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Mary Hall: Her commitments to peace and to social justice filled a lifetime

Mary Boland Taussig Hall
Frederick and Odile Tompkins

It would have been as easy as falling off a log for a woman of the background and breeding of Mary Boland Taussig Hall to join the cozy, costly world of brown-graveled lanes connecting bridge tables and golf courses and tennis courts and cocktails and canapés and country clubs and banquets and balls. It would have been easy, but it was a road Mrs.Hall chose to avoid. Instead, she devoted her life to helping people whose  lives were so different from hers, and to worrying about the world of the invisible people, the disposable folks, the ones who cook and clean for others then disappear, the crowds of the broken and broken hearted.

Such a gracious world potentially would welcome Mary Hall, who died Wednesday at home in the Central West End at age 104 with her family around her.  The barrier to her entering that world was her parents. Their influences — the humane and progressive ideas and examples set forth by Florence Gottschalk Taussig and Frederick Taussig, M.D. — militated against such a stumble. Social consciences were part of her parents' constitutions and theirs were convictions shared with equally liberal, perhaps even radical, friends.

Here’s an example of the challenges to which they exposed Mary at an early age. 

Imagine two little girls dressed in white, standing on the steps of the old Coliseum at Washington and Jefferson Avenues almost a hundred years ago. It was 1916, the year the Democratic National Convention came to St. Louis.

The girls – Martha Gellhorn, aged 7, and Mary Taussig, 5 – stood as idealized representations of voters of the future: women voters.

Martha’s mother, Edna FischelGellhorn, organized a parade of some 7,000 women — suffragists — to march on Locust Street, to emphasize to convention delegates the power of the women’s movement. They wore yellow sashes and carried yellow parasols, and the march was called the Golden Lane.

Mrs. Gellhorn and Mrs. Taussig were good friends and both were committed to women’s suffrage, and fought for human rights with words that seem contemporary.  It was only logical they pass their passion along to the children, and to do it dramatically.

Martha Gellhorn became a famous writer, and is often reckoned to be one of the greatest war correspondents ever. Along with that, Gellhorn was Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.

Mary Hall’s commitments and programs were more regional and statewide, but they were nonetheless enormously ambitious, given the condition of the country. Eventually her interests and intentions would expand globally.

Besides all those parades and home-served, socially-conscious influences there also was something ineffable, almost miraculous, about the living, breathing monument that was the mature Mary Hall. She was an elegant woman, a marvelous hostess, a writer of encouraging notes and thank-you notes and she loved good parties and bright, witty conversations. Although she was possessed of a conscience and intelligence that despised injustice — “What are we doing about this?” she would ask. “Why aren’t we taking action?” — she forbore those who felt differently. (At least while they were around.) Nevertheless her standards never softened. Until she began her slow slide into the diminishment of Alzheimer’s disease, she professed proudly her beliefs in equity and fairness; in  assuming responsibility for our fellow persons; in believing in equal justice for all — and in working for peace.

Mary Boland Taussig Hall at 100 years
Credit Robert Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
Mrs. Hall at her 100th birthday four years ago, surrounded by family and friends.

Although standing firmly on the left side of the political continuum, she managed to navigate the choppy, sometimes treacherous right-sided waters of St. Louis society with grace and dignity.  For example, she maintained a close and cherished friendship with Martha Love Symington, one of the St. Louis history’s grandest and most resplendent Veiled Prophet queens, and one of the most interesting persons of her era. This friendship flourished while Mrs. Hall was setting up the first child welfare services unit under the Social Security Act, and helping to establish the first public health clinic in the Missouri Bootheel. When Mrs. Symington died, Mrs. Hall and another friend, Helen Morrin, wove a pall of flowers and vines, and laid it lovingly on her casket.

Helen Morrin’s daughter, Sheila Morrin Humphreys, of Berkeley, Calif., wrote a biography for Mrs. Hall’s centenary called “Mary Taussig Hall -- A Life of Giving Back.” The book was thorough and the source of much information contained in this obituary. Giving  back is precisely what Mrs. Hall did. She regarded her perch of comfort as not, in fact, altogether comfortable, and increasingly as time went on and she became acquainted first hand with the desperate conditions of so many American men, women and families, her comfort seemed to cause discomfort.

Finding her path toward activism

After graduating from Mary Institute, now MICDS, she headed for suburban Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr College, which would become an engine of epiphany.  Once she’d finished at  Bryn Mawr in 1933, she made her way west for a summer with Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. There she came to regard Addams as her second mother— but with Addams’s mothering came a cold immersion into reality.  After making a kindly promise Mrs. Hall made to an immigrant woman she couldn’t keep, Addams suggested Mrs. Hall go back to school and learn better how things are done.

“And so I did,” she wrote. “Straight from Hull House to the school of social work. Planning social action.”

The George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis was the site of planning that social action. According to Morrin’s biography, Mrs. Hall focused on two serious problems: the families of tiff miners in Washington County, Mo. — particularly illiteracy among the children of the miners — and the work associated with setting up a public health center in Poplar Bluff.

In 1940, she wrote a book called “Stones for Bread,” that spoke of relief needs. Her father suggested the title, and quoted St. Luke: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?” The book was taken to legislators and other prominent Missourians in the hope of raising the level of relief appropriations. The hope was realized.

Mrs. Hall worked with then Sen. Harry S. Truman to find jobs for miners displaced because of the arrival of machines that could do their jobs. Truman and Mrs. Hall found jobs for them in provisions of a reforestation bill. She was appointed to Missouri Children's Code Commission and worked to make the Missouri Association for Social Welfare an active – and activist – organization.

She worked for the racial integration of City Hospital and was on the board of the Urban League.  She toiled for liberal political candidates – Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern to name three. Hanging rather defiantly in her dining room was a large, framed, frank and conspicuous homage to President Obama. She had it placed where she could see it from her seat at the table. She was faithful and consistent to the end.

The list of her work and her ideas in regard to social welfare stretches on and on, but on every line and in every mention, the eradication of poverty and injustice is implicit. In what may be considered stage two of her career as a social activist, she looked to global concerns, and went to work for the United Nations Association of Greater St. Louis and for peace, which she believed would never be achieved until basic societal goals and human needs were met. She was a devoted member and advocate of the U.N.A., and at a sold-out gala dinner in 1988 was honored for her service to the organization.

Mary Boland Taussig Hall
Credit Frederick and Odile Tompkins
Mrs. Hall as a young woman, circa 1933.

All of this might suggest she suffered from tunnel vision, and lived as a woman obsessed with work, so swamped by so many causes that any distracting activity – family life for example – would be dismissed by her as too much. In fact, for someone so visibly busy and committed, she was a family woman who, like her mother, combined home with public-service vocation. 

In 1939, she moved to Washington, D.C. to study for the civil service examinations, and while she was there a long-time suitor, L. Benoist Tompkins of St. Louis, caught up with her and finally convinced her to marry him, which she did in 1941.   In time, Tompkins became the father of her two children. Tompkins died suddenly of a heart attack in 1950. Her second marriage, in 1952, was to Thomas S. Hall, a former dean of the College of Liberal Arts (now the College of Arts and Sciences) at Washington University and professor of biology there. Hall died in 1990.

Mrs. Hall is survived by her son, Frederick Tompkins (Odile) and daughter, Mary Houghton (Neil); her grandchildren: Katherine Sahin (Mustafa); Neil Houghton, Jr. (Wendy); and Anne-Cécile Tompkins and Charles Tompkins; her nephew, Frederick T. Taussig (Leila),; her nieces, Susan Taussig, Anne Taussig (Marc Bush) and their children and grandchildren.

She donated brain tissue to be harvested after she died to an Alzheimer's research project at Washington University School of Medicine and her body was donated to the Medical School as well.

Services for Mrs. Hall are to be private according to her wishes. Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the United Nations Association of Greater St. Louis -- www.unastl.org.


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