I made the trip to Detroit yesterday on behalf of NCL to attend the memorial service for long-serving board member, Esther Shapiro. In Detroit for just a few hours to pay homage to a woman I respected and held dear, I reflect on her legacy and what that means.
While I don’t know the breadth of Esther Shapiro’s life story, I will say the bits and pieces she shared with me throughout the years were intriguing and impactful. For example, we talked about love and losing loved ones (she having lost her son and her husband), and she helped me appreciate all the wonderful and challenging experiences I’ve had. As if the stories of how women were treated and expected “to know their place” were not inspiring enough, it was her tenacity to push forward despite all odds. I listened to one after another at the memorial service sharing stories of what a courageous woman Esther was. It all made sense how she was able to have such a great impact on consumers and the consumer movement.
Having met Esther Shapiro as a National Consumers League board member, I had the opportunity to visit with her throughout the years. Ms. Shapiro’s home included pictures of many notable politicians, artists, and consumer advocates. Her impact is remarkable. As I chatted with many of her friends, family, and former colleagues, I was transported back in time as each person reminisced about the time when his or her path crossed with Shapiro’s path: campaigning with her on behalf of workers’ rights, working to fight pyramid schemes or watching her “push the right buttons. She always knew what buttons to push, according to Jack Chase, who was hired by Esther to help run the state’s first consumer affairs department in Michigan when it opened its doors in 1974. Chase closed with one of the many Esther sayings from when they talked about the “good ole days.” She was famous for saying “We had a good run; we had fun, didn’t we?”
John R. Eddings, who also officiated the memorial service, told me that he and Esther were appointees of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in the 1980’s. A long-time colleague of Shapiro’s and a dear family friend, Eddings described Esther well. In his words, “[Esther Shapiro] was a true believer. She believed that things could change for the better. She was a trailblazer in consumer protection and so far ahead of her time. Her work in consumer protection spilled over into civil rights.”
So, here is where I became even more intrigued, because I focused on the consumer protection. What I learned about Shapiro was so much more. She and her husband, Harold, were very active in the civil rights movement, working tirelessly to get African Americans elected. I learned from the Shapiro’s daughter, Andrea Shapiro, that Esther founded Michigan Friends of the South. They raised funds for attorney fees to support civil rights activists caught up in the court system. Sometimes she just passed the hat around the room to collect whatever she could to help.
Eddings was right…Esther was a believer. Today was truly a celebration of her life.
In these times of uncertainty or anxiety about the future, I end this with one of Esther Shapiro’s mantras, “Pessimism is a killer. We don’t have time for that. There is work to be done.”
Esther Shapiro passed away at 98 years old, and what a legacy she left behind!