While Sheila Russell ran Cambridge City Council meetings as mayor, sometimes a gavel wasn’t sufficient to bring a discussion to order.
“She not only presided over the council with a gavel, she also presided with a magic wand. She literally had a magic wand,” said Michael Sullivan, a former councilor who served alongside Mrs. Russell.
“When things got tense or she thought someone was getting out of hand, she would wave the magic wand,” said Sullivan, who formerly served as mayor of Cambridge and is now clerk of courts for Middlesex Superior Court. “She would bang the gavel once in a while, but I think the magic wand had more effect.”
A lifelong Cambridge resident who entered politics after her husband, former Cambridge mayor Leonard J. Russell, died in office, Mrs. Russell served on the City Council for 14 years. She was 87 and her health had been failing when she died Dec. 12 in her Cambridge home.
A mother of five, Mrs. Russell supported her husband’s political ambitions and had never run for office when he died, at age 52, in January 1985 following surgery.
Some of his supporters, including her own relatives, thought she should then follow in her husband’s public service footsteps.
“We were sitting around the day of the funeral and talking,” Mrs. Russell told The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, in 1996, when she became mayor. “I thought they were kidding when they said, ‘Why don’t you run?’ "
They weren’t joking and she soon was a candidate.
She was elected to the City Council in 1985 and served until 1999. When she left her council post, The Boston Globe reported that Sheila and Leonard Russell had been the only spouses to both serve as Cambridge mayor.
In Cambridge, the council elects the mayor by majority vote from among its ranks to preside over the council and chair the School Committee. Mrs. Russell was mayor in 1996 and 1997.
When she left the council, the Globe reported that her accomplishments had included hiring Bobbie D’Alessandro as schools superintendent, helping lead the way for the city to open the Cambridge Citywide Senior Center in 1995, and being part of the efforts to establish the anticrime task force in North Cambridge.
The Russell Youth and Community Center in West Cambridge is named for her, and she also was a key backer of bringing the Irish Famine Memorial to Cambridge Common. Mrs. Russell invited Mary Robinson, Ireland’s then-president, to preside and speak at the 1997 dedication ceremony.
Throughout the political careers of Sheila and Leonard Russell, their family was part of the couple’s City Council campaigns.
“Every two years, come August, we knew what we had to do: putting signs up, going door to door, holding signs, going to fund-raisers,” said their son, Lenny of Hull. “We all chipped in, all five of us.”
He added that his father was “happiest when he was in Cambridge politics, and my mother, too. They loved the constituents and they liked the campaigns.”
Sheila and Leonard were not the same as candidates, councilors, or mayors, however, their son said.
“People liked to say she was the brains of the operation,” Lenny said. “My father was the fun politician. My mother was the great politician.”
Sheila T. Doyle was born in Cambridge in 1935 and grew up in North Cambridge, a daughter of James Doyle, an iron worker, and Lillian Sullivan Doyle, a homemaker.
The North Cambridge of her youth was tight-knit to the point of being wary of outsiders, Sheila Russell recalled in a 1995 Globe interview.
Some neighbors never thought of Lillian as truly from North Cambridge, “even though my mother lived there for most of her life and married a man who was born and raised there,” Mrs. Russell said. “She was always considered an outsider, the girl from East Cambridge.”
The third of four siblings, Sheila graduated from what was then St. John’s High School in Cambridge and wrote for the student newspaper.
“She was a very creative writer,” said her sister, Nancy Navin of Hingham. “She gave a lot of her time and effort to school things, because that was her nature. Whatever she was involved in, she worked the hardest at.”
Sheila met Leonard Russell at a dance put on by a school associated with what was then Our Lady of Pity Church in North Cambridge, which was referred to as the French church because so many French-Canadian residents attended Mass there.
“It was a real romance from the get-go,” her sister said. “And they always danced a lot. They were very good on the dance floor together.”
Mrs. Russell spent many of her early adult years raising the couple’s children.
“She was a good mother,” her sister said. “She worked hard at that. She had five children, so it wasn’t easy to keep track of them all.”
For the last dozen or so years of his life, Mr. Russell was an executive of a Cambridge waste disposal firm, according to his Globe obit.
As politicians, he and Mrs. Russell both campaigned and served as independents.
“I came from a very nonpolitical family myself,” she told The Crimson in 1996. “My husband got me into politics. Now I’m a junkie.”
Her sister said Mr. Russell “was a real powerful personality,” and that Mrs. Russell’s life “prior to her public life was supporting his efforts. She found her own footing when she became a city councilor. She loved it.”
Mrs. Russell’s sense of humor was an asset in public life.
“She had typical Irish wit. Any bad moment, she could turn it right around,” her son said.
Sullivan said Mrs. Russell “could take a tough situation and bring a ‘chill out’ to it.
“She took the time to listen to people, which I think was key,” he added. “Taking care of constituent services was big — taking care of people who didn’t have a voice. Sometimes people would get lost in red tape. Sheila would be their champion.”
He said the words on the Irish Famine Memorial on Cambridge Common captured her approach to public service: “Never Again Should a People Starve in a World of Plenty.”
“That’s how she felt,” Sullivan said, “and that’s why she cared about people who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks.”
In addition to her son, Lenny, and sister, Nancy, Mrs. Russell leaves three daughters, Eileen Struzziery of Hull, Nancy Grabowski of Somerville, and Katie Somers of Peabody; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another son, William, died in 2019.
A funeral Mass was said Tuesday in Saint John the Evangelist Church in North Cambridge.
In a Globe interview several weeks after she became mayor, Mrs. Russell spoke about how outfitting her office reminded her of the emerging role of women in leading Cambridge government.
Joined by Kathy Born, who was then a city councilor, Mrs. Russell “went down to storage to see if there was any furniture left that I could use,” she recalled in 1996.
“We found all these beautiful portraits of distinguished white men,” she said. “I have them all hanging in my office. It’s just a reminder of how far we have come.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.