More About Mary

Yesterday marked a turning point: we had a memorial (we called it the Celebration of Mary Laprade) for my Mom who passed away  on August 18th, 2013. I have spoken of the strengths and challenges that she and I experienced toward the end of her life in previous posts. But here I would like to share with you the full Life of Mary. She was remarkable, to say the least. Taken from the bio I had written for her life celebration, I shall let you read for yourself…

Professor Mary Laprade“Every once in awhile someone comes into your life and subtly changes it in an imperceptible but profound way. Mary Helen Laprade was such a person. She was a stalwart colleague, a brilliant lecturer and teacher, a nurturing mother and grandmother, a trusty lunch and theater companion, a great listener, and a wonderful conversationalist who shared hilarious, and often surprising wit, intelligence, and curiosity.

These were just some of the ways in which Mary brought joy, love, comfort, leadership, and friendship into the lives of so many. Humble and dignified, she probably wasn’t even fully aware of her amazing presence in the world and of all the change she created in others’ lives. And all awhile she selflessly gave as she was at her happiest when she was helping others.

Mary was born on February 6, 1929 in Oakland, California as the daughter to Helen January and Carroll Hodge. Mary had a curiosity about nature and all of life’s creatures from day one.  Two of her favorite pets while growing up were a mischievous duck named Bridgette and a fun-loving rat named LuLubell (Mary loved to tell the story of when Bridgette wiped her muddy beak all over her mother’s clean sheets hanging on the line).

In 1933 her little brother, John, came into the world. There were the usual sibling rivalries, but Mary was John’s protector and guided him often with her loving and patient way.

Just after she graduated from high school, Mary and her family  relocated to Wayne, Pennsylvania with her father’s job promotion. They were plunked smack dab in the middle of snow, ice, and cold. But Mary soon adapted to the East Coast where she remained for the rest of her life.

Mary was destined for higher education and attended Wilson, a liberal arts college in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1951 with highest honors in Biology. A year later she completed an M.A. degree at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in 1958 received her Ph.D. from Radcliffe, earning an award for the most original doctoral thesis of that year. As a graduate student, she served as an instructor in Biology at Simmons College and then as a teaching fellow in Biology at Radcliffe.

Also while at at Radcliffe, she met the love of her life, Kenneth Laprade, who was studying law at Harvard at the time. They met one night on a double date. Ken’s best friend was with Mary that night, but Ken was so taken with her, he asked his friend if he could take her out sometime. The rest is history…

Mary and Ken were married on June 28, 1958 and for the first two years of their marriage lived in a small house on Pleasant Street in Easthampton, MA next to Ken’s parents’ house. Kenneth set up his law practice and Mary, having been appointed as an assistant professor in what was then the Zoology Department at Smith College, began her long, successful career at Smith.

1960 was a big year for Mary and Ken: their first born, Kenneth Charles, came into the world during the same month that they moved into their new house on Dragon Circle in Easthampton. Two years later, when Elizabeth Susan arrived, the family was complete.

As a brilliant lecturer, Mary taught Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology as well as Introductory Biology. A decade later she accepted an appointment as Director of the Clark Science Center, a position she filled with quiet distinction until 1989.   One of her great strengths was that she knew whom to talk to in the College community, and more importantly, she knew how to talk with them; a diplomat through and through.

After her time as Director, she returned to teaching full-time, specializing in an Invertebrate Zoology course from which emerged several students who have gone on to become prominent in the field of invertebrate biology today.

Over the years she played a surprising number of different roles within the Smith community. She served the College as a member of the Library Committee, (she chaired this committee from 1990 to 1992), the Committee on Honorary Degrees, and the Marshall’s Committee. Many of her colleagues outside the sciences may have known Mary best in her role as a Marshall, where she exemplified dignity, civility, reliability and order. Since she had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year at Wilson College, at Smith she served the Zeta of Massachusetts chapter in various capacities – as Treasurer and then President – and for years worked on the Admissions Committee to prepare the ballot for elections – a complicated task that she relished. Meanwhile, in her personal life, she traveled extensively with Ken and her children. She also joined The Monday Afternoon Club – a woman’s social group that met once a month to further the education of women. For additional pleasure she spent many a spring and summer day tending to her garden and flowers or pouring over a book, as she was an avid reader.

Mary retired in 2001, ending her 43 year career as lecturer and ever present member of the Smith community. But in her retirement, her energies were undiminished, and she began a new career as a volunteer for the College Botanical Gardens, working with classes at various levels as well as the general public. To prepare herself for these responsibilities, she audited courses in botany. Using her teaching skills to full effect, she regularly led tours of the Lyman Plant House, including expeditions through the greenhouses that focused on the biogeographic aspects of the plant collections.

She possessed to the end a clear intelligence, an understated wit, and a sense of obligation to her family, the College, her colleagues, and to science. She was one of those persons whom one relied on and assumed would go on forever. She leaves her husband of 55 years, her two children, and two grandchildren.  She will be greatly missed.

So now whenever you see a bird fly, hear a chipmunk scurry, or you are simply bathing in the everlasting essence of nature, think of Mary and smile. This is where she is, as she delighted in the notion that perhaps one day she might return as a beautiful flower. ”

Mom and the flowers


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  1. Elizabeth, your biography of Mary is beautiful — thank you so much for sharing. <3

  2. Anna Allen says:

    Thank you for your posts on your mom and this great retro photo of her teaching in the lab. She was my Invertebrate Zoology professor at Smith in 1998. Her enthusiasm for the natural world was contagious and inspires me to this day. I appreciated learning more about her and hearing about her end-of-life journey through reading these posts, and I appreciate the healing work you are doing. Best wishes.

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