Former Queens Borough President Helen Marshal’s life and legacy were celebrated last weekend in the cultural center named after her at Queens Borough Hall.
On Sunday, before a room full of Marshall’s family and friends, current Borough President Melinda Katz, acknowledged that she stands on the shoulders of the woman who came before her.
Each speaker at the event spoke of how Marshall was an active listener and participator in each of the lives she touched. At one point in the evening, the entire audience at the packed cultural center stood when asked if they felt that they benefited from her work or from having her in their lives.
“She was an amazing woman,” said Katz, who worked for Marshall during her tenure as borough president.
Katz said that when she became borough president and took Marshall’s office and desk, she got to know her a little better.
“What I learned was, Helen Marshall committed herself to public service and, every single day, she tried to figure out a way to make people’s lives a little better,” Katz said.
Marshall was a member of the state Assembly from 1983 to 1991 and the City Council from 1992 to 2001 before becoming the first African American— and second woman — to be elected as Queens borough president, an office she held for three terms.
Claire Schulman, Queens’ first woman borough president said that Marshall had infinite “patience and a generous heart.”
“Helen was never too busy to talk with people,” she said.
State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona) said he that “stands in awe of someone who transcends time, space and gender and humanity.” He also noted that he cried at Marshall’s funeral on Saturday, but refused to do so at the ceremony.
“With the morning comes joy,” he said.
Aubry said that he is reminded of Marshall via the office he uses that she once had, at Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities Inc., and helped to create in the Langston Hughes Library. Marshall served as the library’s first executive director.
“Every step on Northern Boulevard reminds me of her… of what a tremendous fighter she was,” he said.
Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins said that he hoped for a similar turnout for his memorial.
“This is pretty damn good,” he said looking around at the crowd. “Helen lived a rich and productive life. We must remember that it is not how long she lived, but how well she lived those days. She touched the lives of more people than she could ever know. Helen kept the faith, fought the good fight and now she can rest.”
Former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) said that although Marshall was praised for her good nature, she could also be a fighter for the causes in which she believed.
“No one knew what a tigress she really was,” he said.
Rangel also praised Marshall’s family. He said that after decades of service in public life, the family of an elected official is rarely thanked.
Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) said that his mother grew up on the same block in the Bronx as Marshall.
“There’s a reason Queens keeps electing women— and Manhattan is catching on— because they get stuff done,” the councilman said.
Shanel Thomas, of Elmcor Youth And Senior Activities Inc., said that she grew up in East Elmhurst and if it weren’t for Marshall cleaning up Northern Boulevard, the busy roadway would not have been a safe place to walk during her childhood in the 1980s.
Marshall’s grandson, Chandler Marshall, said that when he traveled from Los Angeles to visit his grandmother in Queens, she would drive him around the borough and tell him stories about its various neighborhoods.
“She was the sun to me,” he said. “She was the most dominant, brightest star in the sky. She was the reason I had self-confidence as a child… She was always interacting, entertaining and encouraging everyone around.” ”
He noted that when he and his brother were old enough, they visited Marshall at Christmas and distributed gifts to children in need with their grandmother.
“She was the reason I give my time and money to those who are less fortunate to this day,” he said.
Reach Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @JonathanSCronin.