Penelope Gerber, 78, of Whitpain, the longtime vice chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, died Wednesday, March 15, in hospice care at the Quadrangle retirement community in Haverford after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Mrs. Gerber, known as "Penny," advised mayors, governors, and U.S. senators, and her support was considered crucial to winning the Democratic Party's endorsement. Her friendships transcended political rivalries and partisanship, and many of her mentees saw her as a motherly figure.
"She really set a tone, not just for women but for any Democrat. She was truly a Democratic warrior," said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.). "The mother of the Democratic Party — she could have that title."
Mrs. Gerber and her husband, A. Richard Gerber, were close with prominent Pennsylvania political families such as the Caseys and Lambs.
She worked on Ed Rendell's campaigns for district attorney, mayor, and governor, and was close with other Philadelphia elected officials such as former Mayor Michael Nutter and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
"You name a statewide Democrat or any prominent local Democrat, she played a role in their lives in one way or another, either as friend or consigliere, or someone who paved the way," said her son Michael, a former state representative. "She was like everyone's second mom."
Mrs. Gerber wrote in her resignation letter to fellow state committee members that while "we may have come short in our effort to elect the first woman president … our opportunity to make a difference and elect women at all levels of government has never been better."
She added, "And to the men in the room, I encourage you to get on board. It will be good for our country and our commonwealth, and will lead to a greater number of Democratic victories."
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said Mrs. Gerber's encouragement of women was "one of several legacies she'll leave our party."
Gov. Wolf said Monday that Mrs. Gerber "led the way for women, communities, and causes in her professional and private life."
"We were fortunate to have her be our champion on issues that benefit so many Pennsylvanians," he said in a statement. "We will miss her."
Penelope Anne Moses grew up in Winnetka, Ill., in the Chicago suburbs. She went to New Trier High School and moved east to attend college at Vassar, and ultimately graduated from Hood College in Maryland.
She moved to New York and became the first woman to participate in Chase Manhattan Bank's management training program. While there, she met her husband.
The couple moved to Lower Gwynedd in the 1960s, and Mrs. Gerber became assistant dean of admissions at Penn Law School. She retired to raise their three children, and in the early 1980s became chief executive of a unionized school bus company, which she later sold.
Thereafter, her focus shifted to politics and civic life, serving on the township planning commission and the Pennsylvania Public Television Network Commission. Mrs. Gerber was also involved in the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show, which raises money for Penn Medicine.
She was named vice chair of the state party in 2010.
"Her exuberance and zest for life transcended color, religion, anything," said Karen Farmer White, chair of the state Board of Education. "She was just out to help really underserved people."
Even in her last days, Mrs. Gerber wanted to leave a lasting impact. Amid a shakeup in state party leadership, she became interim chair of the state party last month and insisted that Democrats adopt new rules regarding the reporting and investigation of sexual harassment. The party agreed to do so.
"How about that, I'm dying and I'm still relevant," she said from her bed at hospice, according to Michael Gerber.
In addition to her son, Mrs. Gerber, who moved to Whitpain after her husband's death in 2008, is survived by children Peter and Courtney; a nephew, Malcolm McAtee; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday, April 6, at St. Thomas' Church, 610 Church Rd., Flourtown.