‘Revolutionary Optimism’ of Shirley Littman, 80, Shines On

Shirley Littman wore many hats. In addition to working at the DHS and Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office, she was also a member of Chelsea for Peace, CWA Local 1180’s Committee on People with Disabilities, and the Raging Grannies. | Photo courtesy Office of Councilmember Corey Johnson.

BY REBECCA FIORE | Shirley Littman was a cab girl. She lived her life in Manhattan, taking cabs everywhere. Every time she slid in the backseat, her husband Larry would give directions, and she would whip up a thoughtful conversation with the driver. More times than not, at the outset, the driver would be reserved and quiet. By the end of the ride, the driver would be laughing along with their new best friend, Shirley. Littman had that effect on people — endless humanity along with a deep contagious laugh.

Littman passed away in her Chelsea home on Dec. 7, after a short but fierce battle with cancer. Born in Brooklyn on April 30, 1937 and raised in that borough, Littman moved to Greenwich Village and worked for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) until she retired about four years ago to work on now-Councilmember Corey Johnson’s campaign.

Johnson, who spoke at Littman’s Dec. 15 memorial service at Chelsea’s Church of the Holy Apostles on Ninth Ave., told stories of Littman being one of the hardest, most dedicated workers on his team, and later, his staff, as a legislative aide. She worked the phone banks six nights a week for Johnson’s campaign.

“She called 3,000 voters over the course of the campaign. It would have been more, except Shirley wouldn’t let a voter off the phone until they committed to me,” Johnson recalled at the service. “She would not let them off the phone! She needed a hard sell. She needed an answer, and it had to be the right answer.”

Additionally, Littman was a committed labor activist who served as a shop steward for CWA Local 1180, one of the largest public sector local unions, serving more than 8,500 workers and 6,200 retirees. She was also a member of the union’s Committee on People with Disabilities.

She was a devoted union worker, her husband Larry said, because she believed in people uniting for the common good to help one another. “It was in her bones,” Larry noted. “She was a people person, through and through.”

She is survived by her husband and their son, Danny, and her stepdaughter Zoe Krylova; sister Vida Cooperberg; niece Amy DiLuca and her husband Tony DiLuca, and their children Michael and Antonia; nephew Chuck Cooperberg, and his wife Maricela Cooperberg, and their daughter Anna; and a host of friends.

“We were both left-handed,” Larry said at the service. “Lefties physically and politically.”

Larry told stories of his wife calling up her sister, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, each morning to read her stories from the newspaper, telling her what the weather was like, or just having a quick laugh. He would tell Littman that her sister didn’t know what she was talking about, or to whom she was talking.

“Shirley would say, ‘We have to talk to her. We have to communicate. We have to communicate, no matter what.’”

When Littman wasn’t fighting for social and economic justice, she enjoyed buying and selling trinkets at the local flea market. Her husband described her as a “people person, through and through.” | Photo courtesy the Littman family.

Her son said, “The foundation of mom’s personality was love… she made sure I knew that all the time.” Danny said her friendliness could turn around the most jaded teenager. When he was younger, bringing home friends with tattoos and mohawks, Littman sat down with each one, engaging them in thoughtful, fun conversation.

“I’d say, ‘Come on let’s go,’ and they would say, ‘Just a minute, wait, we’re talking to your mom,’ ” Danny said at her service. “They wanted to stay and talk to mom.”

Her stepdaughter Zoe called her “an equalizer.” She said if it weren’t for Shirley’s encouragement and blessing, her father, Larry, might have never reconnected with her. She said Littman was “a beacon of positivity but [that] did not stop her from criticizing the system.”

Littman was a real example of someone who dedicated her life to economic and social justice, Johnson said. She even filed grievances against the DHS, where she was working at the time, when she found out women and people of color weren’t receiving equal pay. She was a messenger of doing the right thing. She was described as having strong opinions on most things, but genuinely wanting to get to know everyone she’d met.

“She was a champion for women. She was a champion for unions. She was a champion for everything. She loved her community. She loved Chelsea. She loved her neighbors,” Gloria Middleton, secretary-treasurer at CWA Local 1180 said. “She had no problems saying what she needed to say for the rights of people.”

Middleton joked that even after Littman had retired, she still came to meetings and “still fussed about what we were doing wrong.”

Littman, also a passionate anti-war activist, was a member, and later president, of Chelsea for Peace. In 2015, she received the Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott Senior Service Award, an award honoring her leadership in the Chelsea community, and an award her husband also won (they were both active members of the Hudson Guild). She was also a member of the Raging Grannies, an internationally recognized activist group promoting justice, social, and economic equality through song and satire. Members of the New York chapter, some dawning gardening hats with plastic flowers, just as Littman had worn, sang a song Littman wrote to the tune of The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” for the Nov. 14, 2014 Support the Postal Workers Rally.

Additionally, the Raging Grannies performed “Her Song Goes On,” whose lyrics resonated through the church: “The songs she sang / While with us here / Still bring a smile, a laugh, a tear / And those she touched, must surely know / Though she is gone / Her song goes on.”

Over a dozen people spoke, sharing memories and testimonies of Littman’s kindness and spirit, each person from different aspects of Littman’s multifaceted life. To some she was a co-worker, a mother, a wife, an aunt, a friend, a neighbor — but to everyone she touched, she was a truth-telling, justice-seeking warrior who radiated warmth without expectation or pretension.

The Raging Grannies performed a song, written by Littman for the 2014 Support the Postal Workers Rally, at her memorial service. Right foreground is Councilmember Corey Johnson, who gave opening remarks at Littman’s service. | Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

Eddie Yood, a member of CWA 1180’s Committee for People with Disabilities, said Littman brought about a “revolutionary optimism” to the world.

“Living in New York, it’s so easy to be jaded. It’s so easy to not care,” her great-niece said. “That was the opposite of Shirley. She taught me not to be complacent. She taught me to care.”

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