Longtime community activist Gioia Shebar, 86, of Gardiner died at home of cancer on Saturday, April 6. Born Gioia G. Siragusa in the Bronx in 1932, Shebar studied Fine Art at Hunter College in the 1950s (Robert Motherwell was among the faculty at that time) and served in the Peace Corps with her husband Charles Shebar in the early 1960s. Both went on to teaching careers in the New York City public school system and raised an adopted son, Lenn Afolabi Shebar, before retiring to their South Mountain Road home in 1996.
Always outspoken as an educator, advocating egalitarian teaching methods over tracking and standardized testing, Gioia used the more flexible schedule of retirement to throw her energies into local political and environmental causes, including the Save the Ridge campaign. Her frequent — and invariably entertaining — Letters to the Editor of local newspapers, including this one, consistently displayed her fierce intelligence and caustic wit. The New Paltz Times even invited her to write a guest editorial to fill Hugh Reynolds’ usual space on the op/ed page when Reynolds went on vacation: https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2017/06/21/hugh-reynolds-come-back. In recent years, she has spoken out against the proposed draining of Tillson Lake and stumped tirelessly for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign on her Facebook page.
But it was the tripling of the Shebars’ property taxes in the early 2000s that set Gioia on the warpath that cemented her fame among tax resistors statewide. She began writing a blog that kept readers informed about legislative initiatives and lobbying opportunities, and also featured anecdotes of people throughout New York who had lost their homes, or were in peril of doing so, due to their property tax assessments outpacing their incomes. The blog became a website, Taxnightmare.org, illustrated with her own original artwork, that functioned as a rallying point for tax reform advocacy. And Shebar soon became the go-to person for quotes about the regressive nature of the funding of public schools in New York State in practically any article in any newspaper on the subject.
Shebar’s no-holds-barred outspokenness leavened with humor and political theater made her a role model to many, including much younger activists in the community. She characterized her former friend John Bradley’s 2002 proposal to build hundreds of luxury homes and a golf course on the environmentally sensitive Awosting Ridge property as “shocking,” the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission’s decision to drain Tillson Lake as “an act of sheer vandalism,” tax caps and other halfway measures instead of a complete overhaul of the property assessment system as “fluff” and “gimmicks.” For Donald Trump, she saved the worst, raunchiest epithets of her Sicilian girlhood. Most memorably, she threatened repeatedly to stage a Lady Godiva-style tax protest by riding through the streets of Albany nude on horseback, and at one point recruited a fellow activist to do just that, clad in a flesh-colored body stocking and long blonde wig.
A regular participant in public hearings on many a hot-button issue, Shebar herself was an instantly identifiable presence at Town Hall in Gardiner, with her short white curls and signature crimson lipstick. Jenny Joseph’s famous poem that starts “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” could have been written with Gioia in mind. For all her laser-focused rage at the Powers That Be, she was funny, upbeat and gregarious in the public sphere, always at the center of the action. “She’s the glue that keeps a lot of people together,” said friend and neighbor Monica Manalo.
When the Goddess made Gioia, she broke the mold. Who will take up her mantle and carry on the battle to find a more equitable way to fund New York State schools? Who will make us laugh so hard in the Letters section? What, if anything, will the Town of Gardiner do to honor the memory of this passionately engaged public citizen? Gioia Shebar Park has a nice ring to it…