When Margaret Allison Hemphill retired from her career as a planner at the Windham Regional Planning Agency in Willimantic, Ct., a group of officials presented her with a plaque that identified her as a national landmark. It was a fitting tribute to a woman who combined a cheerful sense of civic engagement with a deep sense of history—above all her own, which linked the South and New England.
Mrs. Hemphill, my mother-in-law, was born in Minneapolis, Mn. in 1924 and lived more than half her life in New England. Yet both her parents were Southerners, and one of the persistent if muted story lines in her life was what to make of her Southern roots.
She grew up in Minneapolis, where her father was a doctor and her mother a journalist and later a botanist. She got to know the South on vacation stays with her aunts and by attending the boarding school of Ashley Hall in Charleston, S.C. Her family had deep roots in South Carolina. She counted among her ancestors Confederates and early members of the Klu Klux Klan.
In her teens, however, she rebelled against this inheritance and thought of herself as a liberal. In truth, she was on the left wing of liberalism. At Smith College during World War II, she led caravans of trucks across Massachusetts to collect supplies for Russian war relief. After the war, living in Minneapolis and working as a reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, she was a member of the Farmer-Labor Party.
Her experiences in the Farmer-Labor Party, however, made her deeply skeptical of Communists. Over time she concluded that they would never be part of an alliance they couldn’t dominate and would wreck any coalition they couldn’t run. At the same time, she was viscerally hostile to McCarthyism.
She moved east with her husband George Hemphill when he took a job teaching English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1954. After years of raising four children, including my wife, Clara Hemphill, she earned a Masters’ degree in public policy at the University of Connecticut and went to work as a planner. Always active in Democratic politics, she was an alternate delegate for Senator Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
During the Vietnam War, when income tax time came around, she consoled herself by saying that her taxes went to pay the salary of Senator Fulbright. And she insisted on flying the flag on Independence Day, saying that she wouldn’t let Lyndon Johnson spoil her Fourth of July.
By the time I met her in 1990, she combined a Southern sense of graciousness and proper manners with a staunch liberalism. An heir to the best of the New Deal and the Great Society, she worked to weave a social fabric that brought people together, protected them against injustice, and nurtured their best selves.
At the Windham Regional Planning Association, she worked on affordable housing, expansion of public transportation, historic preservation, and the protection of open space. In her own village of Hampton, she was a long-time supporter of the Fletcher Memorial Library and helped found the Hampton Gazette, a village newspaper.
Six months ago, she moved to an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Mass. When she was hit with a stroke last week, I went there with my wife and children to be with her in what turned out to be her final days.
In her apartment we found a copy of The New Yorker by the door, an 1869 map of Hampton on the wall, and a Charles Dickens action figure sitting on her dresser. The combination of past and present, along with urbanity and a sense of justice, seemed just right.