Its no mistake that our borough is
called Queens named, of course, after a woman (Queen Catherine Braganza of
Portugal). Always an integral part of life here, Queens women have made previously
inconceivable strides over the last few decades.
In politics, business, education, public service, medicine and law
the women of Queens are leaving their mark. For example
The citys first female borough president was elected here. The
first female vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, was from Queens. The Nanny was
nursed in Queens, and so was Cyndi Lauper.
But beyond the headlines and public figures, its the ordinary
women of Queens that contribute enormously to the life of the borough in so many ways.
Here are a few of the outstanding women who make Queens what it is today.
Across from Estelle Coopers desk is a large framed picture
of Mayor Giuliani and Cooper hugging and smiling in front of the Unisphere.
As all Parks employees are assigned park-related names, Cooper is known
to her colleagues as "Unisphere." Starquest, a.k.a. Henry Stern, asked Cooper to
serve as the Assistant Commissioner for Queens Parks in 1995.
From her office in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Coopers been
overseeing everything from the US Open to Mets games ever since. "This park is the
crown jewel of the borough," Cooper said.
And indeed with Cooper at the helm, it is Queens gem. A $14
million soon-to-be promenade along Flushing Bay connected to the park keeps
several bulldozers occupied. A swimming pool is also in the works.
Coopers been involved in politics ever since she volunteered to
help out in Lindsays mayoral campaign in 65. She was hooked from the start, in
spite of the fact the women of Coopers time normally did not become involved in
"In the 60s, if you didnt make coffee or type you
werent really wanted. But that changed. I blazed a trail," said Cooper.
"Women suddenly realized they were not second- class citizens. We had to work twice
as hard. Today its almost equal but not quite."
Judy Bergtraum had very little choice but to get involved with
education. Its in her blood. "Both of my parents have had schools named after
them. PS 165 in Flushing (Bergtraums alma mater) is called the Edith K. Bergtraum
school, and theres a high school in Manhattan named after my father," Bergtraum
After graduating from Forest Hills High School, Bergtraum (naturally)
pursued a teaching career, instructing both regular and special education. But educators,
she soon realized, were not the people making important educational decisions.
"I was once told by a prominent political figure that as a female,
if I wanted to work in government, one way I could do it was to become an attorney. What
he meant was that women, who dont really have a leg up in government, can gain equal
footing with an attorneys title."
Now a law school graduate, Bergtraum says she has "the best of
both worlds." She got that government job, serving as Deputy Commissioner for Deputy
Citywide Administrative Services for the City of New York, and continues to work for
children as a member of School Board District 25, for which she ran again as an incumbent
on May 18.
And if the school boards become extinct?
"Ill find some other way to get involved," Bergtraum
"A womans obstacles are only as big as she makes
them," insists Alexandra Rosa, Chief of Staff for Borough President Claire Shulman.
Born in Washington Heights and raised on Long Island, Rosa, 45, came
back to Queens to live here while attending Columbia Universitys School of Social
Work in Manhattan. And where did this young Greek professional choose to dwell?
"All great Greeks must pass through Astoria," Rosa says with
While in Astoria, Rosa decided to get involved in politics on a
grassroots level. Through association with the American Neighborhood Action Committee,
Rosa began to plug a community-wide Greek voter registration drive.
"I looked as the school board and saw that there were almost no
Greeks on the roster. So I started campaigning."
The rest, Rosa says, is kismet.
"During the drive, George Douris, founder of HANAC, came up to me
and said We need more people like you young Greeks in government working in
government. The rest is history," Rosa said.
After serving as an ombudsman to the Greek community for City Council
President Paul ODwyer and his successor, Carol Bellamy, in Manhattan, Rosa decided
she wanted to work in Queens, where she could "see a bit more" the effects of
her work. Luckily, Claire Shulman, whom she had gotten to know while working on the Board
of Estimates, had a job for her Director of Policy and Research. She accepted.
Ten years later, as Shulmans Number One, the Queens Village
resident and single mother assists Shulman in all aspects of her operation from
developing the city budget to furthering Claires agenda. But while the Chief of
Staffs position is awash in facts and figures, Rosas end goal is still to
improve social policy.
"With a woman in the top seat, we do focus on womens
issues, such as education, health care and domestic violence. But we also believe
that every issue is a womens issue," Rosa explained.
Bet on Betty
You cant get more Queens than Betty Letterese. A smile rarely
leaves her face; her Queens accent is unmistakable.
"I was telling a friend of mine that a smile goes a long way.
People almost always respond in kind," said Letterese. "Its
And Lettereses smile takes her all over the borough, as New York
Hospitals Community Affairs Liaison. She works with nearly every group in the
borough from seniors to Bangladeshis.
Recently, Letterese learned a great deal about Korean hospital customs.
"In Korea if someone is sick, the family stays with them in the
hospital. They cook their food and make sure theyre comfortable. Relatives are
afraid to leave their elders in the hospital," said Letterese. "They have
tremendous respect for the elderly."
To accommodate Korean patients, Letterese arranges to have special
rooms set up at New York Hospital, so family members can spend the night if they so
Letterese is often meeting with seniors, who, she said, are some of her
favorite people. "They are honest. And we always share a good laugh," she added.
Constantly reaching out to various groups throughout the borough, she
has made many friends over the years.
"People, especially seniors, sometimes think theyre alone,
but in reality they are not," she said. "I always find that if someone gets out
of the house and talks to another person, they find they have a lot in common. You learn
so much just by talking to people."
Banking on Queens
Lifelong Queens resident Georgiana Reese began working at Queens
County Savings Bank as a marketing clerk in the late 1960s. Now the banks Co-Vice
President, she has spent time in all of the banks branches, from Astoria to Kew
"It educated me extensively about all of the different
communities. I appreciate the way that Queens residents are ethnically intertwined. We all
get along and help each other out," said the Whitestone native and Flushing resident.
Many local groups benefit from Reeses efforts and contributions,
via her position at the bank as well as her role as a private donor.
Reese is personally affiliated with the Kings Point Propeller,
the Long Island City YMCA, and the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. She sits on the board
of Queens Theater in the Park, Flushing Council on the Arts, Queens Chamber of Commerce,
the Queens Botanical Garden, and many other organizations.
"She loves to be involved and has a great feeling about the
community and how the different parts work together," said Susan Lacerte, Executive
Director, Queens Botanical Garden
East meets West
When Cecelia Chang came to St. Johns in 1976, she
wasnt planning to stay long. She was an exchange student from Taiwan, working toward
her Masters Degree in East Asian Studies.
But she fell in love with the borough, and it looks like shes
here for the long haul. "The longer I stay, the more I love it," commented
After finishing her Masters in East Asian Studies in 1977, Chang
felt she needed a new challenge. Working all the time for St. Johns, she completed
her MBA in 1979, and her Masters in Education at Columbia Universitys Teachers
College in 1983.
But St. Johns remained close to her heart, and with three
American graduate degrees under her belt, she returned to the University as Director of
Development of the Center for Asian Studies. She didnt stop there. In 1992 she was
appointed Dean of the Center of Asian Studies, and Director of the Institute of Asian
Today, Chang continues to serve as Dean of the Center of Asian Studies,
and has taken on the additional role of Vice President for International Relations.
But Changs work is not all academic. She works with American and
Asian students to promote understanding and bridge the gap between Western and Eastern
cultures, initiating exchange programs so students can experience cultural differences
In the Queens community, Chang also serves as a bridge from the
boroughs large and fast-growing Asian community to one of the finest universities in
Head of The Class
"Ive always wanted to teach," said Alison
Vitucci, an eighth grade Social Studies teacher at JHS l94.
The desire was so strong that when she was attending high school, she
designed a program that sent students who were interested in education to local schools to
assist teachers. As far as Vitucci knows, the program still exists.
Reaching out to students is key to Vituccis teaching method.
Lessons are geared to youngsters interests, and textbook material is made relevant
to their lives. Past events are related to current events.
To give students a taste of what its like to teach, Vitucci
developed "Teacher for a Day". Youngsters devise a lesson plan and Vitucci
guides them through the teaching process. Children learn how to handle responsibility and
to stand in front of a room.
Vitucci also participates in activities that involve the school with
Recently, Datamation Systems, Inc. awarded her $2,000 in computer
equipment for the school as a result of a project she worked on to incorporate technology
in the classroom.
"Its not easy to get into education," said Vitucci,
"and jobs are limited." She recommends that prospective teachers become
knowledgeable in curriculum, set realistic goals and learn how to work with other people.
One Tough Cop
For nine-year old Roseanne Mulvey, the choice was clear. She was going
to grow up to become a cop.
Mulvey, 33, is the only girl in a family that includes four brothers
all of whom fought desperately to stop her from joining the ranks of NYs
"They fought me all the way," Mulvey said. "They thought
it was nuts."
But they didnt stop the feisty blonde. Mulvey was determined,
unwilling to give upon her dream.
The five-year NYPD veteran was assigned to the 110th Precinct in
Elmhurst after she graduated from the Police Academy in August 1994. She rode patrol for
about two years, then was assigned a slot in the precincts SNEU (Street Narcotics
Enforcement Unit) where she remains today. Along with her all-made counterparts, Mulvey
hits the streets in plainclothes nightly, arresting drug dealers and users.
Mulvey said she has had several unforgettable experiences on the street
that strengthened her determination to be a good cop. One in particular stands out.
During arrest processing of a 17-year old suspect, Mulvey explained to
the teen that he had purchased Bazooka (a crack derivative) from a street dealer. The news
came as a shock to the teen, who was told by the dealer that the white powder was cocaine.
The street-savvy suspect was aware of the difference between the two drugs Bazooka
being much more deadly and addictive.
The teen approached Mulvey on the street several weeks after the arrest
and thanked her for taking interest in his welfare. The incident caused the youth to take
a good look at his life and led him to attempt to clean up his act.
"Something like this makes a lot of the hassles worthwhile,"
The Speaker's Speaker
City Hall, its the center of so much news, one of the least
dull places in the world. And thats why Bernice Spitzer, a witty new age public
servant from Kew Gardens, has worked as a spokeswoman for Council Speaker Peter Vallone
for the last 10 years.
Before graduating with a degree in political science from Brooklyn
College in 1965, Bernice worked as an editor and production manager for the Kings Courier,
where she did a man-on-the-street story the day President Kennedy was assasinated. Before
doing the interviews, she cried over his death.
"My roots go to local journalism. I love journalism, I love
politics," said Spitzer.
In the 1970s she worked on political campaigns at the grassroots level,
both as a petitioner and an area coordinator. During the Koch administration, she edited
Community News, a government newspaper that covers City Agencies "What was so
interesting about Koch was he used to do town halls, but just to familiarize himself with
the local communities."
In her career, Spitzer has seen a lot of things come and go. "The
biggest change is the problems have gotten more serious. (Public) Systems are being
Spitzer is also a boardmember of Community Board 9, the Queens Child
Guidance Center and the Queens Jewish Council.
In her spare time, she practises Hatha yoga, and jogs across the
Brooklyn Bridge a couple of days a week at lunch.
"Im a recovered coach potato," she exclaims.