State Sen. Roxanne H. Jones Dies At 68 She Suffered A Heart Attack. Friends Say She'd Been Upset Over Recent Welfare-reform Legislation.

Posted: May 20, 1996

State Sen. Roxanne H. Jones, 68, a former welfare mother whose passion and commitment propelled her into the role of champion of Philadelphia's poor, died suddenly yesterday, after apparently suffering a heart attack.

Since 1985, Sen. Jones had been the voice in the state Senate for residents of many of North Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods. It was a cause she believed in deeply - so deeply, said many who knew her, that it may have hastened her death.

Friends, staff members and colleagues recalled the emotional stress Sen. Jones had suffered because of the welfare legislation signed by Gov. Ridge on Thursday. The sweeping rewrite of public-assistance laws will halt medical assistance for an estimated 220,000 Pennsylvanians in the next fiscal year.

``She was so upset by what was about to happen to the people she represented,'' said Niles Schore, who worked for Sen. Jones for more than six years. ``I was sitting next to her in her office after the deed had been done in committee on Tuesday. Her arms and legs were shaking. She was crying. She was short of breath.''

Sen. Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) said Sen. Jones was so distressed that she had to leave the floor of the Senate at one point.

``She said, `I'm not going to speak. My [blood] pressure's so high,' '' Mellow recalled.

By Wednesday, Schore said, Sen. Jones was upbeat and again ready to fight. But on Saturday evening, he said, she went to St. Joseph's Hospital complaining of chest pains.

``They said everything seemed fine but asked her if she wanted to be checked in,'' he said.

Sen. Jones said no. She was scheduled to speak to a group of churchwomen in New Haven, Conn., yesterday.

By 8 yesterday morning, however, she was back at St. Joseph's, complaining again of chest pains. While doctors treated her, Schore said, she went into cardiac arrest. She died at 10:18 a.m.

Mayor Rendell called Sen. Jones' death ``a tragic loss for Philadelphia,'' especially after the death in August of State Rep. David Richardson, also a stalwart voice for the city's poor.

``Roxanne Jones was our leading advocate for the poor and most vulnerable citizens of this city, a nonstop energetic whirlwind who battled injustice with every ounce of energy she possessed. We'll miss her deeply,'' Rendell said.

The mayor's concern was shared by many who said Sen. Jones' death was even more painful coming so soon after Richardson's.

``It's another stilled voice for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens of our state, and it means that some of us are going to have to speak up a little louder,'' said John F. White Jr., head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority and former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

Rep. Dwight Evans agreed that other leaders would have to step into the breach.

``All of us who care about the poor and working people have to take that responsibility,'' he said, adding: ``I don't think there will ever be another Roxanne Jones or David Richardson.''

Sen. Jones, who in 1984 became the first African American woman elected to the state Senate, was reelected in 1988 and 1992. Voters in the Third Senatorial District backed her again in last month's primary.

They were voting to return to office a senator known for working so hard that it sometimes landed her in the hospital, according to Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, who represented the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization and had known Sen. Jones for more than 20 years.

``Her work was not about potholes and getting drivers' licenses expedited,'' Stein said. ``It was whether children would survive with decent health care, clothing and shelter. She took all these life-and-death issues to heart. It was her heart that let out finally.''

Democratic Party chairman Robert Brady said ward leaders in the Third Senatorial District would nominate a candidate to run in the November general election.

Sen. Jones, a small woman who once dreamed of being a ballet dancer, learned politics from the bottom up. In the mid-1960s, after separating from her husband, she moved with her two daughters into public housing. She said later that she applied for assistance with shame - and terror, after seeing the looks of those who were supposedly there to help her.

``The interviewer made me feel like I had killed someone,'' she told a reporter in 1971.

The experience helped transform her into an unwavering champion of the poor. She worked with the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center before finding her podium at the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization.

Haunted by her own experience, Sen. Jones battled most visibly in the arena of public assistance. However, she also led campaigns to rid the city of lead paint, which threatened the health of poor children, and to make the school district accountable to those same youngsters. She marched against the Vietnam War, and she worked to register voters.

An incident in June 1970, recalled yesterday by several admirers, illustrated Mrs. Jones' feisty style as an activist.

As chairwoman of the Welfare Rights Organization, she had traveled to Harrisburg to protest welfare cuts proposed by then-Gov. Raymond P. Shafer. During a demonstration by more than 150 people, she hurled a shoe through the transom to Shafer's office.

The future senator was convicted of the shoe toss and of battering the door of a state caucus room with a loudspeaker. She received a two-month sentence but was freed after five days because of her high blood pressure and the need to care for her daughters.

A reporter once wrote of Mrs. Jones that she could ``charm the pants off anyone who dares to be friendly'' and ``scare the pants off her professional contacts.''

It was the fiery, tenacious Roxanne Jones that took over in public settings. At a school board meeting in 1970, she commandeered the microphone, demanding that board members detail how they had spent millions in federal money earmarked for its poorer students.

``What did you do with that money, . . . spend it on color TVs and plush carpeting?'' she asked, her voice rising to a shout, drowning out those who would silence her.

Eventually, though, she decided she could accomplish more by joining those with whom she had done battle.

Former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis (D., Allegheny), whose friendship with Sen. Jones began when she was an activist, said that when she was considering running for the Senate, she asked if he thought it a good idea.

``I said, `You can do more to help here, on the Senate floor, than you can ever do leading parades and protests,' '' he recalled.

State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo fondly recalled her first run for the Senate, against activist T. Milton Street, who was registered as a Democrat but in Harrisburg allied himself with the Republicans.

``It was a unique campaign in the annals of Harrisburg history,'' Fumo said. ``She didn't have any money for the campaign. We got her through it. Everyone chipped in.''

Yesterday, family and friends gathered in Sen. Jones' apartment. After 11 years in the Senate, she still returned to her home above a record store on Girard Avenue.

``She felt comfortable here,'' said Aldena Bryant, a former upstairs neighbor, as she stood in Sen. Jones' tiny dining room, one wall decorated with a framed certificate commemorating her election to the Senate. ``She'd call me up and say, `Come on down. I've made neck bones and potatoes.' She knew that was my favorite.''

In Sen. Jones' bedroom, her daughters Wanda Jones, 34, and Patricia Haywood, 40, and others stood beside a large bay window, talking above the din of traffic on Girard Avenue, making arrangements and mourning.

``She said, `I'll never move,' '' recalled her friend Lorraine Davis. ``She would say, `I'm staying here, with my people.' ''

Geneva Dickerson, a family friend, said, ``She wanted to feel the people, walk the walk. She could feel them cry. She could feel their pain.''

The welfare reform passed into law last week brought Sen. Jones great anguish, Wanda Jones said.

``She would lose sleep thinking about people losing their benefits,'' Wanda Jones said.

Mary Mason, the WHAT-AM radio talk-show host, yesterday said she was ``almost ready to blame her death on Gov. Ridge and the welfare cuts.''

``We've paid the price with one of the best damn advocates we had for the poor in this country,'' Mason said.

Tim Reeves, press secretary for Ridge, said the governor would ``defend the rightness of that new law any place and any time - except now. Sen. Jones has just passed away, and this is the time for reflecting on her life and public service.''

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode called Sen. Jones ``a casualty of war.''

``When others gave up, Roxanne continued to fight,'' Goode said. ``When others thought the fight was hopeless, Roxanne saw hope. She became that relentless voice in Harrisburg - sometimes a voice in the wilderness.''

Another Democratic leader, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who served alongside her in the state Senate for six years, said Sen. Jones strove for genuine welfare reform - proposals that would include child care, job training, and help in finding work.

``To the end of her life, she fought to make life better for others,'' Fattah said.

In addition to her daughters, Sen. Jones is survived by her five grandchildren; brother, James Harper; and sisters, Jesse May Brown, Florence Odrick, and Marvell Fennell.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete last night.

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