Photo by Christina Santucci
Borough Hall is planning a celebration of life to remember former Borough President Helen Marhall’s life after she died last weekend at 87.
By Bill Parry

Helen Marshall has left a legacy that touched thousands in the borough and reached across the city to the state.

The funeral for former Borough President Helen Marshall will be private but a New York memorial service is currently being planned and will be announced at a later date. The tribute may be held in the $23 million Helen Marshall Cultural Center, the 11,000-square-foot atrium at Borough Hall which was dedicated last September.

Marshall, who served as Queens borough president for 12 years after many nearly two decades as a Democratic lawmaker at the city and state levels, died Saturday in a Palm Desert, Calif. hospice. She was 87.

A former teacher, she spent her years in public office with a sharp focus on education and expanding library services in Queens.

Marshall was the first African-American borough president of Queens and the second woman to occupy the post in the most ethnically diverse county in the country.

“Helen Marshall was a larger-than-life figure in the civic life of Queens and the State of New York,” said Melinda Katz, who succeeded Marshall as the borough president. “During her decades in public life, Helen fought tenaciously to improve our children’s schools, to address seemingly intractable quality-of-life issues and to secure a fair share of City resources for Queens.”

When Marshall first became borough president in 2001 she had a list of priorities. “We lovingly dubbed it the Marshall plan for Queens,” former Chief of Staff Alexandra Rose said. Rosa said Marshall set up the War Room, a hold-over from the administration of previous Borough President Claire Shulman, where she and her staff developed strategy on how to address overcrowded schools, and the Green Room for working on issues involving parks and open space.

“She spent more than half her life in public service, but she was more than just a politician, she was a wonderful human being,” Shulman said. “She treated everyone who came to her with their problems with great care. She was just a very, very, very kind-hearted woman and a really hardworking woman.”

Born in the Bronx on Sept. 30, 1929, she was educated at Queens College and taught until she became the first director of the Langston Hughes Library in Corona.

“Helen’s legacy as the champion of East Elmhurst, Corona and all of Queens goes back for more than 30 years. Her hard work led to the establishment of many emblematic institutions in our community, including Langston Hughes Community Library & Cultural Center and Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities, Inc,” City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-East Elmhurst) said. “Helen changed the lives of thousands of Queens residents, including my own. Helen launched my political career when she appointed me at 14 years old to serve on the Corona Youth Council. She was a mentor, a friend, but most of all, she was family. I am honored to occupy the City Council seat that she once held.”

Marshall was a state Assemblywoman from 1983 until 1991, then ran for a seat in the City Council, where she served from 1992 to 2001.

“Helen Marshall was as big-hearted, dynamic and brave as the borough of Queens, which she represented with such determined grace for three decades in many roles,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Marshall, who was known as simply Helen to her colleagues and constituents, directed the affairs of Queens County from Borough Hall for three consecutive terms from 2002 to 2014. It was often noted that Marshall’s terms were bookended by the tragedies of the Sept. 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy.

“Our borough lost one of its biggest champions, but she will continue to live on in our hearts and her presence will continue to be felt throughout the countless communities she touched,” U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) said. “In her more than three decades of public service she broke barriers, embraced the strength of our diversity, and guided our borough through unprecedented growth. She also fought hard to ensure we got our fair share and she is leaving behind an incredible legacy of helping those in need.”

In 2013, the Center for an Urban Future reported that Marshall had directed more funding towards the borough’s library projects that the previous four borough presidents combined.

“Queens Library would not be the world-class library system it is today without Helen,” Queens Library President Dennis Walcott said. “She believed in libraries as places where communities are empowered and inspired, where children can nurture a love of learning and discovery and where adults can gain the skills they need to adapt to a changing workforce. Her passion for libraries drove her to secure a record amount of capital funding to upgrade, expand or improve many of the 62 libraries throughout our system and to continue to open new ones.”

Marshall embraced her time as the chief executive of the nation’s most diverse county. One of her favorite accomplishments was creating the Queens General Assembly, a cross-cultural exchange established in 2013.

“She founded the Queens General Assembly to give every community in our borough a seat at the table and she created the Borough Hall Immigration Task Force to help new arrivals to our country,” Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) said. “We are all building on the foundation she helped lay.”

On her page on the History Makers website, the nation’s largest African American video and oral history collection preserving and sharing the life stories of thousands of African Americans, Marshall’s favorite quote is featured.

“If you see Queens, you see the world,” she said.

Marshall is survived by her two children, Donald Jr. and Agnes Marie. Her husband, Donald, died recently.

Donations can be made in the name of Helen M. Marshall to Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities, Inc. at 33-16 108th Street, Corona 11368. Cards and letters of condolences can be sent to the Marshall family at 31-17 Buell St., East Elmhurst, NY, 11369.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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