By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
My dear friend Doris Diether passed away peacefully at home Thursday morning, September 16th. Doris was a person who welcomed strangers into her life, as I soon found out when I met her several years ago. Paul the pigeon man introduced us after saying, “You’ve got to meet Doris.” I remember her in all the richness of moments that we shared. Each of her friends will have similar sentiments to share, I’m sure.
She was not afraid to ask for something that she needed, and we were happy to help. When a wheel on her walker broke she called me to fix it, until she could get a new one. When her phone or fax machine weren’t working, she would call on me to fix them, and I was happy to give it a try, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
When one of her two cats died she asked me to go with her to the animal shelter to pick out a new cat—that we named April, for the month of the selection. When she was denied the adoption because she didn’t have a driver’s license, she called State Senator Brad Hoylman who promptly got that straightened out. When it came time to take the cat to the vet, April would not come out and Doris called me to help catch her. It was very difficult, but worth a scratch or two.
At Christmas, Doris received hundreds of greeting cards from friends and needed help to hang each and every one. Of course, Doris was well-known for her annual Christmas cards, sending them to a list of hundreds.
Ricky Syers made a marionette of “Little Doris” that was a beguiling image of Doris. Syers would have the marionette dance and cavort with his other characters. Brandon Stanton included Doris in his first Humans of New York book.
Joe Mangrum, the sand painter, the pigeon-doll lady, the tarot reader, the group of musicians playing old tunes, the park staff, even the panhandlers and drug dealers—they all knew Doris and watched out for her well-being, calling out to her by name. When friends invited her out to eat, and offered that she could pick any restaurant in town, she would always pick the Waverly Inn right down the street, and get her favorite things without even really looking at the menu.
Doris would often express surprise when people she didn’t recognize would say hello to her; I’d remind her that she had touched many lives and people appreciated her. Working with her on Manhattan Community Board 2, and even during the years before I was appointed, Doris and I would go over the latest events and business of the board on our frequent walks in Washington Square Park or to and from the CB2 meetings. Doris showed me the value of being a member of the community board, and how it is still possible in this big city bureaucracy to make a difference for the better.
Doris was appointed to CB2 in 1964, making her the city’s longest-serving community board member, a title she will always hold, since a few years ago New York City voted for an eight-year term limit for community board members. Doris opposed the referendum, saying members bring valuable institutional knowledge while serving on the board. That applied to Doris as much as anyone.
Erin Rogers and her husband Scott Gropper “adopted” Doris 16 years ago after meeting her at the park and through Paul the pigeon man. Recently, Rogers became Doris’ healthcare proxy, coordinating all the complicated arrangements for doctors, hospitals, and in-home aides such as Usha, her wonderful nurse.
Even before her death, cards and calls wishing her well poured in to Doris, and many visited when they could. After her death, tributes from local politicians, friends, and colleagues quickly rolled in.
Doris Diether, an only child, was born in Queens, New York on January 10, 1929. Her mother was the daughter of a Finnish immigrant who lived in Massachusetts; her father was a cabinetmaker and a descendant of a Mayflower family. Around 1950, Doris moved to the Hotel Albert in New York City. In 1958 she married music critic and writer Jack Diether, a specialist in the music of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, and moved into his Waverly Place basement apartment, just a few doors from her beloved Washington Square Park. Diether wrote dance reviews for the local weekly newspaper The Villager, and her husband wrote music reviews for it. Jack died in 1987.
In the early 1960s Doris was part of a team, including Jane Jacobs, Verna Small, and Ruth Wittenberg, of staunch Village residents fighting slum clearance plans by the city for the 14-block “urban renewal” zone of the West Village. Mayor Robert Wagner finally reversed the plan.
Doris is reportedly survived by a son-in-law, Anton, as well as some relatives in Finland that she got to know in recent years. We will miss her warm smile and quick wit.