BY JON CRONIN
Claire Shulman was the first woman to be Queens borough president— but to hear her tell the story, it was just a natural progression that began with being an actively involved parent and then a civically active citizen.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression,” she said, “but really it was wherever my grandfather was working.”
Shulman said that her grandfather was a “wonderful guy” who fixed manufacturing equipment and whose work moved the family around New York and New Jersey. She ended up graduating at age 16 from James Madison High School in Brooklyn and then attended Adelphi College on Long Island when it was still an all-girls school.
The United States Cadet Nurse Corps had just been established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 and Shulman said that she had been wooed by Adelphi, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree through the school’s nursing program.
“Eleanor Roosevelt cut the ribbon on my dorm,” she said.
Shulman graduated in 1946 at age 20 and went to work for Queens Hospital Center. At age 21, since few nurses had college degrees, she was promoted to head nurse on her floor.
She worked at the hospital until 1950 and then had her first child. Three years later, she resumed her career at Flushing Hospital after having two kids.
“Wherever my kids were, I was involved,” she said.
Shulman joined the PTA and other local organizations that improved the quality of her neighborhood. One of her first projects was aiding in the rehab of Bayside’s PS 41.
“It was a very old school that is now celebrating its 100th anniversary,” she said.
After the success of PS 41, Shulman was asked to be on the local planning board, which is a precursor to today’s community boards. She was later voted to run it.
By the late 1960s, she was working as the director of planning boards for Queens. In 1972, she said she was charged with describing the function of the community boards.
Shulman said that despite the era, it wasn’t difficult for her as a woman in charge of men.
“I didn’t have trouble, I was older than most of the guys, they didn’t see me as a threat,” she said. “I knew most people in government. They weren’t going to correct me. I was older than my contemporaries. I had no problem as a woman.”
Shulman said that she also helped to jumpstart the motion picture industry in Astoria. She coordinated with the Local 52, the Screen Actors Guild, then-Borough President Donald Manes and famed actress, singer and cultural activist Kitty Carlisle.
She said that the city initially wanted to demolish the stages in Astoria, but she convinced them otherwise.
“The first show we put on was ‘The Wiz,’” she said, referring to the 1978 film starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Shulman said that the city was “broke in the 1970s” and that entertainment revenue went from zero to $8 billion soon after she became deputy borough president. During her tenure in government, she saw the establishment of the New York Hall of Science, Queens Museum, Roy Wilkins Park, PS 1 and Noguchi Museum.
In 1986, Manes died and Shulman stepped in as borough president and won the election to remain in the seat later that year. She retained the position until 2002.
“I had a great run!,” she said. “Talk about the glass ceiling, I broke it up, but I did it unconsciously.”
Shulman said that women have been “taking over” the borough, referring to her two successors, the late Helen Marshall and current Borough President Melinda Katz.
“Women are doing a very important job in the city of New York,” she said.
She said that she has been thrilled to see both of her children become successful physicians.
“I didn’t tell them what to do, I just gave them their heads,” she said. “They developed the attitude about their future from what they learned at home.”
Shulman encourages young women to prepare themselves and learn the history of the country and current events.
“Government needs young smart women,” she said. “Women are a little more detail orientated then men [and] quicker to put a shovel in the ground. It’s good that you have both women and men [in government], but women are critical to the health of the city.”
Shulman said that she is not surprised to see women leading the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan.
“Women are serious minded,” she said. “Always know more than everybody else, that way they can’t snow you.”
Reach Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, email@example.com or @JonathanSCronin