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Book honors great women of North Tonawanda

NORTH TONAWANDA – Some of the heroines of North Tonawanda are well-known, such as late state Assemblywoman Elizabeth C. Hoffman. She was the first woman elected to the city’s Common Council, became the first female mayor and served six consecutive terms as mayor.

Others changed history behind the scenes, such as Hannah Johnson, known to many as “Black Hannah.” Her meaningful life included work for the Underground Railroad.

Whether or not they were well-known, they were all well-respected and are “part of the total fabric” that makes up the City of North Tonawanda, according to Donna Zellner Neal, who chronicled the women in a newly released book called “Seventeen North Tonawanda Women Whose Lives Made Such a Difference.”

Neal, the director of the North Tonawanda History Museum, put the information together as a featured speaker for the March 2015 Women’s History Month Program for New York State Women.

“So many people came and so many asked for it to be put into a book that we decided to do it,” said Neal.

The North Tonawanda History Museum produced the book, which includes the contents of Neal’s program. It was produced for the Museum by Gateway Printing and Graphics in Hamburg and is currently for sale in the History Museum’s gift shop for $10. Mail orders cost an additional $3.

In her introduction, Neal says she chose each featured woman “because they are unique and will never be duplicated.”

“Some have touched the lives of people beyond North Tonawanda. Some only appeared to touch the lives of their own family and friends,” said Neal. “Each of them represents what North Tonawanda has been and still is, some in small and private ways, others in more public and extensive ways,” Neal writes.

Neal said she met eight of the women at least once, but all 17 are her heroines.

Other North Tonawanda women featured in addition to Hoffman and Johnson:

• Amy Santi Bull, local author and champion for all with disabilities and health problems.

• Mary Elizabeth Clemesha, teacher and supporter of historical and other community organizations.

• Maryalice Demler, television anchor and former beauty queen, as well as a supporter of community organizations.

• Rev. Kathleen Gahagan, Lutheran minister, fire department chaplain, and cystic fibrosis survivor.

• Margaret Gill, military hero and nurse.

• Alice Root Hiestand, historical chronicler and teacher.

• Rachel Holt, a 53-year employee of G.C. Murphy and a professional woman before joining G.C. Murphy.

• Valentina Swierczynski Kozlowski, superb soprano and preserver/presenter of Polish dancing and culture.

• Irna Goerss Kraft, a professional woman who became a quiet benefactor to many local organizations following her death.

• Catherine Rowley Lautz, the first female city attorney and first female city judge.

• Elizabeth Flora McLean, Red Cross volunteer and historical writer who wrote her memoirs of growing up and living her entire adult life on Goundry Street.

• Dorothy Evans Peters, a polio survivor and professional woman.

• Raphaelle McCarthy Proefrock, teacher and historian and the driving force behind the Carrousel Society of the Niagara Frontier and the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum.

• Eleanor Czach Sholdra, a Buffalo Bolt employee who left significant bequests to 10 nieces and nephews after a life of frugality.

• Ruth Rasey Simpson, beloved teacher and author.

More information on the honored women and the book is available at the museum at 54 Webster St. or online at