April 16, 2013

Maudelle Shirkek, Berkeley, Dies at 101

Maudelle Shirek, a granddaughter of slaves who became "the godmother of East Bay progressive politics," died at home in Vallejo on Thursday night. She was 101.

"We lost a warrior," said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who had known her since the early 1970s. "She really looked after the poor in our city, wanted to help people who didn't have many options. She will be greatly missed."

Ms. Shirek served 20 years on the Berkeley City Council, representing South Berkeley. When she retired in 2004 at age 92, she was the oldest publicly elected official in the United States. After she left office, the city renamed old City Hall in her honor.

But her political activism began long before she formally entered politics. She was a lifelong crusader for the poor, seniors, children and, perhaps more than anything, healthy food.

Ms. Shirek grew up in rural Arkansas, and as the oldest of 10 she spent her early years cooking, cleaning, farming and helping with her siblings. She became so adept with vegetables, in fact, she won first place at a county fair for creating 33 separate dishes with tomatoes, her longtime friend Barbara Lubin said.

Those years gave her a lifelong passion for fresh food and healthy eating, Lubin said.

"That woman did not have salt in 50 years," Lubin said. "She was really an inspiration, not just on matters of health but many things. She was a mother to us all."

In 1943, like thousands of African Americans from the South, she relocated to the East Bay with her family. In the 1960s she married political activist Brownlee Shirek, and worked for the next several decades on issues surrounding integration, the poor and seniors.

She was director of the West Berkeley Senior Center in the early 1980s when the city forced her to retire due to her age, which was 71. Enraged, she ran for council, where she served eight terms.

During those years, she fought for needle-exchange programs, public housing, farmers' markets and senior nutrition. She didn't talk much on the council, but when she did, her persuasiveness and stature commanded attention, City Councilman Kriss Worthington said.

"Maudelle was the most passionate orator we've seen around here," he said. "Her fiery eloquence is unmatched in this city."

Ms. Shirek's concern for seniors went beyond the council chamber. For decades, she helped serve meals at Berkeley senior centers, and delivered dozens of meals a day to those who couldn't leave home.

The past few years she began suffering from dementia and her activism tapered off. But she still listened to the news every day, and until December when she moved to a care home in Vallejo, a "Vengeance Not Justice" sign hung in her window on Walker Street.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) was a longtime friend and colleague of Ms. Shirek's, and cited Ms. Shirek as a major influence on her political life.

"Maudelle was truly the godmother of East Bay progressive politics," Lee said. "Maudelle's legacy of over 70 years of service to Berkeley, the East Bay, the nation and the world will inspire many. I will deeply miss her."

Ms. Shirek is survived by two sisters and numerous nieces and nephews. Plans for a public memorial are under way.

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