East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Joan Specter
Interviewer: Herb Henze
Date: April 29, 2013
Transcriber: Wendy Moody
HH: Its April 29 (2013) and we’re here at Joan Specter’s marvelous house in East Falls and were going to have a talk – she’s gracious enough to give her remembrances of East Falls, and her life and politics with her beloved late husband, Arlen.
JS: Well, I moved into East Falls with my husband and one child in 1960. I moved onto Warden Drive, 3417 Warden Drive. In those days, and still is, one of the steepest hills on Warden Drive.
And so the summer was wonderful, the winter was a hazard trying to get up and down the driveway. But beyond that, we loved the house, we loved the grounds, and we had a thoroughly wonderful time in East Falls.
HH: Joan, before you came to East Falls; when did you come to Philadelphia?
JS: Well, I went up to law school with Arlen – he was studying law and I was finishing college at Yale so we lived in New Haven. Then he graduated from law school in 1965. And we then, of course, came back to Philadelphia.
We first rented an apartment on Pine Street – 2100 Pine, and then we found out there was a house we could actually rent next to the Colonial Dames of America. So we rented that house for a year and that was delightful because at that time Shanin was born and I could take Shanin to the park and wheel him over to Rittenhouse Square and talk to a lot of nice women. But that house was much too small, and so we decided to look for another house, and a friend who had grown up on Midvale Avenue suggested that I look in East Falls.
And I had never heard of East Falls but that’s ok, I thought why not. So I looked in East Falls and I found this wonderful house on Warden Drive – 3417 Warden Drive. It was a wonderful house but it was a very, very steep driveway. And in the winter it was a major hazard to get the car up and down – as you know, they didn’t particularly love to have people parking on the street – so everyone wanted us to park on the hill except they hadn’t lived in the house and didn’t know how hard it was to get up the hill and what a hazard to get down the hill, but we managed. But my experience on Warden Drive for thirty years was really terrific – we had good neighbors. Actually, one of our neighbors on one side is still on Warden Drive and people were just really delightful and helpful.
When the children got bigger we began to look for another house and we really didn’t want to move from East Falls. We really wanted to stay right in East Falls. And a friend of mine told me that there was a house for sale – that had not gone onto the market – on Timber Lane. And I thought “Oh wow, that’s just great” because I always walked down Timber Lane and I always loved the street but I never really thought I could ever live on the street.
I went down, and I’ll tell you that the woman who sold me the house was a delightful woman and not afraid to be very forthright. So Arlen and I walked down and we introduced ourselves and we said we were interested in buying her house. And she replied “You can’t afford it.” And I said, along with Arlen, “Well how much do you want?” and she told us and both of us mentally said to ourselves, she’s right – we can’t.
But we pursued it and we figured out that we could afford it and we put our house up for sale and managed to afford the house and move into Timber Lane which has really been a delightful place to live because the community on Timber Lane is very warm and very hospitable and very open to new people who move into the street. So we’ve had quite a glorious time here and it’s quite sad in many, many ways to be leaving.
I’m think that East Falls – I have found – I know there are problems in East Falls but I found it a lovely community to walk around – to nod your head at neighbors that you don’t know and they would nod their head back. I’ve always felt safe in East Falls although I do know there are problems but there are problems in every community – there’s no community you could live in where there aren’t any problems.
Who can live in such a wonderful place 15 minutes from town? And three different roads that can take you into town. So if one road is busy you can take another road. If both roads are busy you have a third road. So the opportunity to get into town and move around is so splendid living in East Falls. People ask me “You’re leaving East Falls. How did you like living there?” I say it was terrific; I’m sorry to leave because it’s very convenient and very hospitable and it’s been a great experience for our family.
HH: That’s marvelous. If I can just have a personal comment – I was in Washington visiting a Congressman, John Fox. It was marvelous. These political people work very, very hard. At the end of the day, quarter to five or something like that, and Congressman Fox said “What are you doing next? I said “Oh, I’m going over to Citizens for Arlen Specter. They’re having a get-together at one of the office buildings and I said I’m going to go there.” He said I’ll go with you. So we got in the taxi and went over there. John Fox met you – I still remember he met you at the entrance to the conference and he said “How are you doing?” And you said, as I recall, “We’re dying – give us a speech.” So John Fox obliged by giving a speech.
I’d like to personally mention I heard this house was for sale and I thought you’d want to know. I guess you did want to know because that’s where you moved. I don’t know what you paid for it, that wasn’t my business and I certainly wasn’t the real estate agent but I feel I was maybe in some small way the cause of either your bliss or your discomfort. But I know you did afford it and you did a beautiful job and kept the house up. You were a great neighbor. I’m sorry to see you going. You’re leaving at a beautiful time – the foliage is out, the trees are blossoming, the crabapples are glorious, the magnolias are okay if the rain doesn’t knock them down. It’s been great having you as a neighbor. And certainly having a senator and a judge on the street as neighbors gave us real good security.
JS: That’s for sure.
HH: You mentioned that you both went to law school. Did you graduate from law school?
JS: No I didn’t. Actually I finished college. I started at Temple University. My mother was very determined that if I got married that I should finish college. I was able to matriculate at Southern Connecticut University and so I was able to finish college while Arlen was in law school which was really great. And then I came back to the city and actually taught school in the Philadelphia Public School System.
HH: You taught school for a while and it seemed to me, if my memory is correct, you had a wonderful catering business. You made a wonderful pie.
JS: I had a company that manufactured pies for restaurants. It took me a while to develop the product. And I had a bakery in Overbrook and I sold wholesale to restaurants. I had the business for about five years and then I was elected to City Council and that was very, very difficult – you just can’t do both jobs – and I decided that I preferred to stay with City Council and so I sold the business.
HH: So you gave up apple walnut pie…
JS: I gave up apple walnut pie and double chocolate mousse pie. I’ll tell you a funny story. My youngest son Steve really loved the double chocolate mousse pie. But he was away at college, and so when he heard I was selling the business, he said “Mom, please take two of the double chocolate mousse pies and put them in the freezer downstairs in the basement” because I had an extra freezer in the basement. And I said absolutely I will keep them for you. So I did.
But what I didn’t realize was that we had an electrical outage in the house about a year later – he hadn’t come home yet – and the pies all melted! (laughs) And so when he went to the freezer to find his pies they were all over the freezer – he was very, very upset. There was nothing I could really do; there were his pies in a puddle. It was a great disappointment.
We really enjoyed our time in East Falls. It’s been a great place, a very friendly place, a very beautiful place and has become more beautiful with people planting trees and gardens. I would say if anything, East Falls has definitely gotten better – definitely gotten better in terms of how the whole area looks now with the trees and the foliage.
HH: You probably know there’s an organization called Tree Tenders.
JS:Yes I do.
HH: As a matter of fact some of us were out last Saturday and put trees in. The trees are furnished by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Water Department, and the diggers and the planters are volunteers. We put in fifteen trees.
JS: I saw you put a lot in trees in front of the library.
HH: That’s another group. The library has been beautified by the Friends of the Library. Tree Tenders are something else. We put them here and there. Basically street trees. We’re trying to green up the neighborhood. The big problems are that sometimes the trees aren’t taken care of, people drive cars into them, the trees go into the wires, the utility companies butcher them up pretty badly.
HH: Joan, you were in City Council…
JS: I was in City Council for 4 terms. For 16 years.
HH: 16 years and you survived.
JS:I survived. I kept my head down. (laughs)
HH: That’s an old soldier’s trick if you want to get shot you just stick your head up out of the trenches.
JS: Right, right.
HH: Who were the Council Presidents?
That was interesting. John was Council President and what’s her name – gosh, I just can’t recall her name. She was Council President for a long time and then John became Council President.
JS: John Street became Council President. I served under three Council Presidents. The first one was indicted – George Schwartz was his name. George Schwartz.
HH: I remember George Schwartz.
JS: George was indicted along with some other people on some sort of corruption scandal. George was indicted and then it was an African-American gentleman who then became head of City Council. I can see him but I can’t remember his name.
HH: Wilson Goode?
JS: No, not Wilson. Bill Coleman.
HH: Oh, Bill Coleman.
JS: Bill Coleman became head of City Council. Then Bill left and retired and Anna Verna took his job.
HH: Joe Coleman
JS: Joe Coleman. Excuse me, Joe Coleman, Joe Coleman. Joe was a sweetheart. He was a really great guy. It was very difficult being a minority member of Council. The majority never wanted you to have anything or get anything or get any extra money. But Joe would always slip me extra money for my constituents. I’d say “We really need this playground in x neighborhood.” And Joe would say “Ok, how much is it? I’ll put it in the budget for you.” So he was really great. He was very good to me. When you’re At-Large, it’s a battle to meet all your constituents and go to the various districts. It’s a big job. You want to try to be helpful to people in your district because that’s your job. That’s your job.
HH: Was Thatcher Longstreth on Council then?
JS: Thatcher and I came to Council at exactly the same time. Thatcher was very well-liked. He enjoyed being in City Council and did a very good job. A very good job.
HH: Coincidentally, Mrs. Coleman, Joe’s widow, attends our church so I see her.
JS: Oh really? Please send her my regards.
HH: Jesse Coleman. She’s elderly…
JS: She’s got to be, she’s got to be quite old – she’s got to be in her late 80s.
HH: She’s a bit frail. I see her daughter Rachel.
JS: Oh how nice.
HH: So after 4 term, 16 years, you retired from City Council. That’s a long run.
JS: It was a long run. It was a very long run. There was lots of competition in the Republican Party for that spot. So it was difficult to maintain your constituency, which was Republican for me and to maintain love of the ward leaders because they made the determination of who ran (?) the Republican Party at that time. So it was a battle staying in – it was quite something. But I managed and I think 16 years is a good record.
HH: A wonderful record. Speaking personally as a Republican I find that’s an endangered species today, if not borderline extinct. Our party has been captured and radicalized by people a little more radical than us, the old time Republicans.
JS: Right, right. Well I agree. The Republican Party is almost nonexistent in Philadelphia today and has been very difficult to get people to run for office. Brian O’Neill is still in office. It’s difficult. It’s a failing party in our city, not a failing party in our country but a failing party in our city. We just haven’t been able to wield the party very much. Not at all.
HH: It’s the kind of problem that faces old time organizations. The change in base and failure to attract replacements.
JS: That’s exactly the problem that Arlen always had. When he ran for the Senate in Pennsylvania, it was a very fine line he had to walk in terms of he had to have Democratic votes to win. He just could not win on Republican votes. He had to appeal to the Democratic Party. So it’s a very fine line you have to run in terms of how you present yourself. And so Arlen always faced that. Any Republican who’s running statewide has that problem because we really are a Democratic state. And so they have to run that fine line. And I did too as a Councilwoman. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that.
HH: In a way it’s very distressing because I feel we need a two party system. The old expression that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When one organization has a total lock then it becomes susceptible to corruption or indifference or hardening of the arteries or whatever word you want to use.
JS: Well that’s true but it’s very much what happens in many states where the base is very Republican or very Democratic so there’s always that party that’s struggling to maintain some visibility.
HH: I understand that you traveled quite a bit with Arlen, including trips to such bizarre places as Damascus – not bizarre, it’s the oldest civilized city in the world. You spent time in Damascus and Libya, I guess Lebanon – all of these on the forefront of today’s excitement and agitation that one reads.
JS:Well Arlen’s interest was that area. Arlen’s area of interest was in the Middle East and I think we’ve been in Syria ten times. We knew the President of Syria Hafez al-Assad very well.
HH: That was the father, correct?
JS:That was the father. He would send a car for us at the airport and pick us up. His son we know very well, Bashar. I even know his wife. So we did know them. We knew King Hussein in Jordan. So I could go down the list but that was because we always – we spent a lot of time there, much more so than in Europe because that’s where Arlen was interested in. We met Saddam Hussein, although he would not meet women.
HH: He would not meet women?
JS: No. Saddam Hussein would not meet a woman. So the only way that Arlen got to meet him was to leave me home (laughs). I stayed in the hotel.
HH: Where you were safer at home…
JS:Yes, so I stayed in the hotel and actually the American Ambassador to Iraq at the time that we were there was a woman. And that was a problem – a real big problem. The State Department was very annoyed with the fact that he didn’t want to meet us to with her because he wouldn’t meet with women. That was an interesting little note there.
HH: That was certainly Saddam Hussein’s loss.
JS:Right. The other thing we saw was the exodus of Jews from that part of the world.
HH: The exit of Jewish people.
JS:The exit of Jewish people because we always tried to find where the Jewish community was to talk to them and how were they doing – were there problems for them? And in Iraq we found a small synagogue – there were two men left. This is in the capital. Everyone had left. Everyone had left.
HH: Two men left.
JS: Two men. And we found that a lot in the Middle East. We found that a lot. We found that in towns and big areas there was very little representation, although there had been over the years. So that was very interesting to us to see, frankly, the persecution of Jews in that part of the world. But we always tried to meet with people and see how they were doing. And we found it interesting. We found it very interesting. Often there were lone people who had this little synagogue – a few people would come on the Sabbath and that was about it.
HH: Baghdad? At one time Iraq was the most progressive of all the Arabian countries. Persian culture and universities. Damascus – one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Jewish and Christian…
JS: Damascus certainly had more Jews certainly than Iraq. Iraq really had nothing. Damascus, and Syria, did have Jewish communities. Aleppo, especially, had a large strong Jewish community. It hurts me to see the destruction there because we spent a lot of time there and I know it very well. They have a wonderful old fortress, a wonderful wall – I’m sure that that’s gone now. Everything’s obliterated. This is in Aleppo, which is of course the northern city of Syria. It’s the second largest city in Syria. So that’s been totally destroyed. It’s hard to see – they had wonderful old ruins – I don’t know what’s happened with them. It’s tragic; it’s absolutely tragic. And all the people who have died. And worse than that, the people who will be homeless – who will not have a home to go back to.
HH: Wouldn’t your experience in Damascus would be a great source of wisdom in Washington if anyone cared to listen?
JS: No, not really. There were people wiser than I and they had very good ambassadors that spent their time in Syria and Damascus. The ambassador now in the United States – I shouldn’t say the ambassador – (indecipherable) who’s leading the charge around the world now is very experienced, very experienced. He’s been to all those countries many times so we have a very good chief of staff there.
HH: And then you met the “Prize Nut” Gaddafi?
JS:We did meet Gaddafi and that was sort of an interesting situation. I had always wanted to go to his country and I heard that – we went to the capital and we were told by the American Embassy – which he didn’t approve having an American Embassy – the American Embassy was allowed to have only one floor of a hotel. One floor of a hotel, and it was a pretty new hotel. But that’s where they had their meetings and everything.
Anyway, we were told that Gaddafi was in the desert right now near his home so if we wanted to meet with him, he was not in the capital, that we would have to fly there. So we said ok we would fly there. So we flew there – we landed on a very rickety landing strip – and Gaddafi had a car waiting for us. And we went through the desert and we saw two tents in the middle of nowhere – I mean absolutely nowhere. We were led to one tent – that was the waiting tent…
HH: The waiting tent…
JS:The waiting tent, because he was seeing people so we were to sit there and wait. And one other person who was in the tent with us – and I don’t recall his name – was a congressman from California. And he was Jewish which I thought was interesting only because he said he had come to visit Gaddafi on many occasions and had a very good relationship with him. Well I thought that was kind of interesting because I knew that Gaddafi was not a person who particularly cared for Jews.
Anyway, we finally got in to see Gaddafi and we came into a tent – there was no house – just a tent. We walked into the tent and there were white plastic chairs. That’s all that was in the tent – the white plastic chairs.
HH: Like molded porch chairs.
JS: Yes, like molded porch chairs. And he was sitting in one, and there were a few chairs for guests. And if you looked out into the desert, right in front of the tent, this was unbelievable – was a water fountain spraying water! (laughs) He had a water fountain in the middle of the desert in front of the tent?? Is that crazy??
HH: That raises the question, where do you get the water?
JS:Well, he could have recycled the water and brought the water in and then recycle it so it kept revolving around. I did not have the nerve to ask him where he got the water! (laughs).
And beyond that, it was quite clear that he did not particularly care for the fact that I was there because women were of a lower status than men. I was there but I decided the best thing for me to do was to do nothing and keep quiet. Anyway, he and Arlen had a kind of interesting conversation – I’ve got to watch my time here – it was really quite a remarkable moment when we met with him in the tent. And then we left the tent – we got into a car, went back to the airstrip and flew out. And that was it.
We wanted to see him – we had heard a lot about him from the embassy and, for us, he just – I don’t know how Arlen would have described him – probably not like my description – he just seemed like a crackpot. I mean he was not a very interesting questioner or speaker. He didn’t add anything to the meeting at all. He was not forthcoming. So that was the way it was.
HH: Joan, I know you’re packing and you’re very busy but do you have any more time?
JS:What time do you have?
HH: I have five after four.
JS:That’s fine. I have an event later. I’m fine.
HH: Ok, we’ll go on then. You certainly have had marvelous experiences. I guess you’ve had a rich and full life. You’re leaving East Falls and going, I guess, to a smaller place.
HH: Going to a new place, you must be filled with reminiscences.
JS:Well I think that’s true. I love our house here. We loved living in East Falls. We spent most of our married life here in East Falls. It is a great community. Our children graduated from Penn Charter. We have a granddaughter now at Penn Charter.
My son Steve, who is quite brilliant, he has a Ph.D. and M.D. said recently – we were talking about our granddaughter being at Penn Charter – and Steve said “You know, mom” he said “Penn Charter was the hardest school I ever went to.” So that says something from a person who has an incredible amount of education and he said he it was a very difficult school. Very difficult.
HH: What does Steve do?
JS: Steve, right now, does two things: he’s a psychiatrist and he has private patients. His area of expertise is eating disorders.
HH: Eating disorders.
JS: Uh huh. And he’s also head of the department at UCLA for people who have alcohol abuse problems. And he spends 20 hours a week there.
HH: In California or here?
HH: And Shanin?
JS: Shanin has 60 or 70 lawyers work for him. Actually Shanin right now is in Texas on a case. He prefers not to be in Texas trying a case I can tell you that. But he’s doing well. He’s doing well.
HH: Do you have other children?
JS: No, just two sons and four granddaughters.
HH: The granddaughters take the place of the daughters you didn’t have.
JS: Right. Right.
HH: I guess in a way it’s delightful for me to come here on behalf of the East Falls Community Council (i.e. East Falls Historical Society) and take your statement, in legal terms.
I personally remember one Sunday morning many years ago, or some years ago, there was a meeting down at one of your neighbor’s houses and Arlen Specter spoke in a big tent, essentially about providing more diversity and tolerance among Republicans. I didn’t see it coming but he sorta announced he was interested in running for President under this big tent. I felt honored to be there. But one of the things that amazed me was that Ed Rendell and a few other people showed up and that made the whole thing ecumenical…I think Ed was Mayor at the time.
JS: Well Ed was a good friend, a very good friend. Arlen gave Ed one of his first jobs. We were just returning to Philadelphia and Ed came to see Arlen for a job. Ed worked for Arlen.
HH: In the District Attorney’s Office.
JS:In the District Attorney’s Office when he was a young man. So they go back a long time. And Arlen made his wife a judge.
HH: Oh yes, Midge.
JS: Midge – she’s a very lovely, very bright woman.
HH: She served on the Circuit Court of Appeals.
JS: Yes, very impressive. Very impressive. So we go back a long time and we care about each other and our children. Ed has been very helpful to Arlen on the Philadelphia University proposal to have the Arlen Specter Center. That was very helpful to us. So we’ve made good friends in East Falls, very good friends.
HH: For all those years. You’ve been wonderful, valued assets – cultural assets, political assets, social assets here and in the city. As one of your neighbors I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done and what you have been, for all the good work you have done, and for keeping up your property so beautifully. It’s been nice having you.
JS: Oh thank you, thank you Herb. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak a little bit about the best neighborhood in Philadelphia.
HH: Well, wonderful. Great. Thank you so much.