Sheila Nelson, the spirited community activist, educator and devoted wife of City Councilmember Michael Nelson, died Dec. 10 at New York Community Hospital. She was 63 years old.
The cause of death was a blood infection, her family said. She had been fighting cancer for six years.
While diminutive in size, Sheila had an oversized personality, relishing the chance to offer an opinion or battle for a cause, friends and family said.
The daughter of Betty and Julius Saul, who owned a steel business, Sheila grew up in Brooklyn, attending Lincoln High School. Her parents, who fled Europe during the Holocaust, both died when Sheila was young, cementing in her an unflappable sense of responsibility. While she attended Fairleigh Dickinson University –where she graduated with honors–she also raised her brother, Lawrence.
After college, she earned a Master’s Degree in Education, and a second Master’s in School Administration. For the next 34 years she held a variety of jobs in education. She worked as a special education teacher for two decades, was a teacher trainer, a dean at Boody Junior High School, and director of Family College at Kingsborough Community College. She also headed the gifted program in School District 21.
Her exposure to politics first came while working in the office of former State Senator Donald Halperin. Later, she would campaign for State Senator Carl Kruger, Borough President Marty Markowitz, State Senator Martin Golden, and of course, her husband.
If she was on your side, local elected officials recalled, you knew you had a ardent supporter.
“When Mike was elected, everyone said the district got two for the price of one,” Markowitz said.
“You always knew what was on her mind,” he continued. “She was blunt and direct and had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Those who knew her credited her razor-sharp instincts and determined pluck for enhancing her husband’s success–and occasionally landing him in trouble.
“She relished politics–the personalities, the stories,” Markowitz added. “And she was a big personality. Even when she took ill, she continued her gallant fight to continue to work for what she saw was the betterment of the community.”
Kruger met Sheila back in 1993, when she helped organize his county committee fight for the Senate seat he would soon occupy.
“Sheila was a take-charge person. She was organized and methodical,” he said. “She was someone who could roll up her sleeves and get the job done.”
Sheila won dozens of awards for her work in the community, including “Woman of the Year” awards from the Highway Democrats in 2002, and from the Brighton Neighborhood Association in 2003.
In her personal life, she was an animal lover who rescued strays, and adored her pet dachshund.
Sheila was active in an array of organizations, such as Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women. She was also an outspoken member of Community Board 15, where she served on the Executive Committee.
Theresa Scavo, chair of Board 15, recalled a feisty confrontation between Sheila and a school superintendent at an education forum a few years back. “It was tit-for-tat,” Scavo recalled.
The encounter certainly left an impression.
“She never came back again,” Scavo said of the superintendent.
Longtime Board 15 member Ed Eisenberg described Sheila as a unique, “amazing” woman–with whom he occasionally clashed.
“But differences don’t matter, as long as there is sincerity. And she was very sincere,” he said.
Sheila is survived by her husband of over 30 years, Michael; daughter Bonnie-Jill; son-in-law David; and brother, Lawrence.
“My mother has always been my mentor, teacher, confidante, my strength, the light in my life,” her daughter said in a statement. “She filled my entire life with laughter, unconditional love, creativity, dancing and fun. If she were not my mother, I still would have wanted her for my best friend. An amazing woman, who is matchless, one who has inspired me and so many others with her positive attitude — that’s my mother.”
Funeral services were held Dec. 11 at Parkside Memorial Chapel. Sheila Nelson is buried at Montefiore Cemetery on Long Island.