The Real Lady Liberty: Ethel Pesin, 98, Mother of Liberty State Park
Editors Note: This is one of several JCI profiles about outstanding local women we are publishing for Women’s History Month.
The Statue of Liberty wasn’t the only woman behind Morris Pesin in 1958 as he rowed a canoe to Liberty Island from Jersey City in seven minutes to prove the island was accessible from the waterfront, where he wanted to build a green park for people of all walks of life.
If Morris is the father of Liberty State Park (LSP), his wife, Ethel, is its mother. In February, she passed away at 98, leaving behind a legacy of activism, passion and hard work. Her children, Sam, the president of Friends of Liberty State Park (FOLSP) and a teacher at the Garden Preschool Cooperative, and Judy, who manages a training and communications team at JPMorgan Chase, remember her as a loving, thoughtful, energetic, independent and determined woman.
While only Morris’s name is engraved in the Circle of Honor around the 9/11 Memorial Fountain in Journal Square which pays tribute to individuals who contributed to the city (other names include Leon Yost, Willie Flood, Kool and the Gang, Nathan Lane and Glenn Cunningham), the Pesin siblings say she also fought for many of the same causes Morris did. In fact, the two met at a public meeting to support forces going against Spanish fascists before marrying in 1938. They stayed together for 54 years until Morris’s death in 1992.
Her parents, Louis and Dora Pliskin, had moved to South Carolina after escaping persecution from Czarist Russia in Riga, Latvia, and soon moved to upstate New York reportedly because they couldn’t stand southern prejudice against Blacks. In 1923, they moved to Jersey City and lived on Jersey Avenue near the Main Library while running a dry goods store in the Italian Village neighborhood at Wayne and Brunswick.
While studying at PS 3 and 9 and later, Dickinson High School (where she and Morris are the only couple in its Hall of Fame), she learned early on to believe in the power of the people to fight for human rights, justice and joy. As an adult, she put that power to work. For example, she and her best friend Ethel Lawner, along with the the Hudson County Citizens Committee, campaigned against making Kennedy Boulevard a treeless highway. She also worked to save the Hudson County Courthouse (now Brennan Courthouse) on Newark and Baldwin avenues alongside fellow activist Ted Conrad.
Her largest contribution to the city, however, Sam says, was as a champion for LSP. “She gave full support…(with Morris) spearheading the campaign to establish LSP from 1958 to LSP’s opening in 1976 and leading grassroots efforts with Audrey Zapp and Ted Conrad, other park pioneers, to stop commercialization plans,” he says.
Morris and Ethel campaigned together for 18 years to turn the wasteland of decaying piers and abandoned rail yards on the southeastern coast of Jersey City into a lush, green park. After it was established, they continued fighting with others’ help to make sure it was non-commericialized and non-privatized. Sam and Judy remember their father often saying “he could have done nothing without Ethel’s encouragement, sacrifice and their shared values.”
Even after Morris’s death, Ethel served as LSP Commissioner on the Public Advisory Commission and was a strong park advocate who opposed proposals to turn it into a golf course or a water park. She also was a founding trustee of FOLSP and an active volunteer.
“I remember her putting literally tens of thousands of labels and stamps on FOLSP envelopes for mailings before others stuffed the envelopes,” says Pesin. “I also remember her, as a 95-year-old, warmly greeting everyone at FOLSP’s annual barbecue at the park.
“She had a great love for LSP and I remember her enthusiasm and passion in talking about it to so many people whom she would meet, whether a fellow bridge player, an adjacent PATH rider, taxi drivers, residents of her apartment building or even her doctors!” he says.
While Sam inherited Ethel’s park activism, his sister Judy inherited her sense of business.
Ethel and Morris, along with Ethel’s parents, ran a children’s clothing shop called Pesin’s in McGinley Square. As Morris became preoccupied with LSP and later, with his work as a city councilman from 1969 to ’77, Ethel ran the store.
“My vision of Mom as a businesswoman had a huge impact on me,” says Judy, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and has been working in financial services for nearly 40 years. “She was one of the few working moms back in the 50’s and 60’s…Mom was independent, had a wide range of interests, and had a great fashion sense–which she funneled into the clothes she selected to sell in the store–and which she passed on to her granddaughter” Dara, a recruiter in New York City.
The multi-talented Orangeburg, S.C., native was also known for her love of music. She studied public school music education at Syracuse University and taught at Snyder Junior High School and Lincoln High School before becoming a successful private piano teacher. She also served as president of the JC State Teachers College (now New Jersey City University) Community Orchestra in the 1960’s.
One of her students, Jerry Herman, who composed and wrote lyrics for shows like Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage aux Folles, said in a PBS documentary that Ethel was his first music teacher and the “best piano teacher in town.”
Judy, who said her mom didn’t have kids until well after her music-teaching career, wasn’t one of Ethel’s pupils.
“When it came time for me to take piano lessons, I took them from someone else…Probably a good idea–it certainly promoted family harmony (literally and figuratively),” she jokes.
Even after she retired as a teacher, Ethel filled her life with music, starting the Summerfest free concert series at LSP with Morris in 1976. To this day, the city’s Division of Cultural Affairs has musicians perform in the park on Sunday and Tuesday evenings near Liberty House Restaurant.
“She would always say how wonderful it was to enjoy the music outdoors in the park and seeing the setting sun reflected in the golden windows of the NYC skyline,” says Sam, adding that Cultural Affairs Director Maryanne Kelleher and Special Events Coordinator Cliff Perkins have plans to dedicate the first Summerfest concert of the year, slated for July 7, to her memory.
Judy remembers her mother as a passionate patron of the arts.
“All through my youth, we went to Broadway shows, had a subscription to the New York Philharmonic, and frequented–Mom’s favorite–modern dance. Mom introduced me to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, among others, and up until Mom was no longer mobile at age 96, we continued an annual ritual of seeing an Alvin Ailey performance,” says Judy, adding that since then, she and her daughter Dara have started carrying on the tradition together.
Ethel also loved traveling (“twisting” Morris’s arm to jettison off to other continents, Sam and Judy joke), volunteering (she delivered Meals on Wheels for the Jewish Family and Counseling Services and played piano at Academy House, a center for people recovering from mental illnesses) and playing bridge.
“She was a master bridge player and had a circle of friends that sustained her throughout her life and especially when she was widowed,” says Judy, who remembers her mother organizing bridge games and parties. “Bridge helped to keep her mind sharp into her 90’s and I am already thinking of taking it up!
“I think that it is important for both men and women to have interests into retirement that will keep them both physically and mentally challenged so they can enjoy active and fulfilling lives to the very end,” she adds.
Although Ethel’s mind stayed sharp for many decades, she needed help getting around and was taken care of by Sam in her later years.
“My brother was Mom’s constant companion and caregiver. I came to see Mom twice a week, including all day Saturday during which I did the food shopping and managed all the household needs,” says Judy, who is adjusting to life without her mother around. “Though I miss the daily phone calls, I still ‘speak’ to Mom daily (in my mind) and I haven’t yet broken the habit of coming in on Saturdays, still taking care of household needs and checking in on Sam.”
Sam admits that coming home to a now-empty apartment every day has been hard for him.
“After a month, I’m slowly adjusting to her death and feel so blessed to have had the love and inspiring examples and guidance of my parents, and I also feel so blessed, with the support expressed by many, to know that there are so many caring and wonderful people in my life,” he says.
Sam and Judy, along with their other family members, know the greatness of Ethel’s impact best and miss her most.
Sam recites a Jewish prayer which he says has new meaning to him now: “We say goodbye to a hand to hold, a kiss and a tight embrace, and in the same breath of shalom, we say hello to an ocean of memories and a rush of emotion, gratitude and sorrow.”
Both Judy and Sam, however, choose to celebrate their mother’s accomplishments and what they call her “exuberant embrace of life” in her official biography. The moving essay also says, “She was a blessing to all. Her golden heart has and always will light up our lives. She inspired all who knew her. In her humility, she wouldn’t have believed how positive and powerful her impact was on all those she influenced.”
Top photo by Gail Zavian, bottom by Jim Legge; all courtesy of Sam Pesin
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