After three years at Rutgers University’s Douglass College in the early 1970s, Sydelle Pittas was intellectually ready to jump right into Harvard Law School. “I had the grades, I had the numbers, I had the test scores,” she would later say. “I had everything except a degree.”
Ms. Pittas, who was 71 when she died April 10 of complications from pancreatic cancer, didn’t have a bachelor’s, but she had an important voice of support in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a future US Supreme Court associate justice who was then a law professor.
With Ginsburg’s assistance, Ms. Pittas successfully challenged Harvard Law School’s rule that applicants must have an undergraduate degree. That achievement led to a long career during which Ms. Pittas became a respected mentor to women practicing law in Boston. Nearly 40 years after she stepped through the doors at Harvard Law, the Women’s Bar Association presented Ms. Pittas with its Lelia J. Robinson Award, named for the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
As an attorney focusing on business and bankruptcy cases, she “was a very, very good lawyer,” said Margaret H. Marshall, retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who added that Ms. Pittas also “was a fabulous role model in the beginning days of what it meant to try to balance family and work, which is still not resolved.”
Part of the inspiration Ms. Pittas provided was simply getting Harvard to accept a woman who, along with not having a bachelor’s, was married and raising a daughter.
“The law school’s rule at the time, four years of undergraduate education, was a non-waivable requirement,” Ginsburg recalled in an e-mailed statement. “I wrote to the dean urging her admission, pointing out that her stellar record as an undergraduate, plus her life experience, spanning several years, added up to more than a fourth year in college. Ultimately, the law school agreed. The four-year requirement remained, but became pliable enough to allow credit for learning gained outside college confines.”
Upon arriving at Harvard, Ms. Pittas recalled, “I was considered an experiment in the education of older women.” She was 28 and had an uncommon background.
Her parents split up when she was young and she lived in a Savannah, Ga., motel room while her mother waited tables at a diner. When they moved to the Bronx, N.Y., Ms. Pittas was talented and brilliant enough to be accepted at each of the city’s prestigious specialty high schools that admitted girls. She chose the High School of Performing Arts — “the school of ‘Fame’ fame,” she later would say, referring to the 1980 film.
She pursued acting for several years, married, and taught ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio to put her then-husband through undergraduate and graduate school to become an architect.
While attending Harvard Law, she had her second child at the beginning of her third year and added dismissive comments about pregnancy to the catalog of sexist remarks she rose above. “You’re not going to drop that here, are you?” a male professor snipped one day as he watched a very pregnant Ms. Pittas navigate an immovable desk and a swivel stool that was attached to a classroom floor. “I sat sidesaddle,” she recalled in an interview for a podcast hosted by her daughter, Pilar Alessandra of Woodland Hills, Calif.
Born Sydelle Goldberg, Ms. Pittas lived in Japan as a young girl after World War II when her father, Paul Goldberg, was a military pilot. While living in Georgia after her parents divorced, Ms. Pittas “would sometimes go right from school to the diner where my grandmother was working,” Pilar said. “My mom was incredibly independent at a very early age because she absolutely had to be. She was really from the school of hard knocks.” Ms. Pittas’s mother, Beatrice Rosenberg, died in 2012 at 92.
Ms. Pittas formerly was married to Michael Pittas, who taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and was director of the design arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. They had two children, before their marriage ended in divorce.
Politically active throughout her life, Ms. Pittas participated in civil rights sit-ins, went to Washington to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and demonstrated in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. “Feminism was the reason I got into the school,” Ms. Pittas said of Harvard in the interview for her daughter’s podcast. “I’m a product of affirmative action.”
Though feminism helped open the law school’s doors, sexism was very much a part of the experience for Ms. Pittas and other women. One male professor was known for presenting “very sexist hypotheticals to the class to discuss,” she recalled. One day he chose Ms. Pittas and another female student to debate opposing sides of an issue, only to cut them off abruptly with a curt, “Enough of that. You can talk about it over tea later.” His “tea” quote, Ms. Pittas said, resonated among female students for a long time.
‘Feminism was the reason I got into [Harvard Law School]. I’m a product of affirmative action.’Sydelle Pittas, in an interview for a podcast
In Boston, Ms. Pittas worked for firms such as Herrick & Smith and Widett, Slater & Goldman. Then she was the only female partner in the upstart McCabe & Gordon, which she said wanted to become “a rock star firm to shake conservative Boston” — and did before foundering in the late 1980s. She also worked for Gaston & Snow, and for Powers & Hall, two firms that closed.
In Winchester, where she lived for many years, Ms. Pittas opened her own practice with Philippe Koenig, whom she had married in 1993. They had met while they both worked at Herrick & Smith, and were a couple for a dozen years before eloping one day and marrying in Vermont. “She had a deposition that morning and we got married that afternoon in Brattleboro,” he recalled. “In Massachusetts there was a waiting period, but not in Brattleboro. You just showed up and they married you.”
While in Winchester, Ms. Pittas served as president of the Rotary Club and was a mentor at the Youth Villages-Germaine Lawrence Campus in Arlington to adolescent girls with emotional and behavioral issues. When she and her husband retired to Longboat Key, Fla., in 2013, she founded a Rotary Club there that organized a food pantry to serve low-income pupils at an elementary school, and supported the work of a Sarasota organization that assisted young women who had escaped the sex-trafficking trade.
Throughout her life, Ms. Pittas also kept acting — from summer stock in her late teens to participating in community theater productions in Greater Boston. “She was just very action-oriented, a beautiful, beautiful woman,” her husband said. “She really wanted to make a difference, and damned if she didn’t.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. Pittas leaves a son, Christopher of San Francisco; two stepdaughters, Michele Koenig Augeri of Newburyport and Suzanne Shafner of Los Angles; a stepson, Paul Koenig of Los Angeles; three brothers, Gary Goldberg, Nick Goldberg, and Aaron Goldberg; and four grandchildren.
A private service will be held and Ms. Pittas requested that her body be donated to science. “She is somebody who does not believe in waste of any kind, including her body,” her daughter said.
In Florida, Ms. Pittas taught free dance classes in the community, the last one in January amid cancer treatment. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six years ago, and had responded well to the initial treatment. “She rolled her eyes at the expression ‘fighting cancer,’ preferring the term ‘living’ with it,” her daughter wrote in an e-mail.
Pilar wrote a poem summarizing the life lessons her mother taught. Among them: “almost every occasion merits a party,” “bring enthusiasm and passion to everything you do,” and “dance as much as you can.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.