Former councilwoman dies

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Rich Bockmann

Flags outside schools and city buildings flew at half staff earlier this week in remembrance of former City Councilwoman Juanita Watkins, who died last week at the age of 79.

Watkins’ reach and influence in southeast Queens emanated from what friends lovingly referred to as her “second home,” South Jamaica’s St. James the Less Episcopal Church, long before she was elected to the Council in 1991.

The daughter of Brooklyn parents Ena Floretta Watkins and Ashton Watkins, the late councilwoman was the first from her family to attend college, earning her bachelor’s degree at SUNY New Paltz where, among other accomplishments, she recorded an album with the New Paltz Choir.

Realizing a calling in education, Watkins earned her master’s at Columbia University’s Teachers College and worked as an elementary school teacher in Queens before taking a position as an editor with the education publisher McGraw-Hill.

Watkins was elected to the Council in 1991 to represent the neighborhoods of Far Rockaway, Rosedale, Laurelton and Springfield Gardens.

She was at the center of a controversial deal to bring Pathmark to Springfield Gardens in 1995, when she brokered a $400,000 donation from the company to be distributed to small businesses adversely affected by competition from the supermarket.

After leaving the Council, Watkins helped form and served as chairwoman of the Merrick Academy Charter School.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered flags flown at half staff after Watkins died Jan. 20.

She was remembered by friends, family and colleagues in government during a service at her church Monday morning.

Sondrah Peeden, a Council candidate who got her start in politics volunteering in Watkins’ office, delivered the eulogy in front of a crowd that included numerous lawmakers, educators and civil servants.

Peeden said Watkins instilled a strong work ethic in everyone she knew.

“Those who didn’t have it did have it by the time they left her,” she said. “They’ve all gone on to do good things. It’s a tribute and a legacy to her.”

Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said he met Watkins through his church when he was a teenager.

“She saw me grow up and assisted me along the way,” he said. “She taught me to always be gracious to people. Juanita was a lover of people and she worked hard so that everyone around her understood her love.”

Watkins was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. She is survived by her niece, Karla Dixon, goddaughters Janice King, Inez Nelson, Marie Carter and Tracy Dixon Barahona and many cousins, friends and neighbors.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

More from Around New York