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Remembering Sophie Masloff, Pittsburgh's First Female Mayor

Sophie Masloff knew from an early age she wanted to work in those government buildings, but never though she would hold office, let alone become mayor of Pittsburgh.  

“I used to walk to town from the time I was a little girl to the City-County Building and the court house, and I used to pay the bills," Masloff said in a 2008 interview, "and while I was there, I wandered around the buildings, and early on I thought this was something I’d like to do to be a part of this."

Masloff, who rose from a tax clerk to Pittsburgh's first female mayor, died Sunday. She was 96.

Her enthusiasm for public service was further enhanced when the federal government during FDR’s administration built a public housing project in Pittsburgh — Bedford Dwellings.

“It was the first in the country and Mrs. Roosevelt dedicated it," said Masloff. "I was there and I was so impressed with what she did and said that I determined then that I would be a Democrat and work in government.”

Masloff was born on Dec. 23, 1917, and was a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh. Her parents were Romanian immigrants, and Masloff spoke only Yiddish until she began attending school.

After high school, Masloff worked as a secretary in county government and then for 38 years as a clerk in the Court of Common Pleas, all the while learning about party politics, initially from her mentor, Davey Lawrence, who would become mayor and eventually governor of Pennsylvania.

Masloff said she hesitated at first about running for elected office, but she wound up serving 12 years on City Council and eventually was chosen as president of council.

“Well, it was an unusual situation," Masloff said. "Mayor Caliguiri was very sick and I had no idea how sick he was. He sent for me one day and said to me, ‘I’d like for you to be the council president.’ I thought it was a challenge; there had never been a female council president, and I thought I’d like that and so I did. I ran for council president, and you were elected then by the other council people. Of course, two years later he [Caliguiri] passed away.”

Caliguiri died from complications of amyloidosis in May 1988. As president of council, Masloff was next in line. As she was about to be sworn in as mayor of Pittsburgh, she recalled thinking: “Well of course, fright was the first thing. I looked around the room and thought how am I going to handle this, but I did.”

Masloff served out the last 20 months of Caliguiri’s term, and then at age 71 she decided to run for a full four-year term in 1989.

“The men literally insulted me," she said. "They said, ‘You can’t win, you’re going to be a spoiler, don’t do this.’ But because they said I couldn’t do it, I decided to run, and the rest is history.”

Masloff  narrowly defeated County Controller Frank Lucchino, then state Rep. Tom Murphy, City Controller Tom Flaherty and attorney and civil, rights activist Byrd Brown in the Democratic primary. The Republicans decided not to challenge her in the November election.

As mayor, Masloff oversaw several major developments, including one especially close to her: the construction of the Crawford Roberts townhouses in the Hill District, on the same site where she lived as a child.

And then there was another proposal that did not come to fruition during her administration — the building of a new baseball park.

“I had plans drawn in house, and we had some pretty good ideas then," Masloff said. "Of course, everybody thought that was crazy.

About eight years later PNC Park, one of the most highly acclaimed ballparks in the nation, opened. On Masloff’s 90th birthday, a street next to the ballpark was named for her.

Masloff good-naturedly described herself as an "old Jewish grandmother" and promised when she took office to be at work by 8 a.m. every day except Tuesdays when, she said, "I get my hair done."

There were many amusing moments that Masloff enjoyed as mayor, whether it was fitness guru Richard Simmons, in his shorts and tank top, bursting into a news conference and giving her a big kiss or a surprise call.

When Bill Clinton was trying to stir up support in his 1992 presidential campaign, he telephoned the mayor to let her know he was coming to Pittsburgh. She was not convinced that the caller was Clinton and told him, "Right, and I'm the Queen of Sheba."

Known for being personable and approachable, years after she left office, whenever she was in public, people would yell out, "Hi, mayor.”

“All I want is to be remembered as having done a good job,” she said. “I never lost sight of the fact that it was an incredible honor, and I thought I had to set a mark.”

Mayor Bill Peduto has ordered all city flags flown at half-staff in honor of Masloff. She is survived by a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandson, a great-granddaughter and a niece. Her husband of more than 50 years, Jack Masloff, died during his wife's term in office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.