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For much of her life, Esther Rosenblatt Landa played bridge with friends twice a week, but it was never just an idle pastime.

"Esther dominated the group and won most of the hands," recalled former U.S. Rep. Karen Shepherd, who last saw Landa in October during one of these regular matches. "She was all business about bridge."

And, Shepherd adds, about everything else.

Landa, who turned 102 on Dec. 25, died peacefully three days later at her winter home in Southern California.

An early proponent of women's rights, she co-founded Utah's first Head Start program, served on the Salt Lake City Board of Education, became an influential Democrat in the Beehive State and traveled the country as president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

"Esther was a very engaged person and never gave that up," Shepherd said Monday. "She knew what was going on in the country right up to the end. When I called to talk to her, she wanted to know everything about politics."

Landa became legendary in Utah as well as nationally and internationally with friendships that included the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

As a part of Salt Lake City's close-knit Jewish community, Landa embraced equality.

"It all seemed quite normal," Landa's nephew David Burnett wrote in an email, "growing up in a house where the playroom was covered with League of Women Voters' materials."

The activist earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature at the progressive Mills College in California. After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, she worked at the Department of War in Washington, D.C. It was in the nation's capital that she met an airman, Jerry Landa, whom she married in 1943. (He died in 1971.)

Esther Landa was "an indefatigable warrior for equal rights and women's rights," the National Council of Jewish Women said in a statement. "She was a very warm, loving, compassionate person, who cared deeply about the mission of NCJW and the welfare of others. If it wasn't women's rights, it was public education or numerous other political issues that Esther Landa spent her life working on."

Longtime educator and civil-rights advocate Boyer Jarvis admired Landa "as much as anyone I've ever known."

Jarvis said he worked with her at the University of Utah, where she helped launch the women's studies program.

"Esther was gentle and caring and very astute, but a no-nonsense kind of person," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek. "You always came out of a meeting with Esther learning something new — always."

A mentor to Arent, Landa urged her to jump into the political fray at a time when few women did so.

"I first ran in 1996, in a district where I was told I had no chance," Arent recalled Monday. "Esther encouraged me, inspired me and gave me good suggestions about how to run a campaign and how to raise money. She knew how to get things done and how to understand the issues she cared about."

Women's rights were at the top of that list.

"I knew Esther for many, many years, before I was married even," said former Utah first lady Norma Matheson. "She lived in our neighborhood, and I remember I was so impressed when she served on the Salt Lake City School Board. It was almost unheard of back in those days that a woman would be involved like that."

In 1977, Landa oversaw Utah's convention for International Women's Year, a U.N. initiative to consider discrimination, social and equity problems faced by women.

"Some 300 Utah feminists were expected," Eileen Hallet Stone wrote in a 2012 profile of Landa in The Salt Lake Tribune. "More than 13,000 Utah women and children, most of them Mormon, showed up to protest the proposed Equal Rights Amendment."

Advocacy leader Jinnah Kelson told Stone: "Everybody was angry. It was Esther's deft facilitation of the group that pulled us through. Watching her handle the riled-up crowd and stormy debates was simply incredible."

Landa allowed all points of view, Kelson said in the article, "even when they were voting down issues close to her heart."

With such aplomb, Landa earned the respect of many feminists in the crowd, Matheson said. "I know she inspired a lot of young women at that time who later became active and had wonderful careers."

One of those women was Landa's own daughter.

Having a larger-than-life mom was not always easy, Terry Landa Vismantas said. "But, in my eyes, there will never be anyone as smart or kind as my mother."

Or as funny.

In the past couple of years, Landa agonized when two of her three children died, while she lingered on.

"I guess," the centenarian quipped, "God doesn't know what to do with Esther Landa."

On Friday, the family will hold a private burial for Landa in Salt Lake City. A memorial service celebrating the activist's life will be held in Utah's capital in the spring.

Tribune columnist Paul Rolly contributed to this story.