"Before there was a Gen. 'Storming Norman' [Schwarzkopf] in Desert Storm, there was a 'Storming Rita' at the Department of Human Services," said Maxine Tucker, a colleague. "It was evident from the beginning that there was fire in her belly, and she was going to get the best services possible for 'her' children and their families."
She became active with AFSCME District Council 47, leading its political action committee and founding its wellness program. She rose from union steward to supervisor, and finally to vice president.
"If, as a steward, there was an issue with a member, she was relentless in her efforts to get it addressed now," Tucker said.
Mrs. Urwitz applied the same tenacity to union work that she used in her career, said Carol Rosenblatt, past president of AFSCME Local 2187.
"Rita had street smarts from growing up in New York and was a creative thinker when it came to getting things done. So while she spent endless hours in labor-management meetings with DHS management, she was not opposed to taking the issues to the streets."
Mrs. Urwitz was party to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city that helped change how child-abuse cases are handled.
During the late 1980s the Philadelphia County Children and Youth Agency (PCCYA), part of DHS, was under scrutiny because of the number of children whose deaths were attributed to abuse in 1987 and 1988.
Mrs. Urwitz shone public light on the strains under which the agency was working - lack of funding, inadequate staff, and huge caseloads.
On July 14, 1987, hundreds of PCCYA workers staged a sit-in at the DHS commissioner's office, protesting the discipline of several workers for the death of a child formerly under the department's supervision.
"Rita made the connections to the broader social work community and was instrumental in mobilizing the workers to rally," Rosenblatt said.
Mrs. Urwitz also pushed hard for the city's 1996 domestic-partner law.
"She was tireless in her determination that all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, should have equality in benefits," Reppert said.
"As soon as domestic partnership passed and we registered with the city, she started the next phase of her quest: fighting for medical benefits and for the right to leave pension benefits to one's partner, both of which were successful campaigns."
The two met in 1986 at a picnic sponsored by a group called Lesbians Unlimited, Reppert said.
They moved in together in 1987, and were legally married in Montgomery County, Md., on Jan. 3, three days before Mrs. Urwitz died.
"It was a beautiful ceremony. Her son, Louis, officiated as pastor. Her grandson, Jonathan Urwitz, held the rings and assisted her to place a ring on my finger," Reppert said.
She was formerly married to Sheldon Urwitz.
Surviving, in addition to her partner and former husband, are a son, Louis; stepsons Steven and Dean Reppert; three grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the American Friends Service Center, 1501 Cherry St. A reception will follow. Mrs. Urwitz was cremated; her ashes will be scattered later.
Donations may be made to the American Lung Association via www.lung.org.
Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 215-854-2611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.