Barbara “Bobbie” Zeller, a Great Neck resident who was involved in virtually every progressive social and political cause of her day, from the Vietnam War to the Great Neck library expansion, died last week due to complications from treatment for lung cancer. She was 79.
Among her admirers were state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who spoke at her funeral, state Assemblywoman Michele Schimel (D-Great Neck), who sat shiva, and U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Hauppauge), whose representative hand delivered a flag to her family.
Married to accountant Mel Zeller in 1954, this year would have marked their 57th anniversary.
The two met at a resort in Connecticut after Zeller made the acquaintance of Oswald Goldschmidt, a man whose scoliosis was so severe that he had a hunchback. Lacking the confidence to pursue her, he introduced her to his business partner.
“She had the most gorgeous face – you could see her inside shining through,” said Mel Zeller. “We had our occasional spats, but I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Zeller’s career as an activist began sometime during the 1950s or 1960s with The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.
An ardent supporter of civil rights, she marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and attended his “I Have A dream” speech. The couple attended protests in the Mississippi and Alabama, where Zeller was once forced aside by a mounted police officer.
Passionate and idealistic about the political process, one of the few ways to get on his mother’s bad side was to miss an election, said her son, Michael Zeller. As a child, he remembers being enlisted to stuff envelopes for her many political campaigns.
“My mom had a big problem with apathy,” he said.
An idealist, Barbara Zeller supported all manner of losing presidential candidates, from Adlai Stevenson to George McGovern, said Michael Zeller.
Raised in Brooklyn, Zeller moved to Great Neck in 1967 when her sons were 10 and seven.
Her first fight on the peninsula might have been soon after the move. In 1967, the school board floated a controversial proposal to bus about 50 black children into Great Neck. Though the proposal failed, Zeller fought hard to make it a reality.
In the late 1960s or early 1970s, Zeller could literally be found lying in the streets, in a successful effort to prevent a wetland in Great Neck from being developed.
“She was often at the crossroads, and often in the cross hairs, of many of the battles that have defined the community over the decades,” DiNapoli said. “And a very inspiring person.”
DiNapoli spoke at Zeller’s funeral as an old friend and long standing admirer. The two met in the early 1970s at the very beginning of his political career, when DiNapoli was a teenager on the Mineola School Board.
The encouragement she provided the budding politician was the beginning of a 40-year friendship that found her supporting all of his campaigns.
“To this day a lot of her involvement has been about showing the way to young people, showing the path,” he said. “A person who understood the importance of making a difference, holding high ideals and living up to those ideals in day to day dealings.”
Despite her health problems, Zeller attended DiNapoli’s inauguration as comptroller.
“That’s the kind of person Bobbie was,” he said.
Zeller met Mae Newburger in 1976 during her first campaign, an unsuccessful run for state senator.
“Then she helped in any other campaign I was in,” said Newburger, a former state aassemblywoman and supervisor of the Town of North Hempstead. “She was so zestful and so full of enthusiasm, that anytime she took part or did anything for a campaign you knew it was going to create all kinds of enthusiasm.”
Friends agree that she was the kind of advocate you wanted on your side.
“She had that sort of sparkling personality, that you were just glad when she was around,” Newburger said. “We’ll miss her.”
Zeller was a founding member of Reach Out America, a local nonprofit with committees on health care and Social Security, green issues, peace, separation of church and state, and veteran affairs. She was on the executive committee and active in the organization to the end of her life.
She met fellow Reach Out America activist Shirley Romaine during the Vietnam War, when the two worked to raise local consciousness through a committee called Co-op for Peace.
“Bobbie, if I had to put it in a few words, she enriched our lives and she raised our social consciousness,” Romaine said.
DiNapoli said Zeller helped create the ideal of a Great Neck that prioritizes education and dialogues about the big issues.
“She held true to that dream of hers about what being an involved citizen was all about,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone else has that dream anymore, but she never lost it. The challenge for the rest of us is to keep that ideal going.”
Zeller is survived by her husband Mel, sons Barry and Michael, and grandson Jake.