UPDATED March 6, 3:45 p.m.
The family of Helen Marshall, the first African-American ever to serve as Queens borough president who died on March 3 at the age of 87, will hold a private service in her honor, it was announced on Monday.
Marshall succumbed to an extended illness while residing in California, according to Alexandra Rosa, who served has her chief-of-staff throughout her 12 years as borough president. Services will take place there, and the family is planning a memorial service in Queens at a later date.
Marshall was a fixture in Queens politics for nearly 40 years. After serving stints in the Assembly and City Council, she was elected in 2001 as the 18th borough president in Queens history, succeeding Claire Shulman, who was the first woman ever to hold the office.
“Helen was a trailblazer who inspired many to pursue public service. She was a deeply compassionate person who cared tremendously about the well-being of her fellow Queens residents,” said current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. “Her love of the borough was exceeded only by her love for her family, especially her devoted husband Donald, who passed away recently.”
During her three terms, Marshall championed improvements for educational institutions, securing hundreds of millions of dollars in funds to improve local libraries and schools. She also championed Queens tourism and new development across the borough, supporting the expansion of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the controversial, ongoing plan to redevelop the Willets Point industrial area.
A native of Manhattan, Marshall graduated from Queens College and become a public school teacher. She and her husband Donald would start a family in East Elmhurst; the couple would be married for more than 50 years.
In 1969, she created the Langston Hughes Library in Corona, later renamed the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center. Marshall would serve at the library’s director for five years, helping the library to become one of Queens’ most important resources for African-American history. As borough president, she would fund the creation of the Children’s Library at the Queens Library Central branch to further enlighten young minds.
Marshall entered politics in 1974, when she was elected Democratic district leader. She would be elected eight years later to the State Assembly and serve five terms in Albany representing the neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. In 1991, Marshall was elected to the 21st City Council District, representing much of the same area for another decade at City Hall before being elected borough president.
Throughout her tenure at Queens Borough Hall, Rosa recalled, Marshall demonstrated her unique ability to connect with people and served with tremendous compassion.
“I came to admire the wonderful person that she was, a kind and gentle spirit,” Rosa told QNS on Saturday. “She was somebody that liked to help build families and communities.”
Shulman remembered Marshall as “a very loving, caring and hard-working woman” who dedicated her life toward improving the borough she loved. She noted with particular pride Marshall’s efforts to the Children’s Library at the Queens Library Central branch in Jamaica. When asked about working with Marshall while she was a councilwoman, Shulman said that they had “a very, very good relationship,” adding that Marshall was particularly adept at knowing the needs of her district and worked with Shulman to get things done.
Though initially limited to two terms following her election, Marshall received the opportunity to run for a third term after the city amended the term limit law in October 2008. She was easily re-elected to her third term the following year, and stepped away from public life after her term concluded in 2013. She would later relocate to California.
A new cultural center built that Marshall helped to build at Queens Borough Hall was renamed by Katz in her honor last year. Marshall was unable to attend the renaming ceremony.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement on Saturday night, remarked that “Helen Marshall was as bighearted, dynamic and brave as the borough of Queens.
“New York City will miss her deeply, but her memory will live forever in the libraries, schools, and neighborhoods she uplifted and in the many hearts she touched,” he said.
Borough President Marshall was preceded in death by her husband, Donald, who died in January of this year. The couple is survived by their children, Donald Jr. and Agnes Marie, and two grandchildren.
Those who wish to pay their respects may do so by sending cards and letters of condolences to The Marshall Family, 31-17 Buell St., East Elmhurst, NY 11369. Memorial donations may be made in Marshall’s memory to Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities Inc., 33-16 108th St., Corona, NY 11368.