Pearl M. Carpel, 94, a Center City resident whose dedication to volunteer work in Philadelphia made her a familiar figure at public events for the last three decades, died Monday, Oct. 7, in her apartment at the Academy House.
Her death was due to Alzheimer’s disease, said Richard J. Aversa, a Philadelphia real estate broker and her longtime friend.
Ms. Carpel had been isolated in her apartment due to increasing cognitive challenges, but before that, she showed up at most significant community events in Center City.
She was particularly interested in helping the LGBTQ cause, as well as HIV activism, said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way Community Center on Spruce Street.
"I first met Pearl Carpel in 1991 when I was a young activist in ACT UP Philadelphia,” Bartlett said. “She would show up at our demonstrations, and she was not shy in expressing her support for both LGBTQ people and people living with AIDS.
“She was 67 at the time. Then I noticed that she was a volunteer usher at community theaters, film festivals, and concerts. She always came up and gave me one of her vise-like hugs. There was a lot of strength in her small frame.”
For activists involved in a variety of causes, “she was a steady, reliable cheerleader for whatever we were working on," Bartlett said.
In 2001, she received the first volunteerism award from the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia for her work there as an usher.
In 2012, at age 87, she won the Wawa Welcome America Volunteer of the Year. She was one of 300 volunteers for the big Fourth of July party that year.
“Every year it comes fast, and every year I have a good time,” Ms. Carpel told The Inquirer. “I volunteer in the parade. I love walking.”
Born in Pottstown to Yetta and Morris W. Miller, Ms. Carpel was educated in the borough’s public schools. Her father, a Polish immigrant, ran a men’s clothing store in Pottstown for 52 years that was known for its rental tuxedos and police uniforms.
She had a long career as a truant officer in the School District of Philadelphia, Aversa said.
She married Melvin P. Carpel, a podiatrist. The couple lived in West Philadelphia until his death in 1986 at age 65.
After he died and Ms. Carpel retired from the School District, she moved to Academy House in the 1990s and threw herself into volunteering. “She volunteered everywhere,” Aversa said. “It’s how she made friends, and it kept her occupied. Retirement can be boring, and she found a way to spice it up.”
Ms. Carpel was down-to-earth. “You could talk to her about anything,” he said. She also listened carefully, for hints about what others needed. When possible, she gave away small amounts of money.
Jenifer Groves, an administrator for Women’s Centers Hospital and Health Care in Cherry Hill, was one she helped.
“I grew up with nothing," Groves said. "Pearl paid a semester of Community College of Philadelphia for me so I could get a start. Her only ask was that I do things for other people later, when I could.”
When news of Ms. Carpel’s death surfaced, there was an outpouring of tributes online.
“Here’s how to be an old lady,” wrote Anna Forbes. “Thanks for the superb example, Pearl. Makes me less afraid and more confident to enjoy this third third of my life.”
Amy Murphy Nolen, founder and managing director of the Arden Theatre Company, said Ms. Carpel was a regular usher at the theater.
“She made me laugh and stand up a little straighter,” Nolen said. "Smart as a whip, she was both pointed and loving at the same time. She acted a little like a parent, and I loved it.”
After her husband died, Ms. Carpel dedicated a bench in Rittenhouse Square to his memory. There are no survivors, Aversa said.
Plans for a memorial event were pending.