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Lillian Podgorski, retired Traffic Court judge, beautician, and Realtor, dies at 97

Before her election in 1981, she worked for six years as a traffic court administrator and top aide to former Traffic Court President Judge Dominick Iannarelli.

Judge Podgorski and her husband, Stephen, were married for 51 years.
Judge Podgorski and her husband, Stephen, were married for 51 years.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Lillian H. Podgorski, 97, of Philadelphia, a retired Traffic Court judge, licensed beautician, and Realtor, died Saturday, Aug. 28, of sepsis at the Freedom Village at Brandywine retirement community in Coatesville.

A lively and controversial jurist for 20 years, Judge Podgorski was the first woman to be elected to Philadelphia Traffic Court. She recorded more votes than the two male judges who were elected with her, and served six-year terms from 1981 until the early 2000s, when she retired as a senior judge.

Before her election, she worked for six years as a Traffic Court administrator, and top aide to former Traffic Court President Judge Dominick Iannarelli. Later, she served with the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Judges Association.

“You will always be able to see me,” Judge Podgorski, then a candidate, told supporters in a 1981 Daily News article.

She was a beautician, cosmetologist, and regional manager for Seligman and Latz beauty salons before she ran for judge, and a Realtor for a few years after she left the bench.

“Nothing was too much for her to handle,” said daughter Karen Taylor. “She was a wonderful lady with a tremendous work ethic that she passed along to her children. She gave us every opportunity to grow and be good citizens.”

Outgoing, adventurous, and independent, Judge Podgorski was politically active throughout her adult life. A Democrat, she was a committeewoman for more than 30 years, secretary for the 56th Ward for 16 years, and a tireless fund-raiser. Her daughters remember canvassing their Rhawnhurst neighborhood with her during election years, and meeting mayors and other city notables at political events.

“If you met her, you remembered her,” daughter Chris Michels said.

One of five children, Judge Podgorski was born June 1, 1924, and graduated from Simon Gratz High School. She took law and judicial courses at Northwestern University during her time on the bench, and attended the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev.

She was married to Stephen Podgorski for 51 years until his death in 1997. They were friends as children growing up in Philadelphia and watched movies together at the old Fairmount Theater at 26th Street and Girard Avenue.

After they married in 1946, they lived in the Logan and Northeast neighborhoods of Philadelphia and raised three children. She was an active mother, serving roles with the local Cub Scouts, Little League teams, and the nearby Jardel Recreation Center.

As a family, they liked drive-in movies and visits to nearby Civil War battlefields. Her husband loved the judge’s cooking, and they spent many evenings debating the issues of the day over dinner.

“We were young at heart,” Judge Podgorski told the Daily News in 1997. “I’d say to him after doing the dinner dishes, ‘Last one up to bed is a rotten egg.’ He liked that.”

During her time in the courtroom, Judge Podgorski faced criticism from opponents and others for hiring her son as an aide; abiding raucous courtroom sessions with, among others, Milton Street Sr. and Milton Street Jr.; inappropriate treatment of her staff; and a connection to a 1985 ticket-fixing scandal that rocked the court.

She never faced charges or was publicly sanctioned by officials for any of her actions.

At home, Judge Podgorski was an avid reader, gardener, and seamstress. She liked puzzles and created ceramics. Always active, she went hang gliding at 75, toured the California coast in a convertible at 80, and took jet ski rides at 85.

“She was the true matriarch of our family, and we are shaken by her loss,” Michels said. “She never said goodbye on the phone or when we parted. She’d always say, ‘See you later, alligator.’ And I’d say, ‘See you later, Mom.’”

In addition to her daughters, Judge Podgorski is survived by a son, Michael; four grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and other relatives. Three brothers and a sister died earlier.

Services were held Sept. 2.

Donations in her name may be made to the Honey Brook Community Library, 687 Compass Rd., Honey Brook, Pa. 19344.