Centenarian blazed trail for women judges

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Setting the plate of Oreos in front of Florence Zimmerman, the kitchen staff member made it clear who the cookies belonged to: “These are her favorite.” 

With two cookies in front of her, however, the 103-year-old judge wasn’t going to keep all that sweet goodness to herself, urging Frankie Diaz,the life guidance director of the memory care program at Atria Riverdale, to one.

Zimmerman spent her life working her way up the legal ladder from lawyer to judge. But while that might surprise few people today, Zimmerman started her journey during the Roosevelt era. Yes, Franklin D.

Most of that is locked away now, however, as Zimmerman lives with dementia. Yet, there are some courtroom battles that remain in the forefront of her mind. 

“When a very hard case comes in and the parties are like this,” said Zimmerman hitting her hands together, showing the level of contention. “The party that had the best case won, and everyone walked away happy.”

Dementia has taken its toll on Zimmerman over the years, but she’s come a long way since her niece, Judy Oshry, stepped in to help. Before finding Atria, Zimmerman lived alone, refusing to let any paperwork leave the house because of paranoia caused by her condition. 

“She didn’t want to throw away anything with her name on it because she was afraid of identity theft,” Oshry said.

When Oshry was finally able to get inside, she found papers piled everywhere to the point there was nowhere to sit. It wasn’t until Zimmerman fell and broke her neck — forcing her into the hospital for three weeks — that Oshry was able to step in, clearing out her home. 

While the hospital let Zimmerman return home as long as she had regular help, by the time she hit her late 90s in 2013, Oshry decided Atria would be the best place for her.

The memory loss sometimes makes Zimmerman mix up pieces of reality, Oshry said. The time line of certain events in her life may jump around, including the names of people she had known. 

One moment, she’s talking about her sister living in San Francisco. The next, it’s a different story about that same sister’s death in a car accident. 

Sometimes her memory loss even affects how Zimmerman sees herself. At one point, she referred to Oshry as Ethel, her late aunt, suggesting Zimmerman was thinking she was much younger than she actually was, referencing a time when Aunt Ethel had still been alive.

But there are moments of perfect clarity, like Zimmerman’s long-awaited return to her alma mater, Hunter College. There, her mind was almost as sharp as it was in 1937, the year she graduated. Diaz, who often spends time with Zimmerman beyond their shared Oreos, accompanied her.

“She’s my little lady,” Diaz said. 

Zimmerman wanted to be different from other women, who then were focused more on marriage and raising families. She aspired to be a “professional person.” When she found out her family didn’t have the money to send her to college, however, she ultimately chose Hunter because the tuition was free.

“I thought if they can be good students, me too,” Zimmerman said, smacking the table for emphasis. 

After Hunter, Zimmerman was accepted into New York Law School in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. However the road to the black robes was far from easy. During the day Zimmerman was a self taught-typist, and at night she was a law student.

“I got a better salary as a typist than as a law student,” she said. 

Zimmerman was born of Polish and Russian immigrants and was very close to her family. She was the second daughter of three girls, and her older sister was her best friend. 

Spending her teen years during the Great Depression, whatever money Zimmerman earned, she shared with her family. 

She married Henry Zimmerman in 1946, but she had little time for children, Oshry said, instead focused on her career. 

Zimmerman was one of the first women to receive a degree from the law school, and later would become one of the first female civic court judges in New York City.

“The progress women have made in the past years, it’s still wonderful,” Zimmerman said. “I was the first in my family who was going to be a professional woman.” 

Then New York mayor John Lindsay swore in Zimmerman as a judge on Dec. 28, 1972 after a law career where she was instrumental in enforcing rent control stabilization. Many of her cases are still referenced in New York’s supreme court. 

Now three years past the century mark and her memory nothing like it used to be, Zimmerman still remembers what it was like as a trailblazing woman in the courthouse.

“Just because someone does not have a lot of money, that’s not the attitude of a judge,” she said. “When a case comes before you, that has to be the most important case before them. You’re the lawyer for the court, and you have to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, they’re not going to respect you.” 

After the Hunter reunion, Zimmerman and Diaz headed back to Atria. Watching the street numbers gradually increase, the former judge realized they were leaving Manhattan.

“I want to go downtown, not uptown,” she said. Sometimes she doesn’t miss a beat.

With the Oreos gone, it was nearly time for Zimmerman to go to lunch. Diaz helped her up, steadying her on her walker. 

On her way out, Zimmerman looked back, blew a kiss and smiled. 

“I feel honored,” she said, “to have shared some Oreos with you.”

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