Born Mary Quinn on September 17, 1918, Mary Powell lived a remarkable life of ninety-one years in New York City. Recognized for a quiet determination and soft-spoken leadership that enabled her to overcome substantial personal challenges and hardship, Mary persevered to achieve success and recognition as a labor leader, family matriarch and community activist. Raising seven children as she commuted to and from work on the NYC subways for nearly three hours per day, – until she was 80 years old – did not deter Mary from being actively involved in the neighborhoods and communities in which she lived and worked.
Upon her death in 2010, dedicated community leaders, local, state and federal politicians, journalists, and an array of friends and family were inspired as they reflected on her amazing life. In Proclamations dated March 18th, 2010, one U.S. Congressman described Mary as “an inspiring activist for our community”, and Borough President Marty Markowitz honored her as a “tenacious, tender hearted champion for her community”, while proclaiming the day as Mary Powell Memorial Day in Brooklyn, New York.
City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler described Mary as an “honest broker for the community” with “no other agenda than to make our neighborhood a better place”, and New York State Senator Martin J. Golden honored Mary as a Woman of the Year during Women’s History Month in 2009 (she was still actively contributing to her community at ninety years old).
Ronald Feldman, Dean Emeritus of Columbia University School of Social Work, – where Mary served decades as a union leader – had the opportunity to “observe Mary‘s passion, spirit, and dedication to others over a very long period of time”. Although Dr. Feldman represented the opposite side of the negotiation table, he was moved by Mary’s “sense of public responsibility, integrity and honesty”, which he described as traits that are “far too rare in today’s world”.
Mary’s memory is a treasure. She is a woman who conquered substantial hardship in her life, first as a child and later as an adult and mother. She surmounted sizable obstacles to success long before her endearing qualities were broadly and publicly recognized; Mary overcame the trauma of being struck by a car as a young child, an ensuing coma, the loss of her beloved older brother when he was thirteen and she just eight, a bout with tuberculosis in her teens and the social impact of the Great Depression. She married in her twenties and soon demonstrated the strength and capabilities to hold a fragile, often volatile family life together. She worked hard to improve her family’s circumstances and raise her children out of a difficult social environment. Losing her husband to heart disease with four children still in school left the burden of raising her family squarely on her shoulders, but she never complained nor waivered as she accomplished her goals and helped her children go on to successful lives of notable talent and accomplishment. Through it all, she set an example of voluntarily and proactively engaging in her community to address issues of pollution, crime, neighborhood blight and social injustice. As a labor leader, she held management accountable and as a community leader she did the same with local politicians and business owners.
Family, Community, Selflessness – throughout a remarkable life!