Helen M. Marshall passed away on March 4, 2017. She had been living in Palm Desert, California. She was borough president of Queens from 2002 to 2013. During part of that period I was president of the Queens Jewish Community Council and had frequent interaction with her. We used to refer to her as the Queen of Queens. My favorite story was when I was being installed as president. By that time my father’s health had started to decline. However, his mind was still sharp. Helen Marshall was the installing officer. After she installed the rest of the board, she then asked my father who also had been a president of the Queens Jewish Community Council to install me. This was a surprise to both my father and me. I don’t know if the borough president had been asked to do it or she thought of it on her own. An irony I just found out about is that the borough president was born four days after my father.
This was just one example of her modesty and looking out for others. Another person who was obsessed with their honor would have balked at the idea. However, with Helen it was never about her. She understood the importance of her position and did her best to fulfill her responsibilities. She did not look at the position as a stepping stone for higher office but was genuinely interested in helping the residents of Queens.
She was very friendly and treated others with respect. I remember that she would treat her assistant Susie Tannenbaum like a daughter. I never saw her raise her voice. She wanted everyone to try to get along. Therefore, it was no surprise that she started the Queens General Assembly.
When she was starting to have health issues, and at times had problems reading her speech, she would not get angry but laugh it off. She handled adversity as she did everything else – with a smile and being good natured.
Helen Marshall’s style and temperament is appreciated even more in our times when there is so much conflict in our political discourse.
She was a strong supporter of the Jewish community, including the Queens Jewish Community Council and the State of Israel, and would host the program celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. She gave the Queens Jewish Community Council funding for renovating the house we have on Main Street.
Although she did not talk much about her childhood, I do remember her mentioning growing up in the Bronx and being the Shabbos goy. Based on stories I’d heard her tell, she had positive interactions with Jews in the Bronx. She never forgot it. Louis Armstrong, while growing up in New Orleans in the early 20th century, also was helped by a Jewish family who gave him food and shelter. Mr. Armstrong also appreciated the help the Jewish community did for him. I read that Ms. Marshall and Mr. Armstrong were neighbors at one time.
These two situations are a reminder of how a good deed may have a greater effect than one would expect. I doubt that the people who helped Helen Marshall or Louis Armstrong did it because they thought they would become famous and important people.
One final Helen Marshall story. The first time I heard Helen Marshall speak was at a Democratic club meeting. Back then I was a member of a political club. I was having a conversation with the person sitting next to me. Then Ms. Marshall spoke. In the middle of the speech she said her husband was in the audience and asked him to stand up. Her husband was sitting next to me. He had not revealed earlier who he was. I learned from this experience the importance of choosing words carefully when you don’t know the person you are talking to. It could have been very embarrassing. In this case, I had not said anything negative about the borough president so it was not an issue.
The last time I saw the borough president was when she was honored at the Queens Jewish Community Council dinner. This time she came with her husband. Now that she was no longer the borough president she was able to spend more time together with her husband. You could tell they had a close relationship. Thus, it did not come as a shock that she died a month after her husband passed away.
Helen Marshall’s style and temperament is appreciated even more in our times when there is so much conflict in our political discourse. She was “old school,” from a time in America that unfortunately is passing away along with those from that generation.
It is nice to see that she is being remembered at an event this Sunday at Queens Borough Hall.
Warren S. Hecht is a local attorney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org