Once Mary Hussmann sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her.
Hussmann, who retired from her paid position as lead organizer for Grass Roots Organizing on June 4, has hardly slowed down. It’s clear that for her, retirement is a mere formality.
Hussmann, 60, knew three years ago that she would retire as lead organizer, explaining that it’s getting harder to keep up with the pace that includes working six days a week. She also said she wanted to spend more time with her 91-year-old mother, Bertha, who lives with her.
Familiar with Hussmann’s involvement in city matters, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said her work is “very admirable.” At times, Hussmann has ruffled officials’ feathers, but St. Romaine thinks this is important.
“If we hear from her, it’s a fairly good indication that we’re not getting the whole picture. Hussmann does a good job representing the opinion of the underrepresented,” said St. Romaine, referring to her push for a public vote regarding renovations to the Daniel Boone City Building earlier this year.
Brenda Proctor, cofounder and board member of GRO, had similar things to say about Hussmann’s persistent approach, mentioning that she can “get on people’s last nerve, but sometimes that’s what it takes.”
Proctor thought back over the past 15 or so years she’s known Hussmann with a grin but was unable to remember exactly how they met.
“We ran into each other in the world of organizing,” Proctor said. The two were members of the disbanded Reform Organization of Welfare, which had goals similar to GRO.
As founders were working in 2000 to create GRO, which relies mostly on donations from private foundations, Hussmann was one of the first names on the table. When asked to join as GRO’s first paid organizer in January 2001, Hussmann said she remembered saying, “I don’t know that I’m a great organizer, but I worry a lot.”
Executive Director Robin Acree feels otherwise.
“I think she’s one of the best organizers in the country,” Acre said. “No one’s more on top of things.”
She doesn’t think GRO would be where it is today without Hussmann’s help. “The victories and wins we’ve had were greatly due to her tenaciousness.”
Born in Topeka, Kan., Hussmann grew up the middle child of five girls. Her mother and father, a Lutheran minister named Otto Hussmann, played a key role in shaping her philanthropic focus.
“My parents attuned us to problems and injustices and taught us we should be thankful and take responsibility. You owe for what you know,” she said.
Hussmann taught primary school in Kansas City before moving with her parents and sisters to Monrovia, Liberia, in West Africa. The family lived there for two and a half years, working as missionaries with a group of Lutheran Bible translators. Hussmann taught the missionaries’ children and now has a corner of her living room dedicated to her trinkets and memories from Africa.
“You always try to keep things around that inspire you,” she said, as she shared black-and-white photographs of smiling Liberian children. When she returned to the U.S. in 1974, Hussmann became a licensed practical nurse and a registered nurse. She used nursing as a back-up job between her organizing endeavors, both of which took her all over the country.
GRO threw Hussmann a retirement party at Boone Tavern on June 2.
“GRO is really good about recognizing people’s efforts and accomplishments,” said Hussmann, adding that she couldn’t have managed without Acree’s help. Working with GRO, whose mission is to enable individuals and communities in the pursuit of economic justice and human rights, Hussmann has had her hand in a variety of issues such as voter registration, the indefinite postponement of the demolition of Park Avenue housing and Missouri health care. Just before she retired on June 4, Hussmann was recognized by both the Missouri Senate and the House of Representatives for her efforts in the community.
Her name goes hand-in-hand with GRO, but Hussmann has made a name for herself throughout the activist community.
William “Gene” Robertson, a fellow activist in the community and former MU community development professor, met Hussmann through Acree.
“Mary has been a breath of fresh air as an activist in this community,” Robertson said. He stands on the same side of the fence as Hussmann on issues like affordable access to the Activity and Recreation Center on Ash Street. Robertson doubts she’ll throw in the towel anytime soon. “When you’re valued like Mary is, you will always be called on. If she were leaving, then I’d be worried,” he said.
Acree said that one of the things she loves about Hussmann is that “she’s so grounded with her community.”
“I feel like sometimes Mary is the conscience of the community,” Proctor said. She added that sometimes Hussmann’s persistence “can take people aback if they’re not used to it,” but Proctor “thinks some people aren’t used to people caring that much.”
Now that she’s retired, Hussmann said she’s “trying to stay out of (GRO) meetings and let them have their own style.”
Proctor said that since they didn’t directly replace Hussmann, GRO volunteers are trying to reorganize and delegate roles and responsibilities. Still, Hussmann finds herself in and out of the GRO office. She is working hard to battle annexation of the Sunset and Ed’s Mobile Home Parks, which would force more than 100 families to relocate. Hussmann and residents of the mobile home parks want to lengthen the 120-day notice allotted to residents to a year.
“Injustice never takes a vacation,” Hussmann said, quoting a past mentor.
And neither does Hussmann.