Labor Leader Ted Kirsch Dies at 81

Ted Kirsch and his wife, Roberta Kirsch. Courtesy of Joel Kirsch

Ted Kirsch, a teacher and labor leader well-known for his work in Philadelphia and across the country, died on Jan. 19 at his home in Jenkintown. Kirsch, who had been retired for about 18 months, was 81.

Kirsch’s children, Joel Kirsch and Jodie Kirsch Lachman, said their father, who had traveled the world, visited the White House and went to jail in 1973 during a picket line protest on behalf of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, had not quite figured out what retirement looked like. But even so, the man who dedicated his life to the cause of teachers and students was content.

“In the last few months, this is what my dad would say. He would say, ‘I lived my life. I have no regrets,’” Kirsch Lachman recalls.

Kirsch was born in South Philadelphia to two trade unionists, and was educated in Philadelphia public schools on his way to becoming the first person in his family to earn a college degree, from what was then West Chester State Teachers College and Temple University.

When he was 18, he met his future wife Roberta on a blind date. They were married for 57 years, until her death in 2017.

“They were symbiotic,” Joel Kirsch said. “It was just one of those couples, where you say, ‘Oh, it’s Ted and Roberta.’”

Kirsch started out in the The School District of Philadelphia in 1960, teaching social studies at Thomas Junior High School. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he is believed to have taught the first African American history class in the history of the school district while he was at Overbrook High School. Kirsch also taught at Washington High School and, at each destination, he saw overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers and not enough resources.

In 1964, he joined the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, still in its infancy.
It was with the PFT that Kirsch flourished. He met Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader came to Philadelphia in support of the union and, within three years of joining, Kirsch was elected to the executive board. Soon after, Kirsch began to work for the union full time. Following a long stint as vice president and staff director for former PFT president Marvin Schuman, Kirsch was elected president in 1990.

For 17 years, Kirsch lead the PFT through trials and tribulations, strikes and negotiations and everything else that comes with leading a union of thousands of state employees. He became well-connected within the world of Democratic politics, becoming friends with the Biden family and the Clintons.

Serving as secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, Kirsch won praise from national labor leaders. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Kirsch was “foundational to the AFT, one of the people who kept our movement together.” At the end of his time as president, he led the state chapter of the union, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, until his retirement in 2019.

Arthur Steinberg knew Kirsch for the majority of his time in the movement, and remembers his friend and colleague as an exceptional listener and mentor who, above all else, was dedicated to improving the lives of the people who depended on him.

Outside of his professional life, Kirsch was your typical Philadelphia sports generalist/fanatic, invested in the success of all four major teams and Villanova University, too. Joel Kirsch recalls a 2 a.m. wakeup time for a drive to Happy Valley, as his father wished to beat the traffic on the way to a Penn State football game.

“He was a Philadelphia guy, through and through,” Kirsch Lachman said. His children also said he was as attentive, passionate and loving as a parent as he was to the teachers and students he served.

Kirsch was passionate about Israel as well, visiting 19 times. Zionism was an important part of his life; the family has requested that memorial donations in his name be sent to the Jewish National Fund for the “Ted Kirsch Forest.”

Kirsch is survived by his sister, Phyllis Soufer; children Joel Kirsch and Jodie Kirsch Lachman; four grandchildren; and Bev Davis, his companion for the past four years.


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