By Albert Amateau
Lucy Cecere, a tireless advocate for her beloved Greenwich Village community where she was born 87 years ago, died at home on Sat., March 19.
Devoted to the welfare of senior citizens, she was one of the founders 37 years ago of Caring Community, which serves frail and elderly Lower Manhattan residents, and remained a member of the organization’s board of directors for her whole life.
A few years later, she was among the neighbors who fought to save the private Village Nursing Home from closing. The effort was successful and the nursing home became the property in 1977 of the community-based VillageCare, an important primary-care institution for the elderly and frail and for people with H.I.V./A.I.D.S. in Downtown and Lower Manhattan.
Caring Community now runs senior programs at its main location at 20 Washington Square South, as well as at Our Lady of Pompei Church on Carmine St., St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Ave. and Independence Plaza in Tribeca.
Lucy Cecere’s love of the Village encompassed the built environment of the neighborhood. She was a stalwart member of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and in recent years she was a constant presence at rallies calling for historic district designation for the South Village and landmark protection for other Village locations.
“The Village was in her blood and in her bones,” said Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P executive director. “She never stopped nudging me, ‘When are we going to get the South Village? When are we going to get 178 Bleecker St.?’ ” Berman said.
At a 2007 rally for the South Village Historic District, she said, “I was raised in this neighborhood and I’m so proud of it. This was a real village. Roosters from the chicken market on Thompson St. used to waken us in the morning. It was a village where people cared for each other. Don’t let anyone take it away from us.”
In July of last year, she won the G.V.S.H.P. award honoring the people, places and institutions that make the Village a special neighborhood.
“Don’t change our Village. We love it the way it is,” she said at the 2010 award event. “If you ever need me for a fight, I’m on MacDougal St.,” she added.
In 2009, she received the Woman of Distinction Award from state Senator Tom Duane, with tributes from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the then-Councilmember Alan Gerson, in whose office Lucy Cecere had been director of senior policy.
At that event, she told the noon gathering of Caring Community’s Our Lady of Pompei center, “My mother had five daughters. This is where we all grew up. And we have to stick together to keep it that way.”
Gerson said on Monday, “Lucy was a true and special friend to me and my family ever since I was a child. She gave of herself unselfishly to her community and especially to seniors. She will always be a part of my life and ongoing work.”
Quinn paid tribute to Lucy Cecere’s personal impact on everyone she met.
“She was more than an advocate, she was a friend to all,” said Quinn. “You couldn’t help but gravitate toward her. She had friends from every walk of life, oftentimes stemming from the store Something Special, that she helped her husband, Leonard, run. This is a great loss for Greenwich Village and for New York, but Lucy’s legacy of caring and giving will continue to be felt for generations to come,” Quinn said.
Through the mailbox service that Leonard runs in Something Special, Lucy came to know and love clients, many of them celebrated show business people who use the service to receive deliveries of everything from mail to clothes to baby things.
Indeed, two mailbox patrons, the actor Matthew Broderick, the service’s first customer 20 years ago, and his wife, the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, were among the hundreds of mourners who appeared at Lucy’s wake at Perazzo Funeral Home on Bleecker St. on Monday and Tuesday.
Parker told this newspaper how she used to arrive at Something Special and help Lenny serve hot chocolate and donuts to students after they came out of St. Anthony’s School across the street.
“It was a privilege to know her,” Parker said of Lucy as she consoled Lenny Cecere on Tuesday at the funeral home. “Just a loving, exceptional and gracious woman, whose tentacles went very deep in this community. She was a vigilant advocate. Very, very happy to pay my respects today. It’s a great loss.”
L. Jay Oliva, president emeritus of New York University and a lifelong Village resident, was one of Lucy’s most admired friends.
“She was a spectacular, almost irreplaceable citizen of the Village and of New York,” Oliva said. “Her dedication to Caring Community was a blessing to all who encountered it, and her love of Greenwich Village in so many enterprises and projects touched thousands over the years. Lucy was my friend and we supported each other through the years. It is the spirit of Lucy Cecere which lives in the heart of our town, and makes it warm and caring and livable, and gives us each the incentive to look after one another, and to commit to the good causes that make life here a special sharing,” Oliva said.
Emma DeVito, president and C.E.O. of VillageCare, said of Lucy, “Without her and the army of volunteers she helped to amass to save Village Nursing Home in the mid-1970’s, it’s very likely our organization would not exist today. For four decades, Caring Community, which she co-founded has helped thousands of older Village residents. The store and unofficial post office that she and Lenny ran was a stop where the Village’s rich and famous and its more unassuming everyday residents rubbed shoulders. Lucy loved the Village and the Village loved her back.”
Carolyn Resnick, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department for the Aging and executive director between 1995 and 2000 of Caring Community, recalled meeting Lucy and working with her closely for five years.
“She taught me everything there was to know about the Village,” Resnick said. “She was in at the beginning of everything, adept at politics and an effective advocate. She was a dynamo.”
Both Resnick and Quinn recalled that Lucy worked with the Mayor’s Office in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to make sure the first responders working at the World Trade Center were cared for.
Eleanor Korman, former board chairperson of Caring Community, knew Lucy for 32 years and recalled her indefatigable readiness to be helpful to everyone, especially to Caring Community.
“I told her recently that I didn’t have the energy to go bopping around like she did,” Korman said.
Kathy Donaldson, current board chairperson of Caring Community, recalled when Lucy Cecere came to the Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association 30 years ago to make an eloquent plea for the Village Nursing Home.
“We decided to set up a birthday fund for the residents, to make sure each one got some memento for his or her birthday,” Donaldson recalled. “Lucy was able to get anything she wanted.”
Arthur Makar, Caring Community’s executive director, met Lucy seven years ago when she interviewed him for the job.
“She had a passion for helping older people and she understood politics. She was quite a woman,” Makar said.
“I cannot imagine the Village without Lucy,” said Assemblymember Deborah Glick. “Her indomitable spirit and her intense caring for her neighbors and her community were peerless. We will miss her every day of the week,” Glick said.
In addition to her husband, her daughter, Francine, and her son, Leonard Jr., survive as well as her granddaughter, Clare, her two sisters, Betty and Flora, and nieces, Frances, Carol, Debbie and Patty.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Wed., March 23, at Our Lady of Pompei and entombment was in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Donations may be made in memory of Lucy Cecere to Caring Community.
With reporting by Lincoln Anderson