Gussella W. Gelzer, 86, of Mount Airy, who as legal secretary to two prominent Philadelphia judges helped break a color barrier, died Tuesday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania of complications from a stroke.

"She was a pioneer," said attorney Richard H. Knox, a friend of 50 years who met her when he became a clerk for Common Pleas Court Judge Raymond Pace Alexander, for whom Mrs. Gelzer worked.

Knox recalled that at the time, African American legal secretaries were a rarity.

"She was a wise woman," said retired Superior Court Judge Edmund Spaeth, the other jurist for whom she worked. "She had a real presence about her, and some of the law clerks regarded her with great admiration."

Mrs. Gelzer grew up in South Philadelphia and attended the segregated Chester Arthur Elementary School, at 20th and Catherine Streets.

Foreshadowing her career, during her senior year at South Philadelphia High School she was named chief justice of the school court that decided student-conduct cases. When she graduated in 1940, she took with her a lifelong interest in law, said her great-niece Tiffany Speaks.

"She was very smart, intelligent, and a quick learner," said Speaks.

Mrs. Gelzer learned the secretarial trade at Berean Manual Training and Industrial School and took a job in the Philadelphia law offices of Raymond Pace Alexander and Sadie Alexander, later becoming office manager. When Raymond Alexander became a Common Pleas Court judge, Mrs. Gelzer went with him to City Hall.

"She was very much on the ball and kept everything moving," Knox said, adding that Alexander loved to banter with her.

She worked for him from 1941 until he died in 1974. A month later, she joined Spaeth's Common Pleas Court office as secretary, and stayed with him when he became a Superior Court judge. She followed him when he went into private practice at Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz in 1986.

Knox said that Mrs. Gelzer continued working until she was 80.

Speaks, her great-niece, said Mrs. Gelzer was active until the end, running her own errands, reading, and keeping a close eye on the news. She had something akin to a CNN dependency, Speaks said. "If something big was going on in the news," she recalled, it was no use calling her. "She said she'd have to call you back."

Mrs. Gelzer's husband of 52 years, Harold H. Gelzer, died in 1999.

In addition to Speaks, she is survived by a niece; three great-nephews; and another great-niece.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. today at New Bethel A.M.E. Church, Germantown Avenue and Tulpehocken Streets, with visitation at 10.

Memorial contributions may be made to New Bethel, 6153 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia 19144.

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.