The fighting ladies of Port Richmond

Founder Mary Louise Leuters (center) with (from left) Jackie Olinger, Patricia Tomaszewski, Rita Johnson, Dolores Harter. ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer
Founder Mary Louise Leuters (center) with (from left) Jackie Olinger, Patricia Tomaszewski, Rita Johnson, Dolores Harter. ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 15, 2013

Mary Louise Leuters met her husband at 16 at a roller-skating rink in Port Richmond. She married up. He was from Fishtown.

They have been married 61 years now, and the love is still there but her knees are gone, bone on bone, and this is a concern. Because who is going to take over as president of the Ladies of Port Richmond?

Mary Louise - Mary Lou to friends, or even just Lou - is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She felt so grateful to her doctors and hospital that she wanted to give back. She started the Ladies of Port Richmond and in nine years they have raised $400,000 for breast cancer research.

That's a lot of bake sales and church breakfasts.

Joy Soleiman, at the time the clinical administrator of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, remembers the first donation in 2005.

"I was expecting a couple hundred dollars," she said. "I was in complete shock. I think it was 20,000. Are you kidding me?"

Most of the ladies are in their 70s. Mary Lou will be 78 next month.

"I lie awake at night thinking, 'How can I raise money?' I don't stop," she says.

"She makes me tired," says Rita Johnson, 75, a vice president.

"She's always reaching for the stars, I'll tell you that," said Jackie Olinger, 71, another vice president.

All the other Ladies are vice presidents.

One just died.

Lenore Czyzewski had breast cancer, like so many of them, and it finally did her in June 17 at 69.

Nearly 300,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 40,000 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. There are nearly three million survivors.

"Lenore was the quiet, solid force behind the Ladies," said Pramila Rani Anne, a radiation oncologist at Jefferson and doctor to many of them. "She was not as vocal or emotional as Mary Lou, but was every bit as dedicated to the group."

Each has her role.

Jackie O is the baker.

She specializes in miniature pineapple upside down cakes, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry cupcakes with whipped cream, and banana nut bread made from scratch. The Ladies do bake sales at hospitals, especially around holidays.

"When they know we're coming," Jackie O said, "we can't even get things set up on the tables before they start buying. And we sell every bit of it."

Mary Lou went to Our Lady Help of Christians parish and school, sent her own kids there, and cooked and cleaned in the rectory for 25 years, just as her mother had before her. She had given so much already to this worn and weary neighborhood along the Delaware River that when she began asking for help for this cause, there was only one choice.

"I just couldn't say no to the lady," said John Masino, owner of the Port Richmond Pharmacy. "She reminds me a lot of my mother. Always upbeat, always looking to help somebody else out." He sponsors the website and runs a water station at the Ladies' annual neighborhood cancer walk.

Mary Lou's hairdresser, Marie Contino, of Marie's Hair Salon, donates and designs 20 gift baskets every year for a raffle. The ShopRite at Aramingo and Castor has donated $5,000 for the last eight years, and helped raise $20,000 more through raffles and store promotions.

"She's obviously got a heart and a half, coming in here with her cane. She just does it," said Kelly Mason, an administrative assistant at ShopRite. "It's neat that someone from Port Richmond could make a difference like this," said Pete Ammons, an owner.

Misnik's Deli on Allegheny Avenue? "That man is unbelievable," says Mary Lou. "Anytime I walk in there, 'What do you want? What do you need?' "

Mary Lou volunteered at the Kimmel Cancer Center, making copies, sitting with people during chemo - after she beat breast cancer the second time. But that wasn't enough.

She decided to start the Ladies of Port Richmond after watching television coverage of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer walk at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Mother's Day. She called friends to her kitchen table. "Why can't we do that in our neighborhood?" she asked.

The first two-mile cancer walk in Port Richmond was in 2005.

"I thought it was going to be a one-time thing," said Jerry, her husband and driver. "But she did it, fell in love with it, and that was it. She likes to help people."

There have been nine annual neighborhood walks, their biggest fund-raising event, though Mary Lou is so hobbled she couldn't walk in the one on May 19. And she has organized so many other activities - comedy night at the Cannstatter Club in Northeast Philly, casino bus trips, breakfasts at her church and at Applebee's. The Ladies peel the potatoes and cook the eggs and sausage themselves, and keep the price to $10 ($5 for kids) so neighborhood people can afford to come.

So far, by Mary Lou's count, the Ladies have given away $363,000 to local hospitals - $283,500 to Jefferson, said Richard Pestell, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center.

He said this money is especially valuable because it comes with no strings attached. Jefferson researchers have used it as seed money - almost impossible to find otherwise - to do preliminary research that has helped win National Cancer Institute grants worth millions.

"There's been a tremendous return on their efforts," Pestell said.

The Ladies have given Nazareth Hospital $28,700 over the last three years, much of it used for awareness and education, including a Ladies Night Out at a banquet hall in Port Richmond, with speakers from the American Cancer Society and staff from Nazareth.

The Ladies have $36,000 more in their bank account to give away this year, but will wait until after big fund-raising efforts still ahead in October, November, and December.

Mary Lou vows that next year, the 10th, will be her last as president. "My legs are done," she said.

"She needs knee replacements, but is waiting, hoping for a breakthrough," Rani Anne, her radiation oncologist, e-mailed from London. "She states compared to her cancers, it does not bother her."

None of the vice presidents so far has been willing to take over.

"I'm praying I'll be able to find somebody," Mary Lou said. "Anybody I talk to, they don't mind helping us do anything I want done, but the leadership they don't want to do. They don't want to get people mad at them.

"I am a little pushy," she adds.

She still has big goals. She'd like to get Bridesburg and Fishtown more involved, but realizes the name, Ladies of Port Richmond, is probably an impediment. Her biggest dream is to make the 10th annual Ladies of Port Richmond breast cancer walk across the Betsy Ross Bridge, but so far the red tape and expense have bested even her.

Jerry married Mary Lou at 17. He drove a forklift and retired from a warehouse after 40 years, "but she pushed me out," he says, made him get another job, and he's still working for the city six months of the year, keeping parks and playgrounds clean in Port Richmond. He knows his wife talks about stepping down, but she's an even harder worker than he is and he knows what the Ladies of Port Richmond means to her.

"She'll keep at it as long as she can," he says. "As long as she can walk, she'll do it."


To contact or donate:

Phone: 215-427-3222

Mail: The Ladies of Port Richmond, 3160 Cedar St., Philadelphia 19134.

Online: Go to www.facebook.com and search for "Ladies of Port Richmond."


Contact Michael Vitez at mvitez@phillynews.com or 215-854-5639. On Twitter @michaelvitez.

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