A life of serving others
August 18, 2022Jim Oswald

In her own words — Mary shares her story of a life of serving others alongside her husband Willie, in order to give a voice to many people who are never heard.

Meals on Wheels is very fortunate to be able to get a glimpse into the lives of the people we serve — many of who have dedicated their professional careers to the service of others. We recently spoke with Mary, who, along with her husband Willie, runs one of the largest Black newspapers in the U.S, giving a voice to those who are rarely heard. Here’s Mary’s story.

I met Willie before I met Willie.

We were in Alaska. I started a large daycare center and became very politically active. I was at a state political convention in Alaska to ensure the party’s platform included childcare advocacy. We were making progress, but every time a policy decision came up for a vote, they’d say, “hold on Mary, we’ll have to check in with Willie on that!”

Willie went to Alaska in the early 50s, where wages were high (about $2 per hour!). Segregation was a huge problem, but Willie consistently talked his way into jobs. Willie isn’t a big guy, but even in the macho world of the Alaska oil business, no one said no to him. Willie was very influential and chaired the state’s Human Rights Commission for seven years.

The convention continued and we finally met. I knew I met my match. We immediately got into an argument. We had a lot of talking to do before we understood each other.

I came to realize that Willie has a way of figuring out how to resolve some of the deepest, most profound problems in this country in an entirely peaceful way. I just thought, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do for the rest of my life than give this man a hand.” A life of serving others. That’s how our story began.

Eventually, we had to leave Alaska. The more corporate the Alaska oil business got, the harder it was for us to stay there. We came down to San Francisco in 1987. Willie lived here for a bit before going to Alaska, and he just loved it here.

We’ve been here ever since and we grew deeply involved in our community, Bayview–Hunters Point.

We started noticing that the city was trying to take over Bayview–Hunters Point in the same way they had taken over the Fillmore. They bulldozed the Filmore into oblivion. We didn’t want the same thing to happen to Bayview-Hunters Point. So, we decided a newspaper would give people a chance to get the neighborhood on the same page.

I talked to the fellow who had the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper. He hadn’t been publishing it regularly because printing was so expensive. I kept saying, “Let me help you. Let’s get this paper back in print!” Then one day, he walked into our office, and he said, “if you can come up with $2,000 by five o’clock this afternoon, you have the paper.”

We wrote the check.

As a White woman, I was hesitant to take on the job of an editor at a Black newspaper. Some 30 years in, I still have those concerns! But Willie and I keep going, working together to create a voice for those who oftentimes don’t have one.

Right away. We were controversial. We started a successful campaign to shut down one of the dirtiest PG&E plants in the state. We beat them. We just kept going. When you have successes like that, you just can’t stop.

Our paper is known for giving a voice to prisoners around the country. We share their experiences and work with them as writers. The proudest moment of my life was when their voices were heard through a hunger strike that prompted real prison reform. 30,000 prisoners in California took part.

We’ve been covering issues like police brutality, gentrification, and the effects on the Black economy for a very long time. We relish the fact that so many people were finally listening. The pandemic has opened a whole lot of issues that had never been discussed openly before.

The support for organizations like Meals on Wheels is more important than ever because it operates right here out of our neighborhood. I never thought that I was going to need it until I did.

We’re in our 80s now. Willie has Alzheimer’s, and I am in treatment for cancer. I do love to cook; I do what I can. But I can’t do much shopping anymore. Meals on Wheels is an excellent fallback for us and so many people in Bayview-Hunters Point.

We now open the freezer up to all kinds of Italian, Mexican, Asian, and many different cuisines engineered to come out of the microwave just perfect. The science and the care that goes into what Meals on Wheels does just blows me away. We especially love the little touches. Meals on Wheels is just so kind about sending little gifts and added little cheerer-uppers.

Everything is done with such care.

We are so grateful that Meals on Wheels gives us a hand so we can continue to speak up.

Did You Know?

  • In 2020, Meals on Wheels San Francisco prepared and delivered 2.4 million meals to more than 5,000 older San Franciscans in need.
  • It’s easy to get started with Meals on Wheels in San Francisco — find out how.
  • More than 80% of people on our program are age 60+
  • Search through the SF Bay View archives.

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