A Personal Perspective
By MARCIA MOXAM COMRIE
Helen Marshall died last weekend on March 4. It seems fitting that she made her exit from this life during Women’s History Month as she was indeed a highly-accomplished woman.
In March 2002, just two months after being sworn in as Queens borough president, Marshall participated in Inner Circle, the New York City media’s annual political roast.
At one point during the show, there appeared an elderly woman in a house dress, ambling across Queens Boulevard with the aid of a walker. Traffic screeched, horns blared and New Yorkers yelled angrily at the woman so recklessly crossing the “Boulevard of Death” as it was then known for the many pedestrians killed while trying to cross the multi-lane thoroughfare.
When the woman had finally made it safely across, she threw away her walker, ripped off her house dress and wig to reveal the perfectly erect, well-coifed Helen Marshall. She chuckled and yelled, “Don’t mess with me.”
Written by Dan Andrews, Queens Borough Hall’s resident media expert, who was among the writers for the event, the skit was a perfect metaphor for Marshall’s political career. She knew how to get what she wanted and people underestimated her at their own risk.
Neither literally nor figuratively was Marshall a smooth-talking politician. But she had a way of getting ahead in the cut-throat world of New York politics without losing her integrity.
She began her career as a school teacher and made her way to a seat in the New York State Assembly, where she served for several terms. In 1991, she saw an opportunity to move into city politics when redistricting opened up new City Council districts. She would go on to represent Council District 21 for two terms.
But she wasn’t ready to give up serving the people of Queens yet. Marshall secured the support of the Queens Democratic Party to run for the Queens borough presidency to succeed the term-limited Claire Shulman, who was fondly known as “The Queen of Queens.” Marshall, to many, did not seem to have what it took to follow in those hallowed footsteps. But once again, she fooled the naysayers.
Helen Marshall, the daughter of Guyanese immigrants, became a formidable borough president in her own right and served her beloved borough honorably in that role for 12 years.
She became the patron saint of libraries, public colleges, K-12 education, the arts and the entire borough of Queens. Much was made of the fact that Marshall was the “first African-American borough president of Queens” and, indeed, there was that. And while she embraced the distinction, it was not enough to rest on. It never is. Helen worked hard and one could argue that she was as diverse as Queens itself.
Losing her mother in early childhood, Marshall was reared by her father and a loving step-mother, an African-American woman with southern roots who was the only mom she knew and the only parent she had after her father died while she was still in her teens. Marshall reveled in the opportunities to celebrate the numerous cultures that made up her Queens domain. There was no group that was more or less important to Helen Marshall. She loved all.
And then there was Don, her beloved husband of umpteen years who, as a respected NYPD retiree, became her primary evening driver. As a result, he became almost as well known as the borough president herself. He predeceased her by mere weeks, so they are together again. May they both rest in peace.