Rosalie S. Abrams

State legislator who served 13 years in the Senate was a champion of health care reform and women's rights

March 01, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

Rosalie Silber Abrams, the first female and Jewish majority leader in the state Senate, died Friday of congestive heart failure at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. She was 92.

Former legislators and family members recalled Mrs. Abrams as a champion of health care and elderly issues in state government during the 1970s. She was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1966, when she was 50 years old. Four years later, she won a bid to represent Northwest Baltimore in the state Senate, where she served 13 years and chaired the finance committee from 1983 to 1984.

Mrs. Abrams was credited with helping pass legislation focused on patient rights, mental health care reform, environmental protection and women's rights.

"When she was serving in the Senate, I believe the total number of women there was three," said former longtime state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Pikesville. She counts Mrs. Abrams as one of her mentors.

"To be able to make an impact in those days, for a woman, was really quite an accomplishment. She did a lot in the area of regulation. It was her Health Service Cost Review Commission which helped set hospital rates and made sure they just can't throw you out of the hospital."

Raised in Baltimore as the third of eight children, Rosalie Silber graduated from Western High School in the early 1930s. After school, she worked briefly as a nurse in the Navy before returning to Baltimore.

Evelyn Krohn, her younger sister by 15 years, said one of her first memories of her sister was of her dressed in her working whites. Mrs. Krohn, of Baltimore, said her sister was the one to tell her she was going to have her tonsils removed.

"Back then, they didn't tell children that's what they were going to do to you. They'd tell kids that you were going someplace fun, and you would end up in the hospital," she said. "But Rosalie told me the truth. She spoke her mind."

Family members credit Mrs. Abrams with teaching the first sex-education class in a city school - at Patterson High in the 1940s. "She taught people it was important to be direct. You were aware of what side of the issues she stood on," said her daughter, Elizabeth "Lissa" Abrams of Baltimore .

Her parents, Isaac and Dora Silber, were the owners of Silber's Bakery, an East Baltimore landmark that gave food to the needy during the Depression.

Mrs. Abrams joined her parents' bakery in 1947, working as a manager for seven years.

In 1954, she married William Abrams. The two had been set up on a date years earlier when she worked at the bakery and he helped in his uncle's ice cream business. Mr. Abrams died in 1978.

After the wedding, Mrs. Abrams left the bakery, became a stay-at-home mother and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the Johns Hopkins University before running for office.

The highlight of her political career came in the late 1970s, when she met then-President Jimmy Carter and was invited to lunch at the White House. In her story of that day, her daughter said, "she claimed she told Jimmy Carter about global warming."

According to niece Jane Sneider of Ellicott City, Mrs. Abrams described herself as a "very good legislator" and in later years often related memories of her first year in office when she would tell family members how "very effective and aggressive" she was. Mrs. Abrams, a natural storyteller, was frequently quoted as saying, "My first year in the House of Delegates, one of the men said to me, 'You know, when you get up to speak, we forget you are a woman.' "

In 1983, Gov. Harry Hughes appointed Mrs. Abrams director of the Maryland Office on Aging, where she served until retiring in 1996. In later years, she enjoyed going to the ballet and opera, and spent many days with her friends at the North Oaks Retirement Community.

Family members say she liked to make comical figures out of found objects, especially seashells. She also enjoyed sewing and playing an occasional hand of poker.

"She was a very outspoken woman," Mrs. Krohn said. "She was a feminist before there was such a thing as the feminist movement."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

In addition to her daughter, sister and niece, Mrs. Abrams is survived by three brothers, Bernard Silber of Atherton, Calif., Earle Silber of Chevy Chase and Sidney Silber of Lutherville; two grandsons; and several nieces and nephews.

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