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2020 Year in Review: Queens mourns loss of prominent figures

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While 2020 was filled with loss amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Queens said goodbye to several prominent figures throughout the year.

From a former borough president, to a dynamic political icon, to a sports legend with Queens roots, the list of those who passed away in 2020 includes some big names. 

Claire Shulman

Claire Shulman

Queens lost a towering figure in 2020 when Claire Shulman, the first woman to serve as Queens borough president, died in August at the age of 94 after battling lung and pancreatic cancer.

In her 16 years in office, Shulman changed the way Queens ran its government following the Donald Manes scandal at Borough Hall in 1986 and ushered the borough into an era of unprecedented growth and economic revitalization.

Once a registered nurse during World War II, Shulman became president of the Bayside Mothers Club and oversaw the renovation of her children’s school and was named by Manes as his director of community boards in 1972, becoming his deputy in 1980 before replacing him by a unanimous City Council vote in 1986.

Shulman’s style of government depended on her leadership and the strength of her staff which featured future leaders such as former Assemblywoman Marge Markey, current Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Councilman Barry Grodenchik.

“Claire stepped into the breach in 1986 and quickly righted the ship of state, giving the people of Queens the best government they ever had,” Grodenchik recalled. “Her legacy of service is beyond measure but includes tens of thousands of new school seats, a new Queens Hospital Center, Queens Theatre, Queens Zoo, USTA National Tennis Center, Museum of the Moving Image, Queens Botanical Garden, Queens Museum, Jamaica Center for the Arts and Learning, new terminals at JFK Airport, saving the homes of 20,000 families during the co-op and condo crisis of the late 1980s, the New York Times printing plant, Arverne by the Sea, a new civil and criminal court building, restored Unisphere, SAGE (the first LGBT senior center in Queens, Louis Armstrong House, Thalia Spanish Theatre, FDA regional laboratory at York College, Queens West, countless local parks, playgrounds and libraries either rebuilt or built anew, Townsend Harris High School and a new 107th Precinct.”

Looking back on her track record, Shulman said luring the film industry to western Queens was one of her greatest accomplishments.

“We got the 5 1/2 acres from the federal government for $1,” she said in a 2014 interview regarding the founding of the Kaufman Astoria Studios. “From zero dollars to $9 billion is not bad at all.”

Shulman worked until her final days as president of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corp. which oversaw the Special Flushing Waterfront District.

Archie Spigner

Archie Spigner

Queens lost another dynamic political icon in 2020 when Archie Spigner died at 92 in October. Known as “the godfather of politics,” Spigner represented southeast Queens as a longtime councilman and distinct leader.

State Senator Leroy Comrie called Spigner a “transformative figure in civics, government and politics” who was responsible as “anyone else alive today for making Black representation in government a reality.”

Congresswoman Grace Meng remembered Spigner as a “trailblazer and titan who fought to represent the lies he represented.”

Spigner represented southeast Queens on the City Council from 1974 to 2001, the last 15 of those years as the deputy to the majority leader Peter F. Vallone.

Anne Quashen

Anne Quashen

Queens said goodbye to another leader in former PFLAG President Anne Quashen, who died in April at age 88. She served as the leader of the Queens chapter of the organization that advocates for gay people and their families.

Councilman Daniel Dromm recalled Quashen as a “model LGBTQ activist” who dedicated “25 years of her life to providing emotional support and other resources to family members of LGBTQ people who chose to live their lives openly at a time it was not possible to do so.”

Andrew Kirby

Andrew Kirby

The borough’s business community mourned the loss of longtime Plaxall President Andrew Kirby for always “doing what’s best” for Long Island City when he passed.

Kirby was a key figure in the transformation of the once-gritty industrial area it was to the nation’s fastest-growing neighborhoods it is now,

Kirby served on the board of directors at the Long Island City Partnership. He was 66.

Whitey Ford

Whitey Ford

From the world of sports, Yankees pitching legend and Astoria native Whitey Ford died in October at age 91.

Known as the “Chairman of the Board,” Ford was a six-time World Series champion, 1961 Cy Young winner and World Series MVP, plus a 10-time all-star for the Yankees from 1950 to 1967 who put his career on hold to fight in the U.S.Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1952.

Luke Gasparre

Luke Gasparre

Astoria bid farewell to another war veteran when “local legend” Luke Gasparre died in February at age 95.

At the young age of 18, Gasparre trained to become a soldier and was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division that was tasked with breaking through the German lines during World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which was the highest casualty operation in the European Theater.

At one point, Gasparre was in combat for five straight months earning seven medals including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Upon his return to Astoria, Gasparre worked for the postal service for 34 years and to make ends meet he took a job as an usher for the New York Mets for 55 years, the most ever in the Mets organization. He was also a ticket taker and usher at the U.S. Open for more than 40 years.

Gasparre also served as the longtime leader of the Tamiment Democratic Club in Astoria and was also a member of various other civic groups.

Philip Kahn

Philip Kahn

Fresh Meadows native Philip Kahn was another member of the Greatest Generation that died in 2020.

Kahn was a combat veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima before serving s a chief flight engineer and co-pilot on a B-29 Superfortress during the months-long firebombing of Tokyo and performed aerial surveying of the damage done by the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kahn died of COVID-19 at age 100, a century after his twin brother succumbed to the Spanish flu soon after his death in 1919.

Dr. Jimmy Heath

Dr. Jimmy Heath

The Queens cultural community mourned the loss of jazz pioneer Dr. Jimmy Heath at age 93.

The longtime Corona resident’s career began during the big-band era through bebop and fusion during his seven decades of jazz history. Heath was a tenor saxophonist who played in bands led by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis and many others.

In 2003, the National Endowment of the Arts named him a Jazz Master and he went on to be a composer and professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College for two decades, where he helped launch the jazz studies program in 1986.

Heath went by the nickname “Little Bird” in reference to fellow jazz legend Charlie Parker. In 1993, his “Little Man, Big Band” album was nominated for a Grammy Award.

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