Darleen Gondola Bonislawski’s first job out of high school was working as a maid at Harvard, and her time as a union leader in the Harvard University Employees Representative Association led her to first become a paralegal and later a lawyer who advocated for workers’ rights.
“It really gets to me when Harvard says workers are a dime a dozen,” she said in 1979 while she was a vice president of the union, according to The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. “We should have the benefits of the wealth we help produce.”
She also spent 24 years as a Cambridge election commissioner, working to improve the city’s voting process and register scores of disenfranchised voters. “We have to fight against voter suppression,” she wrote at the end of her term in a letter to the Cambridge Democratic City Committee. “Even in so-called liberal Massachusetts, there is still so much to do.”
At 47, she realized a lifelong dream and became a lawyer. Most of her clients couldn’t afford representation, and she often worked pro-bono.
Mrs. Bonislawski, an activist who loved exploring the history of her hometown, died at home July 18 of ovarian cancer. She was 67 and lived in Cambridge nearly her entire life.
At 18, she married Michael Bonislawski, a neighborhood friend who had first spotted her at the local public library “in fifth or sixth grade.”
“She was an avid reader, even in grammar school,” he recalled. “She started reading the Globe at age 8 and never stopped. Ritualistically, she turned every page of the paper every day.”
In a eulogy, he spoke about his wife running out for a loaf of bread, and then returning “four or five hours later” because she ran into so many friends and acquaintances. “She loved this city very much,” he said. “The fact is that she remembered everybody.”
As a lawyer and civic leader, Mrs. Bonislawski dedicated herself to social issues affecting women, workers, and voters. She was involved in the Model Cities and Head Start programs, as well as the Cambridge Historical Society and other groups.
In 1990, Mrs. Bonislawski tracked down Cambridge women who first voted in 1920, the year the suffrage movement’s efforts established nationally the right for women to vote. Mrs. Bonislawski helped to create and plan an event to celebrate the anniversary of the milestone.
She was born Darleen Gondola, a daughter of Charles Gondola and the former Josephine Norcia. Her family had deep roots in Cambridge. Her maternal great-grandfather, Luigi Totino, bought a home on Fifth Street in Cambridge in 1920 and moved his family there from the North End. He was a mosaic and marble artist who had worked on the Hall of Flags at the State House in Boston and the original subway stations at Park Street and Harvard Square.
In the 2005 book “All in the Same Boat: Twentieth Century Stories About East Cambridge,” by Sarah Boyer, Mrs. Bonislawski described the move to Cambridge from her grandmother’s perspective: “Grandma never dwelled on it a lot, but it was hard being an Italian and moving into East Cambridge” because of discrimination. Mrs. Bonislawski added that “little by little, East Cambridge changed because people, like everywhere else, got to know each other and became neighbors.”
For part of her childhood, Mrs. Bonislawski lived in public housing. She attended what was then known as Cambridge High and Latin. “It seemed to me there was an attitude toward kids from East Cambridge, the projects, and the Central Square area that just didn’t bring out their abilities,” she said for the book. “I always knew I wanted to go to college and be a lawyer, but I didn’t get inspiration.”
After she married Michael Bonislawski, he worked as a machinist in the early years of their marriage while she cleaned dorm rooms of graduate students at Harvard, a job her grandmother had performed in the 1920s. She became vice president of the union, participated in negotiations, and developed a deep interest in workers’ rights.
While raising two children, she and her husband both graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
In his 2000 book, “Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements,” James R. Green wrote that Mrs. Bonislawski “bolstered my hope that union workers wanted and needed” a labor studies degree program at UMass Boston. “Darleen was one of the most remarkable of many working-class women who found their way to the college,” Green wrote, adding that “she became the first student to major in our new Labor Studies Program, which drew upon the curriculum already created to train paralegal workers.”
After graduating, Mrs. Bonislawski worked as a paralegal for a law firm. “She was always saying, to herself and to me, ‘I could be a lawyer,’ ” her husband said. “When we got married, that was always her big dream. But of course law school cost a fortune.”
When she was elected to the Cambridge Election Commission in 1988, she used earnings from her first term to pay her tuition at the New England School of Law.
“She was always full of energy,” her husband said. “She was working as a paralegal, working on the election commission, going to law school. Every day she got up before me and went to bed after me. She was all over the place, just tireless.”
Mrs. Bonislawski was proud of her Italian heritage, her family said. A renowned cook, she was known especially for Italian classics such as ravioli, meatballs, and calzones, and often shared recipes and techniques with friends through cooking lessons she gave in her own kitchen.
She also enjoyed champagne and jewelry, especially diamonds, but was sometimes reluctant to splurge on herself, said her daughter Jennifer of Watertown.
“She was used to scrimping and saving, that’s how she was raised,” she said. “But my father would tell her, ‘You worked hard for that money. Enjoy it.’ ”
A service has been held for Mrs. Bonislawski, who in addition to her husband and daughter leaves her son, Michael of Somerville; four brothers, Richard Gondola of Somerville, Bruce Santangelo of Winchendon, Mark Santangelo of Saugus, and John Gondola of Tewksbury; three sisters, Donna Sullivan of Somerville, Jacqueline Juszkiewicz of Wilmington, and Sharon Santangelo of Duxbury; and a grandchild.
Mrs. Bonislawski thought Cambridge was “a great place to grow up, and a great place to raise children,” her daughter said. “There were so many immigrants, such a strong working class, and she loved that.”
Along with reading up to six books a week, Mrs. Bonislawski swam regularly, her family said.
“She was a whirlwind, a dervish, constantly moving,” her daughter said. “She was so much fun. She loved to have a good time.”Kathleen McKenna can be reached at email@example.com.