Legacy of fiery Flushing activist lives on in annual award

Photo courtesy United Adult Ministries
By Joe Anuta

The late Flushing firebrand Rose Kryzak was a tireless advocate for senior citizens in New York, possessing enough pluck even in her twilight years to travel to Albany to admonish a sitting governor, and in November three women are set receive an award in her honor for carrying on the tradition.

Kryzak lived in Flushing House, at 38-20 Bowne St., a housing complex tailored to senior citizens, until she died at 99 about a dozen years ago.

But while the complex is populated by elderly residents, it is a far cry from assisted living, according to Robert Salant, communications director at Flushing House.

“Her apartment here was like a lobbying office filled with papers and telephones,” he said. “We are very proud of her legacy and keep it alive each year.”

This year the Rose Kryzak Senior Leadership Award will be given to Estela Divino, Mary Sheehan-Lohne and Carol O’Dette at a Nov. 8 ceremony.

Divino was selected for her work in helping seniors who have been denied benefits try to regain them, according to Salant. She has been the director of social services at the Regal Heights Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Jackson Heights, where she heads the social work department and provides a wide range of care to the borough’s seniors, since 2000.

Sheehan-Lohne’s résumé might have appealed to Kryzak, since the 12-year director of social services at the Cliffside Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in College Point has a history of agitating for a good cause.

In the 1980s, she wrote letters, petitioned, organized demonstrations at the state Department of Health and lobbied lawmakers for health care reform, according to Salant.

“We honor people who are doing similar things,” Salant said. “They also lobby, they also secure funding for their programs. All of them truly carry on the tradition of Rose Kryzak.”

O’Dette has been director of social work services at Ozanam Hall of Queens Nursing Home in Bayside since 2007 and was selected due to her long history of spearheading initiatives beneficial to seniors at numerous facilities where she has worked.

O’Dette participated in Flushing’s first meeting of the Grey Panthers, an organization dedicated to protecting civil rights, especially of seniors. At one facility she set standards of practice for HIV patients, led the efforts to establish a hospice and started an ethics committee.

The efforts from women like the three honorees is essential for the aging residents of the state, according to Salant, who oftentimes do not have the energy to do it themselves, although there was one notable exception.

Salant once heard a story from Matilda Cuomo, wife of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, about a 1987 meeting between him and Kryzak over a bill stuck in the state Legislature that would have helped seniors across the state supplement the cost of medicine.

Kryzak, who stood less than 5 feet tall, met Cuomo in the Oval Room and grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, telling him to intervene and get the bill passed or she would turn all the seniors in Queens against him, according to Salant, who added that Cuomo signed it into law that same year.

“To date, I’ve never seen another Rose Kryzak come along. And we need more of them,” Salant said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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