Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sheila Russell in 2013. (Photo: Sheila Russell via Facebook)

Sheila Doyle Russell, a mayor and city councillor in Cambridge in the 1980s and 1990s, died early Monday, it was announced at a roundtable that night.

Russell served as the city’s 66th mayor, holding the position from 1996 to 1997 after six terms on the council beginning in 1985. Her time in office saw the opening of the Citywide Senior Center in 1995 and the successful branding of Huron Village in West Cambridge. The West Cambridge Youth Center – also known as the Mayor Sheila Doyle Russell Youth and Community Center – is at 680 Huron Ave.

Her political legacy was cemented before that, though, when she was just one of nine on the council: It was in 1994 that she and fellow councillor Francis H. (“Frank”) Duehay helped see the city through a divisive vote ending rent control.

Politics watcher Robert Winters told the The Harvard Crimson in 1999, as Russell retired from public service, that she had become “one of the binding agents that builds a bridge between the different factions.” Councillor Paul Toner said Monday that he recalled Russell going on do government liaison work with Harvard.

“It’s been a pleasure serving the people of Cambridge,” Russell said at the time of her retirement, hoping to be remembered for “bringing people together.”

She was a North Cambridge kid, and a graduate of St. John’s High School – later known as North Cambridge Catholic High School before merging with Cristo Rey Boston High School and, in 2010, moving to Dorchester. She first became interested in politics through her husband, Leonard J. Russell, according to a biography by the State Library of Massachusetts. He had been elected to the council in 1973 and served eventually as mayor from 1984 until his death in 1985 – a time Sheila Russell had stayed home with the couple’s five children, serving as accountant to the family trucking business, the library said.

When Leonard Russell died, some of his supporters encouraged her to run for his seat.

For a time, she and Alice Wolf were the sole representation for women on the council, and her election as mayor – which is done by councillors from within their own ranks – was difficult. After the new council of 1996 was inaugurated just after the new year, it took until March for her to get a majority and be seated.

Toner said his was friendly with the Russells and remembered fondly some details from her personal life – summers in Hull, and a longtime Friday night tradition of going with girlfriends to Bickford’s in Burlington to hear Irish singing. “They did that for decades,” Toner said.

He also remembered working every two years on Russell campaigns – “first Lenny’s and then Sheila’s.”

“She and her family were always wonderful, and it was a lot of fun, a family affair,” Toner said. “She was was all about her neighborhoods and constituents. She wanted Cambridge to be the best it could it be.”

Russell will be waked from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at St. John the Evangelist Church, 2254 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge. A funeral service will follow at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the church, with burial at the Cambridge Cemetery, said Eileen Struzziery, Russell’s daughter.

This post was updated Dec. 13, 2022, with wake, funeral and burial details.