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102-year-old Jamaica woman honored by Weprin

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When former state Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin was born in 1927, 26-year-old Julia Waisman Harris was earning her law degree as one of six women in a class of 150 students at New York University.

While Weprin, who represented Fresh Meadows, died in 1994 at age 67, Harris is alive and kicking, and Weprin’s son, Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), joined her for her 102nd birthday Friday at the Hillside Manor Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center in Jamaica.

Harris, mother of TimesLedger columnist Bob Harris, received her Juris Doctor degree in 1927, and was admitted to the bar in 1928, Weprin said.

“It’s very unusual to have been a woman lawyer at that time,” he said.

Harris earned a reputation as a skilled immigration lawyer, and Federal Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand once described her as a “combination of face and brain,” Weprin said.

“I tried a few cases before him and two other judges,” she said. “I was discussing the case and he asked me to approach. He said ‘you remind me of my daughter.’ He was a very fine gentleman.”

Harris practiced immigration law for decades and enjoyed the work, she said, as she sat in a wheelchair in the lobby of the Hillside Manor Center at 182-15 Hillside Ave. But when Weprin asked her if she had had any famous cases or clients, Harris, in true legal fashion replied, “I’d rather not discuss them.”

Harris, born Aug. 15, 1901, grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn as the youngest of six children to Romanian parents, she said. Harris became the first violinist in the Bay Ridge High School Orchestra and one of the best mathematicians in the city, she said.

But she set aside math to pursue the law, Harris said.

“I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I had an older brother who was a very good attorney.”

In her 30s, Harris served as an air raid warden during World War II, according to her son, Bob.

“She would put on her helmet and go up to the roof and make sure the lights were off,” he said. “If she saw lights, she would call them and tell them to turn the lights off.”

Harris also worked with her husband as a legal consultant in his real estate firm. Harris’ husband died at age 82.

Harris lived on her own in a Bayside apartment until she was about 95, Bob Harris said.

“She kept falling down and breaking her hips,” he said.

Before moving to the Hillside Manor center nearly five years ago, Harris had an apartment in Flushing House, an assisted-living community, she said.

“Suddenly I aged,” Harris said, adding that the staff at the care centers often treat the residents as fragile parcels. “They’re all scared you’ll fall, so they come in and put your socks on in the morning.”

But Weprin, who honored Harris with a City Council Proclamation, was impressed with her mental acuity, he said.

“She totally has her faculties, and she has a good sense of humor, too,” he said. “It’s amazing how coherent she is.”

Although Harris does not smoke and rarely drinks alcohol, she does not know the secret of her longevity, she said.

“Why a person lives I can’t tell you,” she said. “It’s very difficult, but you just push through. You have to have patience.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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