Why live in such a dubious neighborhood, friends wanted to know. But she believed in Center City’s potential from the start, and patiently outlasted those who saw it as a future slum. When its success as a neighborhood had been assured, she redoubled her efforts to make sure that the interests of residents did not get lost in the shuffle. She was as tenacious as a zoning advocate as she was tenacious in so much else.

As her restless, fertile mind race from position to position, from action to action, from cause to cause, it is unlikely that anyone agreed with her 100% of the time. Frank Rizzo met her and seemed to want to throttle her, she said. Michael Nutter joked to about 250 people at her memorial service today that until she died, he was always scared of her. Her energy and passion were valuable to any cause she agreed with, and a threat to any cause she opposed. In arenas with strong personalities, hers was one of the strongest.

Benjamin Franklin was likely the first to say that the highest office in the United States is that of citizen. Her life and multiple careers exemplified that. Those who know will miss her goadings to action, her achievements,her analyses, her support. And Philadelphia as a whole will miss a woman who saw possibilities and made them realities decade after decade.