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Patricia Carlin Sperling, early proponent for equality and social justice, dies at 98

While in high school, Ms. Sperling skipped classes to attend a demonstration at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, her family said. She supported progressive causes and acted on her beliefs.

Patricia C. Sperling in a 2019 photo.
Patricia C. Sperling in a 2019 photo.Read moreCourtesy of the Sperling Family

Patricia Carlin Sperling, 98, of New Hope, a volunteer who worked for equality and social justice long before such causes became mainstream, died Tuesday, Nov. 17, of respiratory failure at Neshaminy Manor, a senior facility in Warrington, Bucks County, where she had lived for almost five years.

Born in Philadelphia, Ms. Sperling was the daughter of high-profile parents. Her father, John J. Carlin, was an architect known for his rowing feats on the Schuylkill. Her mother, Helen Engels Carlin, was the head of the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission, a forerunner to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Ms. Sperling attended Philadelphia High School for Girls. Even as a student, she acted on her beliefs. She told of skipping school to attend a sit-down strike at Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia as workers struggled to organize in 1935.

“To her great chagrin,” her family wrote in a tribute, “a burly police officer escorted her to the nearest trolley and out of danger.”

Ms. Sperling won a scholarship to Indiana University and later transferred to Temple University and graduated with a degree in economics in 1942.

Although she was not a Quaker, she espoused the Quaker values of equality and fairness, as well as the importance of speaking truth to power, her family said.

During World War II, she worked for the American Friends Service Committee in New York, helping to resettle refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. While with the committee, she helped Japanese Americans previously interned by the U.S. government to attend college. She also served as secretary to Clarence Pickett, the head of the American Friends Service Committee.

“Long before social justice became an accepted term, Patricia was practicing it,” said her son-in-law Stephan Rosenfeld.

In 1946, she married Sidney Sperling, then a Navy officer stationed in Philadelphia. The couple joined Bryn Gweled Homesteads, a progressive housing cooperative in Upper Southampton where they raised two daughters and a son.

Ms. Sperling volunteered for the League of Women Voters, the Bucks County YWCA, and the Southampton Free Library. She served as a one-term president of the Southampton Democratic Club, and for years, was the Democratic committeewoman for her voting district.

During the Vietnam War, Ms. Sperling volunteered for the Prisoner Visitation & Support Service, a nonprofit founded in 1968 to carry out the Quaker tradition of caring for those behind bars, according to its mission statement. At that time, many of the prisoners were conscientious objectors to the war.

She didn’t hesitate to march in support of the grape pickers being organized by Cesar Chavez. They later became part of the United Farm Workers of America. If she had to leave home before her daughters arrived home from school, she left a note directing them to call a special phone number if she was arrested.

From 1982 to 1990, she ran the Doylestown law office of Martha Sperling and Charles Silver, her daughter and son-in law. After retiring, she moved from Upper Southampton to New Hope, where she lived in an apartment in their house.

Although an activist, Ms. Sperling “was quiet and graceful and supportive of everyone around her,” said daughter Elizabeth.

“She read three or four books a week,” said daughter Martha. “She was the smartest person I know; she was brilliant. In her seventies, she taught herself Italian so could read the opera libretto.”

Ms. Sperling sewed, cooked, and gardened.

She and her husband divorced. He died in 1992. In addition to her daughters, she is survived by four grandchildren; a sister; and many nieces and nephews. Her son, Peter Sperling, died in 1999 at age 47.

Services were private.

Memorial contributions be made to the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19102 via, or the NAACP, 4458-B Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19140 via