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Sunnyside Leader and Pioneering Woman in Politics Turns 100

 "I never took no for an answer," the centenarian said at her birthday celebration Monday.
Sunnysider Gertrude McDonald Turns 100
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SUNNYSIDE — When the city once planned to cut the number of weekly garbage pickups in Queens but not in Manhattan, lifelong Sunnyside resident Gertrude McDonald had a suggestion for her fellow outer borough residents: take your trash to work with you.

That's just one of the stories about McDonald that friends and loved ones shared about the civic leader at her 100th birthday party Monday, where she was feted for her years of public service fighting for the neighborhood.

A Community Board 2 member for decades who was active in countless other local organizations, McDonald is also credited with being the first woman Democrat to run for public office in Queens when she ran for state Assembly in 1968.

Though she didn't win the seat, McDonald inspired other local women to seek out public roles. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney once said McDonald's "bold step" helped shape her own political career.

"I didn't make it, but I gave the women the opportunity and the courage to compete in a man's world," McDonald said of her 1968 run, an era when she said men "made all the decisions."

"Once I ran, everybody started running," the centenarian said.

Gertrude McDonald

A Sunnyside resident since she was 8 years old, McDonald has spent decades fighting for local issues in the neighborhood, according to those who know her.

A member of CB2 for 42 years before retiring, she's also held positions at the 108th Precinct Community Council and the United Forties Civic Association, was a Democratic District Leader and worked as an aid for the late state Sen. George Onorato.

"She's an incredible advocate," said Judith Zangwill, executive director of Sunnyside Community Services, where McDonald spends many of her days involved with the senior center. "She just goes and does what needs to be done."

When the MTA took away a bus stop near the senior center on 39th Place and Queens Boulevard in 2008, McDonald waged a years-long campaign to bring it back.

"For three years I bugged them, and I spoke to every politician and every politician said, 'We're working on it,' and I said 'Yeah, you're working but you're doing nothing,'" McDonald recalled.

The bus stop was restored in 2011, according to news reports at the time.

"I never took no for an answer," she said. "I never let them off the hook."

Joe Conley, the former chairman of CB2, said local elected officials would joke about issuing a "Gert Alert" when they'd spot McDonald at an event, knowing she was likely armed with a petition or a request for something in the name of Sunnyside.

"She has traits very similar to Hillary Clinton — unshakeable," McDonald's daughter, Eileen Auld, said of her mother.

"I just remember how strong she was. She knew what she needed to do."

Though McDonald moved to Forest Hills three years ago, about five days a week she still visits the Sunnyside Community Services' senior center, where dozens gathered to celebrate her birthday Monday.

The festivities included an enormous birthday cake covered in candles, a chocolate fountain, music and dancing.

Organizers played a video with photos of McDonald, including shots of her with well-known public figures like Sen. Chuck Schumer, President Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

McDonald said a lot has changed since her own foray into public service more than four decades ago.

"At that time, women in politics had nothing to say — nothing. You licked the stamps and the envelopes, and the mailing — that's it — but the men were in power," she said.

"That has changed," she added. "We have a big voice now."