By day, a barefooted Mimi Dwight sang along to Joni Mitchell as she drove a station wagon full of her five children and a shedding Saint Bernard around the streets of Holyoke, Massachusetts. In the evenings, she met in back rooms to organize for social justice in her community and beyond.
Born and raised in Holyoke, she was the youngest daughter of Henry and Marcelle Burgee. Her adolescence at the Northampton School for Girls earned the comment on her report card that “Mimi is a good student, but she seems inordinately interested in boys.” They were interested back.
At Bryn Mawr College in the early 1950s, she joined her first protest march. Her zeal for social justice led her inadvertently to the field of gerontology, which became her passion and profession.
In Massachusetts she was known as Mimi Dwight. Under that name, she co-founded the Urban Ministries (a multi-faith coalition dedicated to participatory government within the inner city of Holyoke); she served on the Commission on the Status of Women, the State Welfare Commission, and the Housing Finance Agency, among others. In the early 1970s, she braved local and state politics to create the nation’s first municipal Geriatric Authority, spearheading the successful effort to turn an outdated Municipal Home into a groundbreaking geriatric rehabilitation center. The building was later named in her honor.
Propelled by her interest in the challenges she saw in the field of aging, she enrolled at Hampshire College to finish the bachelor’s degree she had postponed in favor of marriage and children. When she learned that Hampshire would not accept any credits from her two years at Bryn Mawr, she resolutely set out to complete her Hampshire degree in one year.
After graduating, she loaded her two youngest into a quirky car and drove cross-country to get a master’s degree in Gerontology from the University of Southern California. In Los Angeles she became Maria Dwight, a single mother raising two boys and beginning a career that would see her rise to become a world-renowned visionary in the field of aging.
She joined Gerontological Planning Associates as vice president in 1975 and in 1982 formed her own company, Gerontological Services Inc. GSI became a national advocate for participatory planning for services and facilities for older adults. Focusing on primary data collected directly from older people, GSI developed operational, design and marketing plans for innovative approaches for its clients, who included LGBTQ, Born Deaf, Chinese-American, Japanese American, Native American, Religious Women, expatriates in Mexico and Costa Rica, faith based long term care and housing providers, hospitals, developers, architects, cities, towns, day centers, CCRCs and moderate-income housing projects.
Among achievements too numerous to list, she served on the Board of Overseers of Brandeis University, on the Boards of Centura Health System (Denver), Stonewall Communities (Boston), Wise and Healthy Aging (Los Angeles), the Williston Northampton School and, most recently, Friends House in Santa Rosa, CA.
For 30 years, Maria taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design’s summer session; she presented at Harvard’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health; at MIT, UMass, Boston University School of Medicine; at California University of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine; and her alma mater, the USC School of Gerontology. She testified before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor and the United States Senate Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs.
She was a frequent speaker at international conferences including AHSA Asian Conference India, Asian Health Conference Singapore, International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging Conferences, as well as “Quo Vadis” in Berlin. Maria was appointed to the White House Conference on Aging, National Advisory Committee in 1981 and also served it as a delegate, advocating for the integration of housing and services. Her work was recognized with countless awards, culminating in the “Continuing Care Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2017.
She was an intrepid traveler who migrated with the reindeer in the Arctic and marched with the penguins in the Antarctic (as well as lots of warm and exotic places in between).
Maria’s small rented bungalow in Santa Monica was never empty. She fed and mothered a vast extended family of skate rats, actors, hard-core musicians, activists, surfers, students, co-workers, artists and writers, as well as her own brood. She was equally comfortable with Senators, Governors and CEOs as with members of the Flesh Eaters, Dream Syndicate and Sonic Youth. And she was admired and adored by them all.
Maria leaves four children: Bill Dwight (Lida Lewis) of Northampton, Lili Dwight (Byron Coley) of Deerfield, Valle Dwight (Phil O’Donoghue) of Florence, and Ryan Dwight of Huntington Beach, California, as well as eight grandchildren: Eli Dwight, Hudson and Addison Coley, Tim and Aidan O’Donoghue, and Ella, Liam and Dylan Dwight. She is also survived by her sister, Paula Gallup ’49 (John Gallup), of Longmeadow, as well as many nieces and nephews. Her husband, Edward LeVesconte; and her son, Timothy Monk Dwight, pre-deceased her.
The family is planning memorial services for later this summer; one at her home in the redwoods of Northern California, and the second in her childhood haunts of western Massachusetts.
Donations in her honor may be made to Whole Children, 41 Russell St, Hadley, MA 01035; www.wholechildren.org.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that you elect a woman President in 2020.
Read more about Maria in the Spring 2016 issue of the Bulletin.