Naming streets and public buildings for local residents is an honored tradition. On March 1, a ceremony was held for the co-designation of 103rd Street between Northwest Third and Northeast Sixth avenues in Miami Shores for the late lawyer and schools administrator Tanya Martin Oubre Pekel.
Tanya was the oldest daughter of Hampton University graduates Montez Martin and Marsha Johnson Martin Saunders. The Martins, with daughters Tanya and Terrie, were a military family. When Tanya was 6, the girls relocated to Miami with their mother.
Of South Carolinian and Bahamian ancestry, their maternal grandparents relocated from the Bahamas to Miami’s Colored Town, now Overtown, in the 1920s, and their mother, Marcia Johnson, graduated from Booker T. Washington Senior High School in 1958.
Tanya and Terrie attended Morningside and Miami Shores elementary schools; Horace Mann Jr. and North Miami Middle; and North Miami Senior High School. In high school, Tanya was an honor student, played flute in the marching band and was a member of the National Honor Society.
Senior year, Tanya was one of three national merit scholars form Dade County. She was a Girl Scout, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, a dance student at Florine Nichols’ Dance Studio, and active in the youth ministry at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.
She was a Florida Page in Tallahassee, Congressional Page for Rep. William Lehman in Washington, D.C., and an intern with Miami attorney H. T. Smith, past president of the National Bar Association.
In 1982, Tanya graduated with honors from North Miami Senior High School and entered Duke University. She became secretary of the student government and president of the Black Student Alliance. After an undergraduate degree in Economics in 1989, Tanya earned a degree from Duke’s School of Law. She began her professional career as a corporate attorney at the Wall Street law firm of Simpson, Thatcher and Barlett before joining Southern California Edison as an attorney specializing in nuclear energy.
Quiet and unassuming, Tanya’s name may not be widely known, but her accomplishments are notable. She made history in 1995 when appointed by then President Bill Clinton to the class of White House Fellows.
Nearly thirty years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the White House Fellows Program “with the intent of drawing individuals of exceptionally high promise to Washington for one year of personal involvement in the process of government and to increase their sense of participation in national affairs.” In return, those selected as fellows would repay that privilege when they left by continuing to work as private citizens on their public agendas, contributing to the nation as future leaders and role models. The selection process for this annual non-partisan program is very competitive with as many as 1,000 applicants for 19 fellowships.
Selected for the 1995-96 class of White House Fellows was the highlight of Tanya’s career. One of only 14 in the class she served in the Department of Education. At the end of the program she was named Associate Director of Education Policy and Planning in the Clinton Administration.
In 1999 Tanya accepted the position of chief of staff to the superintendent of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Public School System.
Three years later she faced the most difficult challenge of the life: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. With three young children: Lauren, Adam and Victoria, a loving husband, Kent, and a career she faced her challenge valiantly. Juggling chemotherapy treatments, doctor’s appointments, caring for her family and a demanding job, she never complained. In 2006, she passed away at the age of 41, having accomplished more that most who live to be twice her age.
Tributes posted on the St. Paul Issues Forum on E-Democracy.org capture the essence of Tanya Martin Pekel: “She was a tremendously important anchor for so many of us trying to do our best for St. Paul students … exceptionally bright, extraordinary talented, extremely versatile, always focused on doing what was right for kids, and available every minute to help make sure everything worked as smoothly as possible. And she was kind, caring, thoughtful, and a great deal of fun. Gracious and understated Tanya was very deeply committed to young people of all races.”