Soon, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will run my mother’s obituary. However, it would not be right for me to allow the obituary they print to be her only one.
Mom’s name when she was born, on January 4, 1942, was Mina Jo Austin. Later, she was known professionally as Mina Marsh. However, I chose to legally change my last name to her maiden name, in 1989, after my parents divorced. I did this so that I could have a last name I associated only with my good parent, for I only had one — the one now in this hospice room with me, as I write this, with little time remaining to her.
This is an old photograph of her, and her two younger sisters, taken when my mother was a teenager.
Her father, whom I knew (all too briefly) as “Daddy Buck,” taught her many things, very early in life, just as Mom did, much later, for me. He taught her about justice, and its opposite, using as one example of injustice the internment camps for Japanese-Americans which were then operating, here in Arkansas, when my mother was a little girl. Even in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and in complete disagreement with the masses, my grandfather thought it an obscenity that people had been herded into these camps simply because of their ethnicity, and, in a world where evil does exist, he decided his daughter needed to know about it. Only with knowledge of evil can one stand up to it, oppose it, and speak truth to it, even when that evil is mixed with power, as happens all too often. He instilled in her a strong sense of justice, and taught her courage, at the same time.
Mom started college at Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas, and demonstrated her courage, and refusal to tolerate injustice, there, during the 1960 presidential election campaign. The assembled students of Harding were told, in chapel, that it was their duty, as Christians, to go forth on election day, and cast their votes for Richard Nixon, because allowing John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, to become president would be a horrible, sinful thing to do. She found this offensive, in much the same way that her father had found America’s treatment of Japanese-Americans offensive during World War II. On principle, therefore, she withdrew from Harding, and transferred to the University of Arkansas (in Fayetteville) to complete her college coursework. She also, later, left the denomination associated with Harding, eventually becoming a member of the Episcopal Church. I am grateful to her church here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the many comforts they have given her over the years. They even went so far as to raise the funds needed, in 2010, for her emergency transportation, by air, to a Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where surgery was performed to save her from a rare adrenal-gland tumor called a pheochromocytoma. Without this help from them, her life would have been shortened by over five years.
Mom is survived by two children. I came along in 1968, and my sister (who had three children herself — my mother’s three grandchildren) was born the following year. Mom is also survived by three step-grandchildren, and two step-great-grandchildren. Mom began to teach both my sister and myself, as early as she could, what her father had taught her, early in life. Strangely enough, one of my earliest memories of her doing this also involved Richard Nixon, for the first news event I clearly remember seeing on television was Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech. At that young age, and with my parents clearly disgusted with America’s most disgraced president to date, I blurted forth, “I wish he was dead!” Mom wasn’t about to let that pass without comment, and did not. I remember the lesson she taught me quite well: there was nothing wrong with wishing for him to lose his position of power, as he was doing — but to wish for the man to die was to cross a line that should not be crossed. One was right; the other was wrong. It is my mother who taught me how to distinguish right from wrong. From this point forward, I now have a new reason to try, in every situation, to do the right thing: anything less would dishonor my mother’s memory.
It was around this time that my sister and I started school, and to say Mom was deeply involved in our experiences at school would be to understate the issue. In a conservative state where many schools openly (and illegally) do such insane things as teach young-earth Creationism in “science” classes, and anti-intellectualism is sometimes actually seen as a virtue, our entry into the school system was not unlike entering a battleground. At this time, education specifically designed for gifted and talented students simply did not exist in Arkansas. Mom had already had some teaching experience herself, although she had since moved on to other work. She was often appalled by the inane things that happened in our schools, when we were students, such as this from the fifth grade, and this (also from elementary school), and this especially-awful example from the seventh grade. Never one to tolerate injustice, Mom was deeply involved, from the beginning, in the formation of an organization called AGATE (Arkansans for Gifted and Talented Education), which fought a long, uphill, but ultimately successful battle to bring special programs for the education of gifted and talented students into the public schools of our state. She did this for her own two children, true — I consider forcing someone (who already understands it) to “practice” long division, year after year, to be a form of torture, and she was trying to save me from such torture — but she also did it for thousands of other Arkansas students, and tens of thousands have since benefited from her work in this area.
Mom was never content to fight in just one struggle at a time, for there is too much important work to do for such an approach. She was also a dedicated naturalist, a Master Gardener, and served as the Deputy Director of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission for 25 years, seeking ways to protect and preserve areas of natural beauty, and scientific significance, in our state. After retiring from that position, she later served on the board of directors of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, and also became the Development Director of the Ozark Natural Science Center.
My mother affected the lives of a great many people in her 73 years of life, including many who do not even know her name — but neither gaining credit, nor fame, was ever her goal. She will be deeply missed.
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[About the rotating image: the picture of the banded agate, a reference to AGATE, the organization, on the faces of Mom’s dodecahedron, at the top of this post, came from here. The rotating dodecahedron itself, which the ancient Greeks associated with the heavens, was created using Stella 4d, software available at this website.]