Roberta Miriam Kirsch, 76, of Torresdale, a retired special-education teacher with the School District of Philadelphia, died Friday night at Pennsylvania Hospital as a result of heart failure.
A multitalented woman, Mrs. Kirsch was known for her energy, wit, straight talk, and devotion to her family — especially to her four grandchildren— and to her large circle of friends.
She loved to travel the world, but her favorite place was Israel, which she visited 15 times. And Mrs. Kirsch took so many cruises that her family lost count.
"She was always on the go; she couldn't sit still," said her husband, Ted Kirsch, the former longtime president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who is now president of AFT Pennsylvania.
He met his wife of 57 years on a blind double date when she was 16 and he was 18. They married two years later.
A lifelong resident of Philadelphia, Mrs. Kirsch was the daughter of Shirley and Joseph Dechter. Her father died when she was 16, and Mrs. Kirsch dropped out of Northeast High School in her junior year to support her mother, who had Huntington's disease and was unable to work.
Later, Mrs. Kirsch not only completed her GED, but she also earned a teaching degree from Antioch University and a master's degree in special education from what is now Arcadia University.
"She was indefatigable," said Barbara Braman, a longtime friend. "There was nothing that daunted her. Once she put her mind to it, there was nothing she couldn't do."
Braman, a retired career educator, recalled that she met Mrs. Kirsch in 1981, when Braman was the vice principal of George Washington High School in the Northeast and Ted Kirsch was the head of the history department. The two families connected, and Braman said she became a sister to Mrs. Kirsch, who was an only child.
"She was a fiery woman," Braman said. "She had very strong opinions on things and didn't back down."
Braman added: "She had an acerbic wit. She would raise an eyebrow and say something, and you were put in your place."
Ted Kirsch said his wife was a stay-at-home mom when the couple's children, Joel and Jodie, were young but learned to drive and became a school bus driver so she could transport the children to a day camp in Bucks County.
Mrs. Kirsch got her first taste of what would become her career in education as a substitute paraprofessional in a program that provided one-on-one help for students who were struggling with basic academic skills.
"She loved it," said her husband, who encouraged her to become a teacher.
Mrs. Kirsch began her teaching career in 1978 at the former Chandler Elementary School in Fishtown, which closed a few years later. She ultimately landed at Edison High School in North Philadelphia.
She joined the special education department at Edison's old site at Lehigh Avenue and Seventh Street and remained with the school when it moved to a new facility on West Luzerne Avenue in 1988 and changed its name to Edison/Fareira High School.
"She spent the bulk of her career there," her husband said. "She loved it. Even when she could leave and transfer to another school, she refused."
Mrs. Kirsch was on the school's building committee, and colleagues elected her as a union representative.
"Truth be told, we never agreed on anything I did with the union," Ted Kirsch said.
Known for her sense of style, Mrs. Kirsch was passionate about shopping for clothing, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, and furniture.
But Ted Kirsch said his wife drew the line when it came to food.
"She hated shopping for food," he said. "It was a chore." And after their children left home, Mrs. Kirsch announced there was no need to cook anymore.
Mrs. Kirsch collected items with roosters on them for the duplex in Ventnor the couple bought as a vacation home in 1978. "If there was a rooster on it, she had it," her husband recalled.
Braman said Mrs. Kirsch was "tenacious in her friendships," including some that dated to elementary school.
Friends joined her on cruises and bus trips and at the house in Ventnor, which friends of the Kirschs' children called "Camp Roberta."
Mrs. Kirsch loved being a mother, but nothing beat being a grandmother.
Ted Kirsch said his wife often told him: " 'If I knew it was so great having grandchildren, I would have skipped having kids.' "
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Kirsch is survived by son Joel; daughter Jodie Lachman; and four grandchildren, Rachel and Emma Lachman and Benjamin and Gabrielle Kirsch.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, 310 Second Street Pike, Southampton. Interment will be at Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose.