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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The benefits of physical fitness, sports and dance for young people was something Sophie Gerson avidly promoted her entire life. A public school physical education teacher who rose to become president of the local community school board and whose son, Alan, was city councilmember for Lower Manhattan’s District 1 for two terms, Sophie died at age 88 at the end of last year.
In her memory, Alan Gerson and others have set up the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Program to provide scholarships to sports and dance summer camps for local youth who would otherwise not have the opportunity. This summer, the program sent several teens to a monthlong dance camp, and several others to tennis and basketball sleepaway camps for a week.
The students come from M.S. 302 in the South Bronx, where Sophie began her teaching career, as well as P.S. 126 on the Lower East Side. One of the students lives in a homeless shelter, according to Alan.
The program will also work with these two schools during the year to enhance their physical education programs with tennis and dance, and will collaborate with the National Dance Institute, headed by Jacques d’Amboise. The plan is also to fund a girls sports team, in volleyball or basketball, where there is currently none.
“We’re going to start with these schools, and hopefully we’ll expand,” said Alan. “But that depends on our fundraising.”
Alan heads the foundation. A board has been comprised of local activists and school advocates Lois Rakoff, Ayo Harrington, Aixa Torres, Alice Cancel and Po-Ling Ng.
Sophie Gerson grew up in the Bronx during the Depression, the child of struggling Romanian immigrants. Her parents toiled in the sweatshops.
Then, one day, Alan said, “She saw people playing tennis in St. James Park and it enthralled her — it was an escape. She was dirt poor, but here were people dressed in white. They were polite, but they were athletic. She went to the library, got a book and taught herself how to play tennis. With a hand-me-down racket from a cousin, she started playing tennis.”
But her father wanted her to be a secretary and her mother wanted her to go to college and become a French teacher. Sophie did love French, yet she had discovered a love for sports, physical fitness and movement, and went on to combine that with a dedication to teaching inner-city youth, first in the South Bronx and later in Hell’s Kitchen, at the old LaSalle Junior High School on W. 48th St.
She eventually rose to become a member of Community School Board 2 for seven years, including a stint as board president. Active in Democratic politics, she ran as a delegate for presidential candidate Al Gore in 1988.
She knew everyone in the community, especially at 505 LaGuardia.
Sophie Gerson fought the good fight, and did good work, said Father Louis Gigante, a longtime neighbor of Sophie and Alan’s at the Mitchell-Lama co-op.
“For many, many, many, many years, we had a kind of affinity in politics,” Gigante said. “I admire her because she lived to serve and to be a servant to others.”
Gigante, who was a councilmember and priest simultaneously, renovated 250 tenement houses for affordable housing in the southeast Bronx through his group, SEBCO.
“Exactly what I was doing, she was doing,” Gigante said. “Most of the people she taught in her class were low-income Puerto Rican kids.”
(One of Father Gigante’s brothers, Vincent “Chin” Gigante, was also well known, as former head of the Genovese crime family.)
Another good friend of Sophie’s at 505 LaGuardia Place was Connie Masullo, who was the first resident of the building to receive her key from architect I.M. Pei when it opened. Masullo was the secretary for 10 years of Tony Dapolito, former chairperson of Community Board 2.
“We would always eat together at Ennio & Michael’s every Friday,” Masullo recalled of her meals with Sophie at the since-shuttered LaGuardia Place restaurant.
Alan has been reaching out far and wide for funding and sponsorship for the Sophie Gerson Healthy Kids Program, and has spoken to everyone from tennis great Billie Jean King to Gristedes.
Alan had previously told The Villager he was considering a political comeback.
“I was contemplating. People were urging,” he said. But then Sophie died, and he decided that, at that time, he just couldn’t do it.
Alan lived with Sophie and his father, Herman, at 505 LaGuardia, on New York University’s southern superblock, and he and his father still share the apartment.
Asked how he thinks things have been going in the Council district during his absence the past four years, Alan, referring to the Council’s approval of the university’s 2031 mega-development plan last year, said, “I think the N.Y.U. was terribly mishandled.”
He said he’ll likely eventually return to the law, since that’s his profession. But the pain of the loss of his mom still hurts deeply.
“She was my chief adviser and strategist,” he said. “The big mystery is how she did it all — raising her kids, involved in the community, involved in politics. For everything she did, I just miss her company. She was my best friend. I’ll love her forever.”