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Phyllis Fisher, steelworker and advocate, dies

Phyllis Rosalyn Fisher died of cancer Jan. 1.
Phyllis Rosalyn Fisher died of cancer Jan. 1. (HANDOUT)

Phyllis Rosalyn Fisher, a former Bethlehem Steel worker who became an advocate for the unemployed in her industry, died of cancer Jan. 1 at Gilchrist Hospice Care of Towson. The former Northeast Baltimore resident was 65.

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Rudolph Hoggard, a laborer, and Mable Elaine, a factory worker.

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She was raised on Guilford Avenue and attended Eastern High School. When she was 17, she received her GED and enlisted in the Army.

She met Ralph Fisher, a jazz drummer, in 1970 at the old Casino Club on Pennsylvania Avenue. They later married.

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"In 1976 she put on her hard hat and steel toe boots and began working as a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel," said her daughter, Dena Fisher of Baltimore. "She taught them that a woman with nails, grace and class could get down and dirty like any man and get the job done."

Colleagues at Sparrows Point said she initially worked at Bethlehem's plate mill and was later assigned to its pipe mill. When that mill shut down in 1983, she lost her job.

She became a volunteer at District 8 Steelworkers Emergency Assistance Program and was later placed on the union staff.

"Although she had no formal education, she basically became a social worker helping those who had lost their jobs," said her daughter. "She became a beacon of hope for her colleagues who felt hopeless and jaded."

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"Miss Phyllis was a beautiful person. She was serious about her work and would help anybody," said Eddie Bartee Jr., a former steelworker. "I got one month behind on my mortgage and she offered help."

Mrs. Fisher was widely quoted about the plight of steelworkers who lost jobs in the 1980s.

In a 1983 Baltimore Sun article, she said that when she applied for food stamps, she was told she was ineligible because her 1981 Oldsmobile was worth too much.

"We were used to doing pretty well. We thought we were the new rich," she said in a 1985 Sun article. "Then all of a sudden you are laid off. You think it's going to be a few weeks. Then it goes on and on."

Mrs. Fisher was called to testify at congressional hearings. She appeared on NBC's "Today," where host Bryant Gumbel called her a local hero.

She stopped working in the 1990s. "She stepped up as a grandmother and made a wonderful one," her daughter said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Home, 8728 Liberty Road in Randallstown.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include a son, Damon Fisher of Baltimore; another daughter, Keisha Winkler-Smith of Los Angeles; a brother, Sherman Hoggard of Baltimore; her mother, Mable Elaine Hoggard of Baltimore; two sisters, Catherine O'Dell Stokes of Virginia and Ramona Curley of Baltimore, 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her husband of more than 30 years died in 2008.

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