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Sylvia Berkowitz, champion of equality

Published December 6, 2005 at midnight

Sylvia Berkowitz was a first-generation American with only a high- school education, but she made a mark on Colorado by championing racial integration of the Denver office of the Internal Revenue Service and the Denver school board.

She was an early and loyal supporter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., who remembered Mrs. Berkowitz as "always a player."

"With Sylvia you always trusted what she said. She didn't try to put lipstick on a pig," Schroeder said. "When you're in politics, you always wonder if people are just telling you what you want to hear. I want to know what people really think, and with Sylvia you always knew."

Besides politics, Mrs. Berkowitz's passions included raising her family and playing bridge.

And then there was her passion for keeping her house clean.

When she was in her early 80s, her family managed to discourage her from ambitious housecleaning after she fell while climbing onto the kitchen counters to clean the tops of the cabinets.

Mrs. Berkowitz, 91, died in her home Nov. 16 after either a stroke or a heart attack, according to family members.

On the previous Sunday, she had hosted the traditional family dinner that her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other assorted family and friends had attended each week for more than 50 years.

"Every family loves their grandma, but ours was a special breed and held a role that few families see in this era," granddaughter Chava Mandell, of New York City, said at the funeral. "It wasn't just that we ate dinner every Sunday at her place or that all the holidays were spent together at Grandma's. It's that those events and our lives revolved around her. She really was the family matriarch."

The night before she died, Mrs. Berkowitz, a grand master at bridge, had played with friends.

"I had to read the cards for her, but there was nothing wrong with the way she played," said her daughter and longtime bridge partner, Judith Axelrad, of Denver.

"The optician made a special lens for her so-called good eye - she couldn't see anything at all out of the other one," Axelrad said. "She got this little news sheet called Liberal Opinion, and she'd read it by holding the lens up to one word at a time. She always listened to the news, and right up until the end she maintained her sense of outrage."

Mrs. Berkowitz was born in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 19, 1913, the oldest of five children of Joseph and Tillie Klausner, who had recently immigrated to the United States from Europe.

In 1917, the family moved to Denver and started Klausner's Dry Goods store in the Auraria building that now houses Brooklyn's. They later moved the store to the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Hooker Street, and Klausner's Dry Goods became a landmark on Denver's Jewish West Side.

Mrs. Berkowitz graduated from North High School in 1932. In 1933, she married Carl Mandell, then editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. Axelrad and Michael Mandell are children of that marriage. Her youngest son, Gary Berkowitz, is the child of her second marriage.

Her two older children were in grade school when she got a job at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store to supplement the family income.

"She noticed that the raisins were wormy, and she told the management, but they didn't do anything," Axelrad said. "So she called the health department - and she lost her job."

Mrs. Berkowitz's next job was as a clerk with the Denver office of the Internal Revenue Service, where she decided to act on another injustice - all the employees were white. According to Axelrad, she established a plan with the Urban League to make sure that when the next vacancies came up, overqualified black candidates applied, and soon the IRS in Denver was racially integrated.

She and Mandell divorced in 1946.

In 1949, she married furniture dealer Stanley Berkowitz, who shared her deeply held political beliefs, and their home became a center of activities for the Progressive Party.

McCarthyism was at its height, however, and she sometimes paid a price for her views. On May 27, 1952, the family attended a concert by blacklisted singer Paul Robeson at the City Auditorium.

"It was a hot night, and there were all these men in the audience dressed in suits and ties and hats," her son Michael Mandell said. "They took photos of the license plates of people who were there. It was clear they were from the FBI, and Robeson even mentioned it from the stage. He said he recognized them from his last concert and that when the hat was passed around, he wanted to see them put in some folding money."

Shortly after that, Mrs. Berk-owitz was in line for the presidency of the Denver branch of the Council of Jewish Women. She was asked to withdraw because it was felt that her well-known political beliefs would be an embarrassment to the group.

Mrs. Berkowitz worked to integrate the Denver school board by serving on a committee that started campaigning in the early 1970s to have the board elected by district rather than at-large. School board seats remained at-large until 1993.

Mrs. Berkowitz's health began to deteriorate soon after the death of her husband in February.

Services were held graveside at Rose Hill Cemetery on Nov. 18.

In addition to children Judith Axelrad, Michael Mandell and Gary Berkowitz; son-in-law Saul Axelrad and daughters-in-law Dona Mandell and Cindy Berkowitz; and granddaughter Chava Mandell, she is survived by grandchildren Linda Katzeff, of San Diego, Michael Axelrad, of Denver, Daniel Axelrad, of Washington, D.C., Angela Addington Berkowitz, of Denver, Joy Stiles Berkowitz, of Denver, and Garrett Berkowitz, of Denver; and great- grandchildren Jacob and Lily Katzeff, of San Diego, and Eli, Jesse and Noah Axelrad of Denver. Another granddaughter, Leah Faye Mandell, preceded her in death in 1989.

Contributions may be made to Jewish Family Service, 3201 S. Tamarac Drive, Denver, CO 80231-4394.

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