Mary Powers nee Downey, 93, long-time activist and LGBT ally, died June 25 at Evanston Hospital following a short illness.
Powers was born Sept. 10, 1922 and spent her early years in East Lansing and Flint, Michigan. She attended Marygrove Collegea private, Catholic, women's collegebut graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in sociology.
She worked at the American Red Cross briefly before taking an employee counselor position at Western Electric where she worked from 1946-1950. It was while working at Western Electric that Powers became aware of gay and lesbian peopleher fellow employeesand the difficulties they faced.
She said in a 2012 interview with Windy City Times: ""In that counseling role, I was fortunate enough to build enough confidence in the people I was working with that they confided in me their personal problems. At that point, people were losing their jobs [because of their sexual orientation]. This was such a moving and compelling situation, I began to feel involved in the issues of this community right then."
Powers married her husband William ( who preceded her in death ) shortly after World War II and they lived in Winnetka, Illinois for many years.
She is survived by her daughters Joanne Powers and Elisabeth Marcum, sons William and Stephen, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Along with many activists, 1969 was a transformative year for Powers. Shortly after the 1969 raid on the Black Panthers' apartment on Chicago's West Side, Powers and a few of her neighbors from Winnetka walked through the raided Panther apartment after the raid and were appalled at the destruction.
"We were all so shocked that we decided to get involved and do something," said Powers in 2012.
Powers saw a flier from the Alliance to End Repression, a coalition of social-activist task forces, advertising an open meeting at DePaul University to galvanize citizens against the structures that lead to their own repression. Powers chose to join a board directly involved in monitoring and fighting what activists felt were overreaches of power in the criminal justice system. Shortly after the meeting, the group became a part of Citizens Alert in an attempt to tackle perceived abuses of power in the CPD.
As vice president of the Alliance to End Repression, she supported the formation of what would later be called the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Powers involvement included serving on CA's board for a number of years, and was active with the group until it folded last year.
One of the things she was best known for was her efforts to bring Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge to justice beginning in 1991. Burge was accused of getting confessions out of suspects via torture methods in Chicago Reader articles. Powers attended Burge's federal trial some 20 years later where he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Powers was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1992 as a friend of the community for her work in advocating for LGBT civil rights as well as addressing police abuse and harassment. In 2012, she received the Elizabeth I. Benson Award from Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ for her years of service and dedication to police accountability.
"For many years when it was really necessary to demonstrate on the street about gay and lesbian issues, the police were always there with heavy surveillance, so the Observer Program would appear at many of those occasions when asked to do so by the community, wearing our Citizens Alert volunteer armbands and recording every bit of interaction between demonstrators, the police and the public," Powers said in 2012.
She was also an active member of the Catholic Church where she served as a board member of Chicago Catholic Women ( CCW ) from 1977-1985.
"Mary was an unwavering advocate for women and the LGBT community both within the Catholic church and in society," said LGBT activist Rick Garcia. "Since the late 1960s, long before it was fashionable, she advocated for formal training of police officers on LGBT issues. She also documented police brutality and fought against the abuses of the police toward minority communities; timely positions to take even today. Mary played a significant role in the successes of Chicago's LGBT community. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude."
"She was a wonderful woman and real fighter for what she believed in," said long-time friend Mary Jane Vogt.
"In 1975, I asked Mary to give testimony on the topic of women in prison for CCW's participation in the Bicentennial Conference of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops," said CCW founder and Executive Director Donna Quinn. "While serving on CCW's board, Mary was one of the organizers protesting for the inclusion of female altar servers which eventually led to universal acceptance of this practice. Mary was a well-loved member of CCW. She continually taught others about our work fighting against gender discrimination both in the church and society at large and will always be remembered."
Per Powers' request, her funeral service ( provided by Donnellan Family Funeral Services in Skokie, Illinois ) will be private.
See the 2012 interview with Powers here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Citizens-Alerts-Mary-Powers-on-advocacy-and-the-power-of-individuals/39470.html .