Marie Harris, a Pacoima community activist who was one of three San Fernando Valley residents who signed the paperwork that officially set in motion the Valley secession movement, died Dec. 2 at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. She was 87.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said her daughter, Rolene Naveja.
Leaders of the Valley's bid for cityhood chose the trio in 1998 to represent a cross-section of the region's inhabitants, said Joe Vitti, president of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, the group that pushed for the area to break away from Los Angeles.
Chosen to sign the original request that sought a study on secession were Harris, an African American former honorary mayor of Pacoima; Carlos Ferreyra, a Latino salesman from Van Nuys; and John Walker, a white attorney from Woodland Hills.
Harris contended that the Valley's northeast communities were the most neglected.
"We just want to get our fair share. If we were a separate city, a lot of things would improve," she told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 1999.
In 2002, almost 51% of Valley voters supported the secession measure, but it failed 2-1 citywide. For a cityhood measure to pass, state law requires approval by the breakaway area and the city as a whole.
"She was always very enthusiastic," Vitti said of Harris, who was still serving on Valley VOTE's board this year. As the group "changed its focus and worked on improving local governance and education, she was always very supportive," he said.
One of three children, Harris was born in 1922 in Houston and raised in Pittsburgh by her mother and stepfather.
Self-educated as a fashion designer, she specialized in evening attire and ran her own design house in Detroit.
After her husband, Alvin, campaigned to live in California, they moved to Pacoima in 1960 with their three children.
She staged fashion shows in the 1970s to raise money for charity but soon become more involved "to make a better place" for her children, she told The Times in 1994.
In 1979, Harris founded the Pacoima Property Owners Assn. to unite residents to improve the community and its image.
The next year, she started the Back to Pacoima Expo, a festival at Hansen Dam that spotlighted the community and was staged until 1987.
After unsuccessfully running for City Council in 1981, she was motivated to become even more involved, according to her family.
Harris was named honorary mayor of Pacoima in 1986 and two years later became executive director of the Pacoima Chamber of Commerce.
"She was an extraordinary person," her daughter said. "She put the 'w' in 'work' . . . and always found the better way to do everything."
Her husband died in 2001.
Besides her daughter, who resides in Pacoima, Harris is survived by two sons, Sydney and Alton Harris, both of Pacoima; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Lake View Terrace American Baptist Church, 11901 Foothill Blvd.
Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to Heroes of Life, www.heroesoflife.org.