Eulogy for Mary Jane Wilmarth, October 8, 1919



I am sure we all know how impossible it is to speak adequately of Mrs Wilmarth; the very abundance of material as well as the depth of our feeling makes it inexpressibly difficult. I can only ask you to follow me in memory as we go back over this long life which has been so precious to everyone here, that we may draw near together in this hour of our common sorrow and comfort each other as best we may.

To that end, with your permission, I will read first from some of that great literature which she knew so well and from which she derived [so] much of her own inspiration:

"To our friends and loved ones we shall give the most worthy honor and tribute, not if we remember that they are dead, but, contrariwise, that they have lived; by that tribute the force and flow of their action and work may be carried over the gulfs of death and made immortal in the true and healthy life which they worthily had and used.

"The dead are not dead if in our lives we give them immortality, preserve the treasures they have won, and sound out the circuit of their being to the fullness of an ampler orbit." [page 2]

"Grief, therefore, should be

Like Joy, majestic, equable, sedate.

Strong to consume small troubles; to command

Great Thoughts; lasting to the end."

"When are the good so powerful to guide and quicken, as after death has withdrawn them from us? Then we feel that the seal is set upon what was made perfect in their souls.

Let us arise, therefore, and make for the departed a memorial in our own lives."

That we may keep in mind the universality of Mrs Wilmarth's spirit, I would like to read a few lines written by one of her personal friends:

"It is not that we are singled out for a special judgment; when we give up our dead we are entering into a common sorrow, a sorrow that visits the proudest and humblest, that has entered into unnumbered hearts before us and will enter into innumerable ones after us, a sorrow that should make the world one and dissolve all other feelings into sympathy and love."

It is impossible for any of us to speak of our personal relations with Mrs Wilmarth. For most of us here those relations extended over many years. We will hold the memory of them as our greatest treasure during the rest of our lives. But we may say something of her public life, of her influence in Chicago for more than fifty years when she lived in the center of ↑it↓ actually as well as spiritually. I think none of us will ever pass along certain parts of our lake front [page 3] without tender thoughts of her, remembering that much of her private as well as her public life was spent there.

You know of course that she was one of the earliest members both of the Fortnightly Club and the Woman's Club. The woman, in those far-off days, was supposed to be absorbed in her own family, and if she sought any interests outside her home she was more or less an object of criticism. It is easy for us to understand of course how little Mrs Wilmarth cared for such objections. It was but natural that she should have been a pioneer in the woman's movement in Chicago, and she brought to it the gifts of a finely endowed and cultivated mind. Only a few weeks ago, when I was in England, I met a man of letters, whose name is familiar in both continents, who said that curiously enough the person of greatest intellectual distinction whom he had met in America had lived in Chicago. He was surprised simply because Europeans do not usually associate our dear city with intellectual affairs. But his clever description, even without his recollection that the lady lived in a hotel on the lake front, left no doubt in my mind that he was describing Mrs Wilmarth. Without his powers of discrimination, we all realized that Mrs Wilmarth possessed the ↑a↓ mind of rare quality. She had that indefinable grace for which we use the word distinction because it is so difficult to find the proper word. She brought from the first into the [page 4] woman's movement of Chicago an historic knowledge of the best in life and literature as a standard by which to measure the achievements of the present; a conviction that the vision of the future may become a faith with a powerful hold upon the springs of the will, inspiring continuous sacrifice and effort. May I formulate this by reading again from one of her authors -- George [Eliot]:

"The soul of man is widening

Toward the past; he spells the

Record of his long descent,

More largely conscious of the life that was. --

The faith that life on earth is being shaped

To glorious ends; that order, justice, love,

Mean man's completeness --

That great faith

Is but the rushing and expanding stream

Of thought and feeling, fed by all the past."

When these two early women's clubs of Chicago somewhat diverged as to their type of work, the Fortnightly remaining more literary and scholarly, perhaps, and the Woman's Club becoming more engaged in the life of the city, she kept her supreme place in both of them and was always highly honored in both, as she was in the Every Day Club, whose members lunched together from time to time to discuss various public questions so far as possible upon their merits, without bias or predisposition. We all recall her intelligence and kindliness, her wide information on the most intricate questions.

All of you here recall, with me, her great tolerance [page 5] of spirit, founded not upon the resolution to be tolerant -- which often in itself is so obnoxious, -- but upon her wide and sympathetic understanding of life itself.

She was identified with the founding of the Woman's City Club. She was its first president, and remained its honorary president to the end of her life. It was not easy in the early days of such an organization to know just what a Woman's City Club could do which would be effective and useful, and there were many pitfalls to be avoided. But I am sure that all of those who gladly elected her as their leader never doubted her wisdom, her devotion to Chicago, and her gallant spirit, whether a given undertaking was for the moment successful or unsuccessful.

Referring to her many activities and reform movements, one thinks at once of the Consumers' League, of which she was president for more than ten years full of stress and difficulty for those who attempted to modify industrial conditions even from the point of view of the consumer. I recall tedious journeys to Springfield in the interest of the child labor law -- at that time by no means a popular cause; her zealous work for an adequate educational test to be applied to school children when their "working papers" were issued; that she was head of the first effort to give scholarships to children whose return to school deprived their mothers of needed wages; that she visited department store managers [page 6] year after year as a member of the committee attempting to secure a Saturday half-holiday for working women. There are a dozen other organizations now carrying on the activities which the Consumers' League undertook in those pioneer days.

Her reform work lay always in the less tangible and more subtle needs of the Community. She was early identified with the Legal Aid Society and many other similar organizations. She was devoted to the Mental Hygiene Society, and served on its Board to the end of her life.

In all this so called reform work she was never a fanatic, exalting moral rules at the expense of human nature. She retained always her spontaneity, and "knowledge of adversity" could not rob her of tenderness and understanding.

Then we have a right to associate her with the Women's Trade Union League, of which I see representatives here, -- and here again her task was not always easy. I can see her now, standing in the dingy police station at Desplaines Street bailing out people who, but for her sympathy and help, might have remained in the cells over night, and doing it quite without a spirit of condescension and, in her own words, feeling it a privilege to help a forward looking effort which these prisoners for the moment represented.

Perhaps I may say a word of her connection with [page 7] the Settlements of Chicago. One of the very first public meetings that was held for us, thirty years ago when Hull-House was young, was convened in Mrs Wilmarth's house. True to her belief in obtaining the wisest possible background of knowledge, she invited Thomas Davidson, who was considered one of the leaders in the philosophic thought of America. Unhappily the philosopher disagreed with our thesis. I recall his irritation with one of our then new phrases, that "the things that make us all alike are finer and stronger than the things that make us different." Our hostess however was equal to the task of interpreting and reconciling philosophic difference, and from that early beginning she has stood by the Settlement movement in Chicago in its various manifestations. She was for many years a Trustee of Henry Booth House, and was long identified with the Frederick [Douglass] Center. In the very last days, when she was nigh unto death, she referred to the latter Settlement and spoke with much interest and some apprehension of the future of Chicago so far as it related to a better relationship between the white and the colored people. Her mind traveled back to her experiences in the abolition movement, and speaking of all this she showed that she possessed a broad understanding and not a passing view of the subject when she said, we could never hope to treat the colored man justly until we took more pains [to know him.] [page 8]

In her literary and intellectual life she was friendly to the young writer and artist who was beginning his struggles in Chicago; -- those young people who year by year are making our city a little more of a literary and art center could all go to her freely for help and understanding, and they almost all knew her. She was to them as to so many of us, a center of spiritual power and of intellectual life.

Something she said when she came out of the Progressive Convention, where she sat as a delegate in 1912, illustrates that touch of youth which she always carried with her. As she walked down the street, she remarked gleefully to a friend, "I always like to march under arches." We all remember four years later, when the Republican Convention was meeting in Chicago, that she joined the parade of Suffragists presenting their cause at the Coliseum, [although] the wing blew and the rain fell and she had but recently recovered from an attack of pneumonia. She was always ready to stand by her causes.

A year ago she reminded me of something which Mrs Avery had said at a birthday party celebration given to her by her daughter Mrs Coonley Ward when she was eighty years old. Someone had asked Mrs Avery how she had kept so young, and she had replied, "I have kept young because I have always adopted an unpopular cause; in the South, before the war, I was an abolitionist, then I came North and became a suffragist, [page 9] and so on for many years. If you have an unpopular cause, people do not treat you with great respect and put you on a pedestal; they argue with you, and consider you young like themselves!" Mrs Wilmarth, recalling this story, said with a touch of whimsicality, "I have a good prospect of living forever, do you not think so?" That was her high hearted attitude toward life, which never for a moment deserted her.

At that moment I recalled those lines from Milton's Comus, which we were made to learn at school and therefore cannot forget; I have found myself applying them to her many times:

"Virtue could see to do what virtue would

By her own radiant light, though sun and moon

Were in the flat sea sunk."

That, I think, describes her sense of conviction and conscience, her willingness to do the right even in the midst of difficulties and of differing opinion.

I would fain say a word of comfort, if I were able, to her children and grandchildren. I can at best but remind them that they have forevermore the memory of a wonderful life which was "an unending commerce of fine deeds and great thoughts." That is perhaps the finest heritage which can be left to children and grandchildren. And in the midst of our sympathy for them in this hour of sorrow and loss, we may congratulate them upon this goodly possession, which can never [page 10] be taken from them. They and the others of her kinsfolk and old friends, as well as the City of Chicago, will always be the poorer for her passing, but we will always be the richer that she has lived for so many years among us. ...

The very last hours of her life at Lake Geneva, when a beautiful summer night enfolded the earth in its warmth and stillness, seemed to afford an appropriate moment in which to fare forth into the Unknown. It linked her going with all that is most gentle and beautiful in nature. Perhaps I may quote once more, this time from Walt Whitman:

 "Oh, sane and sacred Death!

The sights of the open landscape, and the

High spread sky are fitting,

And life and the fields and the huge and

Thoughtful night."