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Nancy Gewirtz, 59, advocate for poor, inspiration to students

PROVIDENCE -- To statesman and student alike, Nancy Gewirtz was a tireless advocate for those with no voice in society.

She lectured in classrooms at Rhode Island College about the need to serve the poor, and she twisted arms in the halls of the State House to fund social programs for the needy.

''She was always in the forefront," said Representative Thomas Slater, Democrat of Providence, who had worked with Ms. Gewirtz on bills aiding low-income Rhode Islanders. ''I don't think there was any politician who didn't know Nancy."

Hundreds attended a funeral service yesterday for Ms. Gewirtz, who died a day earlier at age 59 after 3 years with pancreatic cancer. The service at Temple Beth-El in Providence, where Ms. Gewirtz was a member, mixed song and praise to honor the longtime social worker and co-founder of the Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College.

Ms. Gewirtz ''was a tireless advocate for anyone who needed her. She will always be our guiding spirit," said a statement from the Poverty Institute, a policy and advocacy group at RIC's School of Social Work.

She influenced generations of students young and old to pursue social work. One of them was Michael Kane, for whom Ms. Gewirtz was a field supervisor when he was a graduate student at RIC in the late 1980s.

Ms. Gewirtz's legacy is her students, said Kane, who has worked for two decades at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

''This probably sounds hokey, but her life was a light for a lot of us," he said.

Many politicians -- including US Representatives Patrick Kennedy and James Langevin, Governor Don Carcieri, Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, Secretary of State Matt Brown, and Mayor David Cicilline -- attended the funeral.

Senior Rabbi Leslie Gutterman, the only one to speak at the service, said that Ms. Gewirtz's illness had reduced her physically to a ''tired, worn out, frail body," but that her spirit lasts through the legions of people she inspired, and those she affected.

''We were all Nancy's students, were we not?" Gutterman said. ''Our friend was not a woman to qualified commitments, she gave a thousand-fold."

As organ music played, Ms. Gewirtz's casket was carried down the center aisle out of the church, as her family trailed behind.

Outside the synagogue, Myra Jones remembered being on the search committee that hired Ms. Gewirtz at RIC. Ms. Gewirtz began teaching in 1978 and later became chairwoman of the master's degree program in social work.

''She was heads and shoulders above everyone else," said Jones, former director of undergraduate programs at RIC. ''She had a lot of energetic intelligence."

In 1996, the General Assembly passed the Family Independence Program, created by Ms. Gewirtz and another advocate. The initiative provides job training and child-care support to help welfare recipients obtain and succeed in jobs. Most of the beneficiaries are poor single mothers.

''What keeps me going every day is the injustice in our society," Ms. Gewirtz told The Providence Journal more than a year ago. ''You have to get up every day and keep fighting."

Her perseverance is what Slater remembers the most.

''She was always there for the downtrodden, the poor," he said. The state has lost a tremendous fighter."

Ms. Gewirtz was born in Boston and grew up in Newton.

She leaves her husband, Henry; a son, Aaron, of Narragansett, R.I.; a daughter, Rebekah, of Somerville, Mass.; and a brother, David Horwitz, of Salem, Mass.

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