Sonya Sobel Stern Richman, 87, an educator, lawyer, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers leader, died Sunday, April 22, at home in Center City of complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Mrs. Richman, universally known as "Sunny," helped negotiate landmark contracts for city teachers. At one point, she faced jail time for opposing popular Mayor Frank Rizzo and holding firm for workers' and students' rights in a lengthy PFT strike in 1973. Being labeled by a judge as the "most contemptuous" of union leaders was an honor she remained proud of for the rest of her life, Mrs. Richman's family said.
She was born in the Logan section of the city, raised by her parents and three bachelor uncles in Southwest Philadelphia, and graduated from Bartram High and the University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Richman was a gifted pianist who earned acceptance into the Curtis Institute of Music, her family said, but bypassed music for her real passion: teaching.
Mrs. Richman began teaching in the Philadelphia School District in 1956, a time when women would not be hired if they had children younger than 2, had no right to return to a job if they took maternity leave, and were forbidden to serve as athletic directors unless they worked at all-girls schools. None of those requirements existed for male teachers, a fact that rankled Mrs. Richman.
As a business teacher at South Philadelphia High School, Mrs. Richman was devoted to her students — and they knew it. She was unafraid to share her love for them, and demanded they report to her before job interviews so she could make sure they were dressed professionally. It brought Mrs. Richman great joy when she would encounter a former student; she kept in touch with many of them.
From her first day as a teacher, Mrs. Richman felt strong ties to the PFT, which became the exclusive bargaining unit for all district teachers in 1965. She rose to vice president and was a member of the negotiating team that won major gains for city teachers, setting their salaries among the highest of big-city educators. Restrictions on female educators were lifted, and maternity-leave protections were codified. Mrs. Richman also served as president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania.
Ted Kirsch, the current AFT Pennsylvania president and former PFT president, was mentored by Mrs. Richman; he said her vision helped grow the union in size and prominence. Her role in that 1973 strike, which lasted 58 days, was unforgettable: Mrs. Richman, who always cut a stylish figure, showed up to protest the arrests of PFT leaders and members in a mink-trimmed coat.
"It was quite a sight – classic Sunny with a bullhorn in mink in the dead of winter," Kirsch said. "But she was a fighter and a leader at a time when the union was young, and the PFT benefited tremendously from her energy, organizational skills, and dedication to bettering the lives of her students and Philadelphia School District teachers and staff."
In the 1980s, Mrs. Richman switched gears, attending Temple University Law School and working as an advocate in child dependency matters and as a defense lawyer for those who could not afford counsel. She worked as a master in emergency "protection from abuse" cases and in truancy cases for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
She earned numerous honors as a humanitarian, leader in the labor movement, and teacher.
Mrs. Richman was Jewish, but did not consider herself a member of any religious group. She hosted Passover seders and regularly attended Mass. She had a zest for life and set goals every day. She did not manage to attain one item on her bucket list: climbing to the top of a Center City crane. But she did fly a glider in the Arizona desert and ride in a NASCAR vehicle.
Survivors include her husband of 18 years, John A. Ryan, a former PFT officer; a daughter, Robin Richman; stepchildren John A. Ryan III, Edward G. Ryan, Annemarie Cavalcanti, Margaret Ryan-Atkinson, and Gerard P. Ryan; three grandchildren; 11 step-grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and six step-great-grandchildren.
Services: 1 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, 6410 N. Broad St. Interment will follow in Montefiore Cemetery.
Memorial donations may be made to the Jazz Bridge Project, 3008 Limekiln Pike, Glenside, Pa. 19038.