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Ethel Hagler / Respected community organizer from the North Side: Dec. 17, 1908 – Nov. 11, 2006

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Diana Nelson Jones,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Upon learning that Ethel Hagler had died, many who knew her gasped.

Yes, she was mortal, and 97 when she died Saturday. But the North Sider had been indomitable, amassing a lifetime of feats in community building that sometimes seemed as improbable as a Frank Capra movie.

The most tangible of those, Neighborhood Housing Services, she started in 1968 from a trailer on Jacksonia Street. She and two friends lobbied bankers to open the chance of home ownership to low-income neighbors, most of them black, who had never established credit or known how institutional borrowing worked.

Today, Neighborhood Housing Services are established in 250 U.S. cities.

Louann Ross, executive director of the local office, said that when she travels in community development circles and says she is from Pittsburgh, “people gasp and say, ‘That’s where residential community development leadership started!’ ”

“I tell the story all the time,” she said. “These were women without much formal education. They began visiting banks and foundations. They raised $750,000. Think about how much money that was then. It still is. They just kept talking about the importance of this. They must have been mighty powerful words.”

Mrs. Hagler came to Pittsburgh from Dante, Va., with her husband, William Spencer Hagler. They set up housekeeping on Lorraine Street, where she lived her life until her last months in nursing homes. Her earliest and most enduring cause was the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

On her 90th birthday, when the neighborhood and City Council honored her, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “You get to know people when you go to church, you know.”

She started a block club, organized neighbors to visit shut-ins and deliver Christmas baskets. She helped found the Central Northside Neighborhood Council. In the 1960s, she partnered with the Garden Club of Allegheny County on beautification projects. One was an annual window box sale to raise money for her church.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation promoted the window box sales, which lasted 40 years and led neighbors to home improvements, said Arthur Ziegler, president of the foundation.

As a result of their association, the foundation invited Mrs. Hagler onto its board, he said, “because she was so committed and had so much knowledge of how neighborhoods worked and how to lead.”

Eliza Nevin knew Mrs. Hagler from their beautification efforts on the North Side in the 1970s.

“She had the rare ability to love all kinds of people,” said Ms. Nevin. “When some people saw dangers in gentrification, she was out talking to the, quote, gentry, enlisting their help. When people were [lamenting] garbage and drug deals, she was forging these public-private partnerships to plant trees and flowers everywhere, to show people what a nice community can be like.

“She saw injustice and worked on the love part of it. She was different from everybody else.”

Former city Councilman Sala Udin said that when he decided to run for council in that district in 1995, he had to get to know her first.

“I learned very early that she was the absolute single person it was necessary to be in touch with if you had political ambitions on the North Side. She was called the mayor of the North Side,” Mr. Udin said.

Peggy King, who met Mrs. Hagler through the garden club project, said her friend “had that force of personality, that presence.”

“She didn’t shrink from being the star of the show,” she said, “but if someone was sick, she was bringing food and changing beds. She was the best of what the human species has to offer.”

Patricia Sutton described her aunt as “a very strong-willed person who refused to settle for ‘no.’ ”

At the end of her life, so homesick for Lorraine Street, Mrs. Hagler would sit in her nursing home at a display honoring former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, said Ms. Sutton.

“It said ‘The Bus Stops Here,’ and she sat there waiting for the bus to go home,” she said.

She had lived without her husband for many years, but her niece said that a final instruction, “the last thing I could make out, was, ‘Patricia, make sure Spence knows where I am.’ ”

Visitation will be Friday at Brown Chapel AME Church, 1400 Boyle St., North Side, from 2 to 4 p.m. A memorial tribute will be held there from 7 to 9 p.m. Mrs. Hagler will be buried in Highwood Cemetery.

Donations may be made to the Sutton-Hagler Scholarship Fund, c/o PNC Bank, P.O. Box 6263, Pittsburgh 15212-0263.

(Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at or 412-263-1626. )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633