Longtime LGBT community ally Merry Mary, aka Mary Featherston, died Dec. 30 after a short battle with cancer. Born Jan. 4, 1934, Mary was 77 years old when she died.
Mary was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as a Friend of the Community in 2005. The honor was based on her dedication as a volunteer to numerous LGBT health and cultural groups, starting in 1979.
Mary was especially passionate about the city's two gay choruses, Windy City Gay Chorus ( under the umbrella of Windy City Performing Arts, or WCPA ) and Chicago Gay Men's Chorus ( CGMC ) , and the Chi-Town Squares. Other groups that benefited from her volunteer work included Howard Brown Health Center, the NAMES Project, Unison, Dignity/Chicago, Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly and Vital Bridges' GroceryLand Pantry.
Her first volunteer work in the community was in 1979 with what was then known as Howard Brown Memorial Clinic. In 1987, she was honored with HBMC's Friend for Life award and in February 2005 the clinic honored her for 25 years of volunteering.
Mary's volunteer work for the NAMES Project stemmed from her own personal loss of friends she met during her community volunteerism. She created panels for gay men who died, and then gave her time when the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt first was displayed in Chicago, at Navy Pier in 1988.
Her biggest time commitment was helping work events, and attending rehearsals, for the choral and square dancing groups. Her closest friends seem to have come from those times.
"No one has attended or heard more chorus rehearsals and performances by both WCPA and CGMC than Merry Mary," said CGMC's Danny Kopelson. "For nearly 30 years, I knew I'd see her every Sunday at CGMC rehearsals at the money table. She would always cut articles out of the paper for me and others that she knew we'd be interested in reading and would be collecting and folding bags for Vital Bridges North Side Pantry. She was there for the choruses when members who were sick and losing their lives to HIV/AIDS. As an LGBT Hall of Fame 'Friend f the Community' Mary was a critical part of Chicago's LGBT history and certainly the gay choruses. Wherever Mary was, she shared her love. She was loved back and will be greatly missed by many."
One summer day in the 1970s, Mary took her children to a parade near her Lakeview home. Coming from a fairly sheltered Catholic upbringing, Mary was surprised to realize that she was watching Chicago's gay Pride Parade. Nobody, least of all Mary herself, would have guessed that she would eventually become one of the gay community's most devoted friends and supporters.
People unfamiliar with the name Mary Featherston are far more likely to recognize "Merry Mary," the moniker by which she was known in gay and lesbian circles across the city. After becoming involved in the community, Mary began to patronize North Side gay bars; a favorite hangout was B.J.'s, located at 3231 N. Clark ( it later became the restaurant Orange, and is now called Kanela ) . After establishing herself as a regular and making friends with everyonein her customary fashionMary would walk into B.J.'s and would be greeted by one of the other regulars calling out, "It's Merry Mary!" The nickname stuck.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Mary was born in the Wicker Park neighborhood and lived for the first six years of her life at 1327 N. Oakley. Her family then moved to Lakeview, and she remained in the same neighborhood near Addison and Southport for the rest of her life. She attended St. Alverna Catholic High School.
Mary's involvement with the gay community began when her children were still in school. One of the other parents did volunteer work at Howard Brown ( then located on Halsted near Diversey ) , and one day he invited Mary to come along. She wound up volunteering with Howard Brown for 31 years.
At about this same time, another friend invited Mary to attend the inaugural performance of the newly formed Windy City Gay Chorus in December 1979. Mary began volunteering with WCPA, and when a faction later broke off and formed the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus in 1983, Mary volunteered with them as well. She remained an integral and valued part of both choruses until the end of her lifestaffing the money table, sitting in on the weekly rehearsals, and attending the concerts. Chorus members looking out into the audience of the Athenaeum Theater knew they could always find Mary in her spot in the upper balcony center.
Mary was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the fall. During her final weeks at St. Joseph's Hospital, the steady stream of visitors to Mary's room was a veritable "Who's Who" of prominent figures in Chicago's LGBT community. But despite her popularity, Mary was a modest person who avoided the spotlight, preferring to serve and to enrich other people's livesin a variety of different waysbehind the scenes.
Bruce Besley knew Mary from her earliest days with WCPA. "We'd go out to the bars together. She used to have a 4th of July party in Wrigleyville, in her big side yard. She was unique, and she had her own bar stool at Cellblock. She was wonderful woman, involved in so many things. She was at every Windy City Gay Chorus concert, up until the last one in December," Besley said.
Bob Tuscher also fondly remembered his friend of 30 years. He's not sure where they met originally, but it could have been when they worked for AT&T, or when they both volunteered for HBMC when it was on Halsted. Mary worked more than 20 years at AT&T, including as an information operator, and later worked as a clerk for a credit union and as a vault attendant at Central Savings Bank.
"We would talk on the phone all the time," said Tuscher. "Her influence was far and wide. It is a very sad thing. She had an incredible impact on Windy City Gay Chorus and CGMC. She was always there as a guiding hand, and she kept meticulous records. Windy City gave her a lifetime membership a few years ago, and she didn't even want to take it. She always talked to anyone, and made them feel welcome. She helped so much around the AIDS crisisit's so painful to remember how many people were cut down in their prime. So many friends disappeared overnight.
"She was like a sister. I don't remember a time when I didn't know her. … She added stability to us, in a difficult time, and everyone she came into contact with her held her in such high regard. She was very low-key, yet she cut a powerful and dynamic swath through the city. … My parents would come to chorus concerts, and Mary and my mom hit it off. When my mom said they came because they were like parents to a lot of the guys whose parents rejected them, Mary said that was how she felt, too. She felt like a mom. She was giving that love and support even when they didn't know they needed it."
"Merry Mary was a very early ally and supporter back in 1993 when we were forming the LGBT employee resource group ( GLEAM ) at Ameritech. She was such a force for good," said Kasey Reese, a former Chicagoan now living in Vancouver. [ SBC acquired Ameritech then later acquired AT&T and took on the AT&T name. ]
"Part of the magic of Merry Mary was that in some ways she was such an unlikely friend of the community," said Jon Putnam, who met Mary when he joined CGMC in 1998. "It was sort of amazing that this straight, Catholic, working-class mom found her niche among gays and lesbians, and derived such joy from being part of our organizations and supporting our causes. She proved that you can't stereotype people."
Bob Siegel of Chi-Town Squares commented about Mary's importance to his organization.
"Mary joined Chi-Town Squares in 1990, the third year of our existence, and received her 20-year medallion at our graduation ceremonies in 2010," Siegel said. "Unknown to many, Mary did go through the lessons several times and was a Plus-level dancer. In recent years, however, she served the club as cashier when we had the class on Tuesday ( because the Thursday class of course conflicted with her regular happy hour at the Cell Block! ) . She would occasionally fill in a square when needed.
"As cashier, she was a taskmaster. She would not be too happy if you didn't come with exact change, and God forbid if you didn't sign in the proper way. But we certainly appreciated her accuracy, dependability and warm sense of humor. Even during our last Crossfire event in September, she happily filled in a volunteer slot of watching the rooms while the rest of us were on dinner break. Mary often served as a judge for our Halloween costume contest. She also had us trained to bring in grocery bags for Open Hand, and more recently, made appeals to bring in unused hotel soaps and toiletries.
"Mary was honored Chi-Town Squares in 2000 with a plaque of appreciation, in addition in her numerous other accolades. And we will honor her again in July 2012 when her club badge in placed on the memorial panel at the International Association of Square Dance Club's annual convention in Vancouver."
Curt Eakle, a member of Windy City Gay Chorus for the past 17 years, is now the board treasurer for Windy City Performing Arts. He worked closely with Mary. "She loved our organization and choral groups," Eakle said. "She used to top concert ticket sales records by selling an average of 30 tickets per concert. Up until just last year, she had attended every Windy City Gay Chorus concert. When WCGC traveled for its first out-of-town concert to New York City in 1982, to perform at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus in the first joint concert between two gay choruses not of the same metropolitan area, Mary on a whim decided to buy an airline ticket to New York so that she could see that historic performance. After that she traveled with WCGC to all the out-of-town performances including the ACDA conferences, GALA Choruses Festivals, and to the 1984 national Johnny Mann Choral Competition performances when WCGC won first place. She was known for bringing her famous chocolate chip cookies on these trips."
When CGMC has split off from WCGC in 1983, Mary remained impartial to the division and animosity between the two groups, volunteering and cashiering for CGMC too, Eakle said. "As our cashier she would collect money at rehearsals for membership dues, fees, and miscellaneous payments," he added. "She kept meticulous hand-written records on ledger sheets, always balanced her cash, and even went to the bank to make the deposits. I used to tease her about keeping her records on paper ledger sheets instead of Excel spreadsheets on a computer. She would respond, 'This is the way that I do it, and this is how I'll continue to do it!' I talked her into taking some computer classes at the Center on Halsted though. Last year I needed to provide the IRS with some revenue information for some tax years going back, and some of that data was either misplaced or lost on individuals' computer hard drives. Mary fortunately had made copies of all of her records, and I was able to retrieve that data. I never teased her about her paper ledger sheets again!"
Eakle said that Mary had started to slow down in recent years, especially after breaking her hip in 2007. "She was no longer able to attend out-of-town performances, but she kept on cashiering for us," he said. "She called me up on the day of our 2010 Holiday Concert in tears, saying that she was experiencing some severe hip pain and wouldn't be able to attend the concert. It was the first regular concert that she ever missed. Mary cashiered right up to the week that she went into the hospital for the first time in mid-November. Although I knew that this day was coming, I didn't expect it to happen so quickly. It will be difficult to find volunteers as dedicated as she to fill in the void that she leaves in our organization. We're going to miss her terribly. You don't find many people in our community anymore with that much dedication."
Lori Cannon of Vital Bridges' GroceryLand was also a longtime friend, and fellow community ally. "There are unforgettable characters, and then there's Merry Mary, who I'm proud to call my friend and co-conspirator for over 25 years," Cannon said. "With a heart as big as the great outdoors, this gal devoted herself to serving the community in a special, important and selfless way. The clients and volunteers at Open Hand [ now Vital Bridges ] will forever be grateful for the incomparable 'Merry Mary bags' ... something that was born out of her service with the Gay Men's chorus, donating plastic Jewel bags, where upon she'd meticulously fold and re-fold, by the thousands, for use delivering meals in the early days, and then at the grocery center later on. It was just a small thoughtful and sweet gesture, that was incredibly time consuming, and appreciated by all. My fear is that she's taken the secret folding trick to the grave.
"Between her commitment to HBMC, AGLO, Open Hand and the chorus, she represented the finest example of volunteerismalways remaining loyal to the mission, along with her unique style and very definite opinions. Turns out she and I had no use for the same peopleyou can imagine how dynamic our conversations were! This lady had no trouble telling you the 'real deal.' She stood her ground and wasn't afraid to 'name names'! Her contributions were staggering, and she always did it HER way. What a huge and remarkable legacy she leaves."
"You know when I think of Merry Mary she was the mom you always wanted but might not be lucky enough to have," said longtime friend Dean Ogren. "She was always there with a thought or comment, or word of advice. There might be judgment too, but what mom does not want the best for their kids. There was not a stranger to Merry and her love for you knew no bounds. If she took your photo or found it in a paper, you would get a note in the mail to you and in there would be that picture or mention. Thoughtful, loyal, you could not ask for a better person, she lived her life the way everyone knows a person should. The skybox crowd will never be the same at Cellblock now that Merry Mary is gone. Her induction to the Hall of Fame in 2005 was one of those do-not-miss events 'cause she touched every part of the community and every part of the community touched Merry."
Mary was married and has a son and three daughters, including Roberta, who was by her side constantly during Mary's final weeks. Mary raised her children in the Wrigleyville area. In addition to Roberta Donahue and Roberta's husband Joe, Mary is survived by her children Mary Heil ( Andy ) , David Featherston ( Rosa ) and Theresa Blair. She has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"I love her and I am going to miss her," Roberta said. "She taught me everything I know. I think I turned out pretty good, and I thank her for that."
The tentative information on the wake and mass ( subject to change ) : Friday, Jan. 6, 4-8 p.m. at Cooney Funeral Home, 3918 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago. Mass Saturday, Jan. 7, 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 708 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Please check the online version of this article prior to Friday for any updates.
Donations can be made to either of the gay men's choral groups or Chi-Town Squares.
Also see http://www.glhalloffame.org/
-- Also contributing: Jon Putnam
Wake Friday, Jan. 6, 3-9 p.m. at Cooney Funeral Home, 3918 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago. Mass Saturday, Jan. 7, 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 708 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Update: A celebration of her life will be held and a city resolution will be shared March 11, 2pm-4pm at the Cell Block, 3702 N Halsted St, Chicago.