Speaking a few years ago about her childhood, Elaine Schuster recalled that her Russian-immigrant grandparents had set an example that would come to define her own life.
“They had a little box that they put money into all the time, and they gave it away,” she said. “I was taught that that’s what you do. If you’re lucky enough to get some, you give some.”
She gave a lot. Alongside Gerald Schuster, her prominent businessman husband, she was a major benefactor for education, health care, and media initiatives. They also were mainstays of Democratic Party fund-raising, with Mrs. Schuster offering particular support to electing women.
“I realized that you could really make a difference if you wanted to,” she told The Boston Globe in 1998.
Mrs. Schuster, who after raising four children turned her attention to improving the world, died Monday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of complications from pneumonia. She was 90 and had homes in Boston, Osterville, and Palm Beach, Fla.
“I think that Elaine was in a league of her own in terms of her giving, her philanthropy, her engagement in politics, and her support of women candidates in particular,” said Attorney General Maura Healey. “There’ll never be another Elaine Schuster.”
In a toast in 2017 at the Schusters’ 65th-anniversary celebration, Hillary Clinton called Mrs. Schuster “the godmother of so many Democrats in politics,” and one who carefully vetted candidates.
“She puts you through your paces. You have to earn her support,” Clinton said then. “It’s not just that you show up and ask her. She cross-examines you. She has that look that would just knock you to the floor, and has on occasion, until she decides, ‘OK, I’m going to support this person.’ And it is not an easy gauntlet to run.”
In the rough and tumble world of politics, “Elaine was as fiercely competitive as anybody I’ve ever met,” said John Kerry, a former US secretary of state and former US senator whose campaigns benefited from Mrs. Schuster’s fund-raising savvy and energy.
“Elaine was a towering force of nature. She really was incredible,” Kerry said. “She was, without question, one of the very few must-see, go-to people in the state. If you had Elaine Schuster on your side, you had a chance of winning.”
When Brandeis University awarded Mrs. Schuster an honorary degree, the citation praised her “advocacy for the poor, the exploited and the marginalized — on both the national and international stage.”
President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009 to serve as a public delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, where she worked to both raise awareness about and combat human trafficking.
She also was a founder of Operation P.E.A.C.E. (Partnerships in Education and Community Enrichment) in Atlanta and Boston, which offers life-skills education for inner-city children, and a financial backer of the Boston Public Library and Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Club organizations.
“She was the one who led those causes in the family,” said her son Scott of Palm Beach, Fla. “Persistent, consistent — those are the words I’d use to describe how she supported causes.”
Mrs. Schuster’s “will and determination was something to behold,” said Scott’s brother Mark, who also lives in Palm Beach. “She decided that women’s rights, that protecting children, that seeing her country through her political lens were worth fighting for, and she did.”
The family’s health care advocacy began at home. Years ago, when Scott’s kidneys were failing due to a hereditary ailment, Mark donated a kidney.
Elaine and Gerald Schuster subsequently helped create the Schuster Family Transplantation Research Center at Brigham and Women’s, a hospital where most patients and families enter through the Elaine and Gerald Schuster Lobby.
While leading the National Kidney Foundation’s regional efforts, Mrs. Schuster was at the forefront of working “to pass legislation to display organ donor information on driver’s licenses,” the Brandeis honorary degree citation noted.
Mrs. Schuster seemed to always be “climbing Mount Everest-sized mountains dealing with her political agenda” of helping people across the spectrum of society, said her granddaughter Lyz of the South End.
“She had nine grandchildren, and eight of them are women,” Lyz said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better role model. She was strong and she taught us to be that way.”
Born on April 5, 1932, Elaine Seigel grew up in Brookline, the only child of Benjamin Seigel, a real estate developer who was among the first to use prefabricated home, and Elizabeth Koldubsky Seigel.
She graduated from Brookline High School, received an associate’s degree from what is now Lasell University in Newton, and attended Boston University.
One day she was at a Nantasket Beach shop, where she met Gerald Schuster “over a pickle barrel,” she recalled in a 2017 video the couple made to commemorate their 65th anniversary.
She recalled thinking he was “really cute,” and added: “I always did and I still do. And he’s funny.” They married in 1952.
“My world started at the age of 22 with Elaine,” he said in the video.
Mr. Schuster, who died in 2018, founded Continental Wingate, which eventually included real estate, property management, health care, and financial services in locations across the country.
Their much-admired marriage was legendary among friends. “She and Jerry were such a team,” Kerry said by phone.
“I have watched their ferocious loyalty,” Bill Clinton said in 2017, at the Schusters’ 65th-anniversary celebration.
Despite her extensive advocacy work and political involvement, Mrs. Schuster “was larger than life” for her nine grandchildren — “she was always the person I went to for advice,” said her granddaughter Jessie of New York City. “She was an incredible role model.”
“Honest to God, she was one of my best friends,” Mrs. Schuster’s granddaughter Lyz said, “and I don’t think everybody can say that about their grandmother.”
In 1998, Mrs. Schuster said that in all her endeavors, she hoped “to help effect changes that my grandchildren would be proud of. That’s important to me.”
In addition to her sons Mark and Scott, and her granddaughters Lyz and Jessie, Mrs. Schuster leaves a daughter, Jodi of Palo Alto, Calif., another son, Todd of Miami; seven other grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Temple Emanuel in Newton Center. Burial will be in Mishkan Tefila Memorial Park in West Roxbury.
To women such as Meredith DeWitt, founder of the MJD Associates consulting firm in Boston and Washington, D.C., Mrs. Schuster was “on any given day a hybrid surrogate mother, friend, confidante, client, girlfriend. She had this incredible depth of personality to really be so many things to me and to so many people, but especially to women.”
In the 65th anniversary video, Mrs. Schuster said her extensive role in community and political affairs was hardly preordained.
“I was a little housewife that raised the kids and stayed home, and then I suddenly decided that I was going out there and I was going to make my mark, if I could, and do something to make things better for other people,” she said. “And I felt good about that, and I still do. And I’ll do it again if I have the chance.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.