Saturday, May 19, 2018

Mary Sansone, a Grass-Roots Political Godmother, Dies at 101 (NY Times)

What a wonderful life! Classic New York Times obituary of a classy lady.  The Times daily runs news obits, a foreign concept to those bean-counters at The St. Augustine Record, who see paid obituaries as a cash cow, and only run a news obit on demand of a rich guy, and then only with hagiography.

Mary Sansone, a Grass-Roots Political Godmother, Dies at 101

The civic leader Mary Sansone at her home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 2015. “I took part in every movement for justice, whether it was union rights, civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or gay rights,” she wrote.CreditYeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times
Mary Sansone, a gutsy Brooklyn social worker who created a robust community service organization that bridged racial and ethnic barriers, defied the Mafia and befriended supportive politicians, died on Monday in Brooklyn. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Carmela Sansone.
As Mrs. Sansone evolved into a local folk hero and political godmother, the single-family rowhouse in Borough Park that she bought with her husband some 70 years ago became a Mecca for candidates, to whom she dispensed grass-roots wisdom as they came courting her.
She delivered votes and campaign contributions and her coveted imprimatur, and winning candidates returned the favor with moral support for her organization, the Congress of Italian-American Organizations, a statewide social service federation known by the acronym CIAO (pronounced “chow,” like the informal Italian greeting). Sometimes her group received government subsidies for its social service programs.
When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor, he was asked to identify the New Yorker he found most interesting. He replied unequivocally: “Mary Sansone. She’s a child of Italian immigrants who went on to be a social activist and fights for civil rights. She’s still out there fighting.”
As mayor, Mr. de Blasio honored her for helping New Yorkers “to get along and see their common reality and their interests.”
“Mary was working with people from different communities when it was almost taboo,” he said.
In 1971, a visit to her Brooklyn home by Bayard Rustin, the black civil rights leader, heralded an ambitious collaboration between Mrs. Sansone’s group and the New York Urban Coalition to unite the city’s black, Hispanic and white ethnic communities in a common agenda for political empowerment and improved municipal services.
“I took part in every movement for justice, whether it was union rights, civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or gay rights,” Mrs. Sansone wrote in a 1997 memoir.
She stood only 4-foot-11 but achieved towering political stature and credibility, wielding political influence beyond her neighborhood to advance her organization, sometimes sustaining it almost single-handedly.
In return she drew the loyalty, even obeisance, of politicians — fealty that could inflame her already feverish rivalries with other community groups, regular Democrats and even a leader of organized crime.
An enrolled Democrat, she nonetheless supported the candidacies of Rudolph W. Giuliani and two other mayors originally elected as Republicans, John V. Lindsay and Michael R. Bloomberg. (“He loves my meatballs,” Mrs. Sansone said of Mr. Bloomberg, who also arranged for the photograph of her being hugged by President Barack Obama that she taped to her refrigerator.)
“Mary passionately believed that partisan politics should never get in the way of serving the public,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement on Monday.
“She’s very political,” Mr. Giuliani once told Newsday, “and when she offers me advice I listen, because she will always tell you the truth.”
When Mr. Giuliani lost his first mayoral race in 1989 to David N. Dinkins, Mrs. Sansone defied convention and feted him. “Why give a party to a person who wins?” she said. “He’s happy already.”
Mary Anna Crisallis was born in what is now the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn on June 12, 1916, to Rocco Crisallis and his distant cousin, Martha Crisallis, also an immigrant. Her father came to the United States six months short of being ordained for the priesthood in Italy; instead he became an organizer for the longshoremen’s union. One of her uncles was a gangster.
“My father realized I had an inferiority complex,” she recalled in the 1976 book “Nobody Speaks for Me! Self-Portraits of American Working Class Women,” by Nancy Seifer. “I had straight black hair; my sister’s was pretty, curly and blond. So either you hate yourself and you put yourself down, or you try to fight and pull yourself up. Because of my father, I fought to better myself.”

Mrs. Sansone began her commitment to social activism as an 8-year-old: Her father placed her atop a soapbox in Manhattan’s Union Square as he addressed potential recruits to the Industrial Workers of the World. When she was 12 she joined the Junior Wobblies, as the youth contingent of that Socialist-inspired labor congress was known.
Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaiming Mary Sansone Day at the Dyker Beach Golf Course in Brooklyn on June 14, 2016, shortly after Mrs. Sansone’s 100th birthday.CreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times
She enrolled in Textile High School in Manhattan. But when she sewed the sleeves on a suit jacket upside down, she said, “That ended my career as a dress designer.”
Mrs. Sansone later took jobs in grimy sweatshops to organize workers for the garment workers union and attended the Rand School of Social Science and the New York School of Social Work, both in Manhattan.
During World War II she worked for the Red Cross, and after the war she became the executive secretary of the medical department of American Relief for Italy, a nonprofit group.
In 1949 she married Zachary Sansone, a Brooklyn-born lawyer who had grown up in Naples, Italy, and returned to America when he was 32 to work as a shop steward for the longshoremen’s union. He later ran a CIAO program for the elderly.
Mr. Sansone died in 2010. In addition to caring for a dozen foster children at various times, the couple had two children of their own: Ralph, a judge, who died in 1986 in a small-plane crash; and Carmela, a psychologist, who survives her, along with two grandsons.
Mrs. Sansone’s emergence as a community leader evolved from a convergence of introductions, from Ralph Salerno, the former police detective and authority on organized crime, to Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote “Wiseguys,” to Mayor Lindsay.
In the late 1960s, the mayor was wooing white ethnics. Mrs. Sansone was publicly confronting social and economic challenges that her community often preferred not to make public. They needed each other.
“Italians have this false pride: If they go on welfare they’d rather die,” she said in 1973. “Many Italian groups did not like us becoming involved with other ethnic groups. They called us anti-Italian because we wanted to deal on a multiethnic basis.”
At its height, under Mayors Lindsay and Giuliani, CIAO, with a multimillion-dollar budget, ran job training, day care, after-school programs, scholarships and other services originally focused on poor and uneducated Italian-Americans.
“It is marvelous to see that the Italian community is learning a lesson the black community learned long ago,” Bayard Rustin said in 1975. “Very simply, it is that the squeaky wheel gets greased.”
Mrs. Sansone’s organization suffered through a drought after the 1977 mayoral race, when she supported Mario M. Cuomo while the rival Brooklyn Democratic organization backed the eventual winner, Edward I. Koch.
Mrs. Sansone was also fired by her board, which accused her of nepotism — which she freely admitted.
“If they’re as qualified as the next person, there’s no reason why if they’re my relatives I should dismiss them,” she said. “During the early days, when some undesirable Italian-American organizations wanted to take us over, they were the only ones I knew I could trust.”
“The programs were taken away from us, but I learned a valuable lesson from this experience,” she recalled in her memoir. “Politicians and mobsters are exactly the same. If they want to kill you they will, but they do it differently.”
Her biggest run-in was with Joseph Colombo, the Mafia leader who formed the Italian-American Civil Rights League to improve the image of Italian-Americans. Mr. Colombo sent a limousine to fetch her. He proposed that they join forces. Mrs. Sansone refused.
“Needless to say, I didn’t go home in the limousine,” she said.
“They wanted to kill me,” she said. “Zack said I was too stupid to be afraid.” (Mr. Colombo was gunned down in 1971 at a league rally in Columbus Circle.)
For all her folk wisdom, Mrs. Sansone had a healthy skepticism about human nature. “My father used to say, ‘The masses are asses,’ ” she once said, adding, “and I’ve met with people who have two or three degrees and know nothing.”
Her strategy in dealing with such people was disarmingly adroit. “I never yelled, I never screamed, and I always pretended I was a friend,” she said. “I told them off with a smile.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B15 of the New York edition with the headline: Mary Sansone, Community Organizer And Unifier of New York, Dies at 101.

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