Joan L. Specter Obituary 2024 - Joseph Levine and Sons (2024)

Gourmet cook. Teacher. Writer. Radio host. Entrepreneur. City council member. Advocate of the arts. Human rights champion. Wife, mother and grandmother. Joan Levy Specter did it all with passion, aplomb and great success. She passed away peacefully at age 90 due to complications of dementia at her home at the Quadrangle in Haverford on June 29, 2024.

Well-known as the wife of the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, Joan Specter had a storied career of her own. After graduating from college, her first interest was the culinary arts. Seeking to hone her skills, Specter studied with the famous chef James Beard in New York, at the Cordon Bleu in London and the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She then enrolled in a master’s program at Drexel University, where she studied food science. She went on to start several cooking schools, named La Petite Ecole, which Specter operated for 13 years. At the same time, she hosted a radio program about food and consumer advice and for 11 years wrote a weekly food column for The Philadelphia Bulletin.

From Pies to Politics

Specter began making pies at home and, after being approached by a businessman in the mid 1970's about turning pies into a business, a bakery was opened in Overbrook and the pies became a featured item at high-end restaurants such as The Palm.

The enterprise grew to wholesale distribution in 20 states, as far away as Texas and California and included supermarkets, among them the Acme Markets chain. With the name Joan Specter's Desserts, the pies were billed as "America's first gourmet frozen pies which require no baking, decorating or special preparations." In 1981, The Washington Post ran an article about Joan Specter and her pie business titled: "The Great American Success Story."

Specter eventually sold her business but not before venturing into a very different profession - politics. Arlen Specter had won campaigns for Philadelphia district attorney and said Joan Specter in an interview, "I've always been active with my husband in politics and decided, after 15 years of watching people walk to the front of a room and make their speeches, I had something to contribute, too." In 1979, the soft-spoken, demure Specter ran in her first race. Aided by her popularity from her newspaper column and pie company — one campaign flyer included a recipe for caramel pineapple cake on the reverse — she handily won election as a Republican to Philadelphia City Council, specifically to one of two of the 17 seats reserved for minority party candidates. Even while on council, she would go to the bakery every morning at 7:30 sample the wares, a form of quality control. Specter served four 4-year terms on the Democratic-controlled body, from 1980 - 1996.

The Philadelphia Daily News described Specter as "stylish Republican Councilwoman at-large Joan Specter" and summed up her council career this way: "During her 16-year tenure, Specter operated a successful pie business, offered legislation that was ignored by the Democrats but sometimes later adopted and generally comported herself in a dignified way despite ridicule from oafish members of the majority party."

During her terms in office, Specter made her mark despite being a member of the minority party. Her central issues were non-partisan -- day care, housing, child nutrition, art and discrimination, both racial and gender. Upsetting even her only at-large Republican council colleague, the tall, bow-tied Thacher Longstreth, Specter pushed through an ordinance that made it illegal for the city to do business with companies that held memberships in private clubs that discriminate along racial or gender lines. The ordinance affected such previously all-male establishment as the illustrious Union League, of which Longstreth was a member. Specter herself was one of the first female members of the once all-male Boathouse Row clubs.

Specter also introduced and worked for eventual passage of a measure that mandated the Philadelphia Municipal Retirement System divest itself of holdings in companies operating in South Africa, which then practiced apartheid. Those holdings amounted to $85 million, or one-seventh of the pension fund's total portfolio.

"Over 40 percent of Philadelphia is black," Specter said at the time. "I feel Philadelphia cannot support institutionalized racism. We hope to set a pattern and rally support for other cities to follow suit. I think the time is ripe."

Specter was also an art lover who felt that art should be shared with everyone, not just the privileged. She promoted a measure requiring that one percent of funds allocated for construction projects be earmarked for art and it was by her efforts that a permanent exhibit of art was installed inside City Hall.

After leaving City Council, Specter went on to work as director of leadership gifts for the National Constitution Center, and was on the board of trustees at the Hazel K. Goddess Fund for Stroke Research and the Children's Literacy Initiative.

Early Days

Joan Levy was born on March 5, 1934 and raised in Philadelphia, growing up in the Hill Creek housing project in the city's Lawncrest section and later in the East Oak Lane neighborhood. She was a stunningly beautiful, even as a young child, and was featured in the Lux Soap advertisem*nts. She attended Olney High School, where she was later enshrined on the school's Wall of Fame. Her mother was June Levy and her father was Israel Levy, a photo engraver at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 1949, while in high school, Joan Levy attended a fraternity party at the University of Pennsylvania, where she met a young man from Kansas. Joan and Arlen Specter married in 1953. Joan Specter would say years later that had she known her husband would win a Senate seat the year after her first Council meeting and go on to a 30-year career as a senator, she might not have run for Council. Holding both jobs meant that they would spend time apart, with the councilwoman in Philadelphia and the senator spending many nights in their Georgetown condominium. But, as she told The New York Times in 1982, "It's not so bad, we're only separated two nights a week. The only things that don't work out are the ones you never try."

The two had been inseparable before that, so much so that her choice of Southern Connecticut State Teachers College followed his to Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn. Years later she founded a scholarship fund at Southern Connecticut State for students in financial need. After their graduations, Joan and Arlen Specter moved back to Philadelphia, where they started a family. The couple, married until the senator's death in 2012, had two children who would both flourish in their chosen fields, the younger, Steve, practicing psychiatry in California, while Shanin co-founded the Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter, PC.

Joan Specter is also survived by a younger brother, Barry Levy, an attorney, who lives in California, her daughter-in-law Tracey Specter, and four granddaughters, Silvi (Oran Goldberg), Perri, Lilli and Hatti. "She had varied and successful careers — she was very entrepreneurial, creative and hard working and was a loving and loved daughter, wife, mother and grandmother," remembered Shanin Specter.

In addition to her work and family life, Joan Specter was committed to her fitness and faith. She first pursued running, later sculling, before settling on golf, which she played into her late 80's. Mrs. Specter was deeply attached to her faith beginning in the 1940's when she would walk to Sunday School at Temple Shalom on Roosevelt Boulevard, where she was later married. Late in life, she was a regular attendant at Friday night services at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, to which she commuted from the Quadrangle Retirement Community in Havertown.

In a Washington Post profile, Joan Specter would say about herself: "I've had a great life. I've always been able to do everything I've ever wanted. I've always known what I wanted to do."

A celebration of Joan Specter’s life will occur on Tuesday, July 2 at 12:30pm at Har Zion Temple at 1500 Hagys Ford Road in Penn Valley, PA.

Following services, relatives and friends are invited to remain for a reception honoring Joan’s memory.

Joan L. Specter Obituary 2024 - Joseph Levine and Sons (2024)
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