Right up until her death on December 5, you would have spotted Jessie Cagan, one of the city’s great fighting spirits, at any number of rallies for righteous causes. In October, she was in Washington, D.C., pushing her walker through the streets for the “One Nation” labor rally at the Lincoln Monument, the one that drew some 200,000 Americans but was somehow largely ignored by a media more intrigued by tea partiers and their wealthy supporters.
That didn’t faze Cagan, who was just a week short of her 90th birthday when she died at home on the upper West Side. She was in it for the long haul, and understood the basics of organizing, and that media coverage is never the full measure of how a strong movement grows.
A grandmother several times over, she was a Granny for Peace, who marched — or walked — against wars with her fellow militant elderly troops. She was a picket line stalwart opposing conflicts in the Middle East and Central America. “Peace was her thing,” said her close friend and constant fellow demonstrator Kathy Goldman.
She came by her activism naturally. Born in the Bronx, her mother was a founding member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She and her late husband, Ray Cagan, were social workers, and she worked in human resources for several nonprofit organizations. She also passed her militant spirit on to her children. Daughter Leslie Cagan is the longtime leader of United for Peace and Justice, the organizer of antiwar rallies here for two decades.
“When we were kids, she was active in the PTA and the schools to combat segregation,” said Leslie Cagan. “Some of my earliest memories were marching in Ban the Bomb demonstrations.”
Any number of ailments — she suffered from emphysema and was fighting lung cancer — should have slowed Cagan down, but they didn’t. “My mother often out-paced me,” said Leslie Cagan. “She was out there in the world for many years. I could barely keep up with her, and I am no slouch.”
Jessie Cagan leaves three children: Steve, Leslie, and Karen, and three grandchildren — Joanna, Shauna, Ray. A memorial service is planned for late January.