Shirley Merlin West was that rarity in Miami-Dade — a native.
“She was very proud of it,” said her son Bruce Merlin Fried. “Think back to what Miami must have been like in 1929. She identified herself clearly as a Miamian and was very invested in the community. Whether through her activities with the Dade County Community Relations Board and her political involvement, it really was all about a sense of ownership of Miami-Dade County and wanting to do her part in the place where she lived and making it the best possible place for everyone else who lived here.”
West died April 11 at age 84.
After graduating from Miami Senior High and the University of Miami, West worked as a South Miami-Dade regional administrator for special needs children with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. From 1990 to 1991 she served as president of the University of Miami’s Alumni Association.
“When her tenure as president of the alumni association came to an end she was sort of at loose ends and wasn’t quite sure what to do,” said Fried, a Washington attorney. “This is a woman with enormous energy and great networking skills. When the Clinton campaign came up I said, ‘Mother, you’re the most political person I know whose never been involved in politics. Why don’t you go to the Clinton campaign and volunteer?’”
West listened. Suitably inspired after Bill Clinton was elected president, in 1993 West organized the Democratic women’s group, Democratic POWER, which was a member of the Dade County Democratic Executive Committee. She realized that women needed a voice and a forum for political issues, especially those that affected women. Men were not excluded from membership and, indeed, some joined. Guest speakers included Miami-Dade County State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle, Hugh Rodham (Hillary Clinton’s brother) and local Democratic elected officials.
West organized the group by pulling out her phone book and calling contacts. In a 1996 Miami Herald story on Democratic POWER, the group’s vice president of programs, Fran Blake, said the group West pushed for served a major need. “It’s very important for women to get educated on the issues and to get out the vote. We’re such a huge, untapped resource.”
None of this surprised her son.
“The roots of her political activity were not visible but a part of who she was even before she became politically engaged. Racial equality, fundamental equality were a part of our household. Issues of morality and ethics were all imbued in all of us,” Fried, 64, said of his upbringing and that of his siblings Randall, Paulette and Wayne Fried, all of whom survive West, along with three grandchildren.
“For the first 11 years of my legal career I was a legal services attorney in Liberty City. I worked in a storefront that didn’t even have a storefront. The front was all bricked up. But we tried to take care of legal problems that poor people had. I had a comfortable place to start my career given the home I’d grown up in,” he said.
West’s passion for the cause, and education, remained undimmed. In late February, Hillary Clinton spoke at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center. West was among the 6,000 students and guests who listened to the former secretary of state and current Democratic frontrunner for president speak about strife in Venezuela, climate change, and the perils of partisanship.
“Weeks before her last hospitalization Donna Shalala, who was my boss in the federal government during the Clinton administration, had tickets for her,” Fried said. “My mother was unwell but her energy snapped back. She called her friends, got herself to the field house to see Hillary do her thing, and that was sort of a remarkable final burst and really played to all of her interests and strength.”
“She was a loyal, enthusiastic and very smart woman,” Shalala said of West. “She lit up a room whenever she arrived.”
Services will be held at 1:30 p.m. May 18 at Riverside Gordon Chapels at Mount Nebo, 5900 SW 77th Ave., Kendall.