The singing birds are silenced for a legendary leader who has left us.
Claire Shulman was 94 years young and continued working until her final weeks. One of the joys of her later years was sitting in her La-Z-Boy chair, watching the flurry of beautiful, colorful birds feeding off the seeds placed just steps from her doorway and listening to their musical chirps.
I’ve never thought of myself as a writer, but rather as a diary keeper with my column. One of the best compliments I have ever received came from Claire, who called me after she read one of my columns and said, “You know Vicki, you’re really a good writer!” So, here I go Claire; I hope I live up to your standards.
Our almost 50-year friendship began when I was advocating for a group home for children with developmental disabilities coming out of the infamous Willowbrook State School in the early 1970s.
We had gone there to plead our case for the group home — now named Life’s WORC — that we were planning in Little Neck. It was to be the first group home for children with developmental disabilities in New York state.
But there were people who didn’t want it on their block, fearing anyone who was different. I even had received death threats from people who opposed the home on Gaskell Road in the beautiful northeast Queens community.
I had hoped to get the support for the project from the borough president. I will never forget my first meeting with Claire, who was an intimidating, tall, non-smiling and powerful looking woman, sitting at her big desk in the corner of the impressive deputy borough president’s office at Queens Borough Hall. I got the support from the borough president!
Little did I know, that visit would be the beginning of a relationship that blossomed into a friendship and a love that would last for decades. It all came to an end at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 16. That was when Claire took her last breath and now I almost feel I can’t catch mine.
I shut my eyes and I see her by my side on our first trip together with CBS’ Marcia Kramer and her husband in Beijing and Xian. Claire’s husband didn’t want to go, so I took his place.
Seeing the Great Wall of China and then the uncovered buried soldiers were highlights of the first trip we took together, but the real fun was our shopping together. We had a very different style — I bargained every time I wanted to buy something, but she immediately paid whatever the salesmen asked. I had to run an “intervention” to protect her. We laughed and laughed as I would offer a price and walk out of the store if they didn’t accept it, only to have the merchant come running after us! They dubbed it the “Vicki walk”!
After our China trip, we went on to visit Israel, Italy (where we met Pope John), Sicily, Alaska and Seattle. She would often get up at the crack of dawn to go for breakfast while I slept in. On two occasions, she left me behind when the bus left and I was late.
The first time, we were going to the Vatican and I had to navigate there by myself because I had overslept. She left me behind again in ancient Taormina, Sicily. Our group went shopping in the charming, winding cobblestone streets of the town and were supposed to meet at the square. Somehow I was late and they left me there.
Fortunately, I had learned that when you register at a hotel, you always pick up a business card from the registration desk. So, despite not knowing any Italian, I showed the card to a taxi driver, who safely returned me to the hotel. All was forgiven and we went on many memorable trips after that over many years.
In June 2018, I took her sister Ruth’s place on a trip to Alaska. We laughed because the bad weather forced the cruise ship to be late arriving into two ports, so we never got to see a whale or glacier!
We navigated the sightseeing with Claire in a wheelchair, which became a big advantage since we were able to skip the block-long lines getting back on the ship each day.
Claire adored her extraordinarily well educated and accomplished children and grandchildren. Her daughter Ellen was an astronaut who has been to space multiple times and her son Larry is a world recognized oncologist. They each have two children, who are also brilliant! Claire’s heart was so big, she decided to adopt a child named Kim from Korea, who grew up to be a successful producer in the movie industry.
For us who knew her, we believe her legacy is her unrivaled love and brilliant leadership skills.
I learned from Claire by listening and watching her lead a team of people. I loved how Alex Rosa, her beloved chief of staff for decades, told me how Claire’s weekly cabinet meetings with all the borough commissioners were so intense and thoughtful, that the group would meet before the meeting to make sure they had the answers to the agenda items.
She was the personification of a leader who was firm but friendly. She would get mad and then get over it, always looking to accomplish her goals while putting aside distractions and remaining focused. She proudly put more than 36 shovels in the ground, always with the mantra “get it done.”
When Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, was elected mayor, Claire’s Democratic colleagues discouraged her from a friendship with him.
I love the story she told me when he appeared at Borough Hall with a birthday cake for her. When she was about to blow out the candles he asked her to “make a wish.” She said simply, “ I want funding for the new pool in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.” She got it! That was Claire!
How I will miss her many kindnesses. When my fiancé Nat Bassen died and my son Josh went off to college, Claire called me and insisted I join her at her beloved beach house on Long Beach Island.
She was a friend, watching over me in countless ways. I know I had her love and friendship for many years, but I’m greedy and I wanted her to be with me forever. She is in my heart forever. I will miss this “giant” of a woman.