NEW YORK – Listening to Judge Harriet Pavles George talk about of how her life’s path was laid out by her mother before kindergarten, one might conclude that she is a very talented but somewhat docile person. That would be one’s first mistake regarding the pioneering and courageous woman.
It would be an equally great mistake to underestimate her love and apprecation for the woman she was not permitted to speak to until she was three, but who told her before kindergarten that she would become a lawyer and a judge.
“Growing up Greek-American was a challenge.” Her mother, Nelia Sommese Pavles, is an American of Italian descent. Her father, Philip Pavles, was from Cyprus. “He didn’t let anybody speak to me for three years after I was born unless they spoke Greek, which left my mother out,” but she caught up and became her biggest inspiration.
“She made me feel I could do anything…but my father was also supportive…He believed that women should have every opportunity, offering to pay for me to go to Harvard Law School, but at that time women were not accepted.”
“Another inspiration was my husband,” she said. “He was so supportive. I met him in college. I was 18 and I could see we were getting serious so I told him one day ‘you know, I’m going to law school because I’m going to be a lawyer,’ and it didn’t faze him a bit. After we were married he said ‘I’ll go, too.’”
Both attended Fordham and both became judges.
Harriet Pavles George was born and raised in Queens. She is a multitalented person. Her fine voice won her a medal from the Music Education League and she later sang opera in the Carnegie Recital Hall. Her mother did not encourage her to pursue music, and Judge George said that was another example of how well she guided her eldest daughter.
She attended public school and finished Hofstra University in two and a half years. After Fordham, she was in private practice for two decades and is proud to have served as a Judge of the Housing Part of Civil Court for 20 years.
The court was established in 1973 to deal with social impact of the terrible deterioration of the state’s housing stock.
“First it was the arsonists, and then came the people looking for quick money,” she said. Landlords would let conditions become so bad that when housing inspectors came they easily obtained “vacate orders,” from judges. “They would empty the buildings and the people would be out on the street. “
The judge immediately tried to change things and was thwarted, but after a year she successfully challenged the practice. “A lot of these violations can be fixed,” she would say. “If they are not getting heat, the landlords should fix it…if they don’t, the city should fix it and put a lien on the property.”
She wrote the landmark decision Xavier Miller vs. Notre Dame Hotel, ordering owners to fix the violations.
She was also the first judge to jail a slumlord who disobeyed her orders. “That made all the papers. When my son saw the news coverage he wondered ‘what did my mother do?””
What she did was effect change that made a positive difference in people’s lives, and that does not always win applause.
She feels rewarded in other ways. People who work for the Dept. of Housing recently told her “They don’t really have a department handling vacate orders now because there’s no longer a need.”
The list of Greek and other organizations she belonged to is long, but their family was the Georges’ pride and joy: They have six children, three daughters, three sons and 13 grandchildren.
Her advice to women who want a career and a family is to be sure that’s what they want, and to be careful about the decision. “Be flexible and always watch for the unexpected,” she added.
Regarding careers she said “whatever you do, go out; meet people; join clubs. Sometimes you will hear advice or a hint from someone you just met at an event.”
The biggest thing is do develop character ethics and trust.
“I always felt that my husband and I got peoples trust. Sometimes you will make choices that anger people, but it’s better to be honest and do the right thing, because you must look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow. “
Judge George added that sometimes – it happened to her husband, and it led to his becoming a judge – you do the right thing but put your career at risk, only to find your integrity is rewarded and you reach even greater heights.
The above article, which was based on C. Sirigos’s interview with Harriet George also include Judge George’s responses to questions asked by Maria Markou, moderator of AGAPW’Conversation with Women Leaders Series.