If Mary Moon Wilson saw a problem in her Dorchester neighborhood, she found a way to fix it, so when she learned that some runaway teenage girls were getting lured into prostitution, she figured out what to do.
“Young girls were running away from home and going to different towns and cities, and when they got to these towns pimps would be waiting on them,” said her husband, Mordecai Wilson. “My wife found out about it at a community meeting one night and came home and said to me, ‘Well, why don’t we take in some of these girls and see if we can’t give them a better home and turn them around.’ ”
The Wilsons converted their 14-room Victorian into a haven for girls as young as 14. Then they purchased another large Victorian and started a group home for mentally challenged adults in the early 1970s, making them a pioneering African-American couple in group homes statewide. They ran their group home for 25 years.
“Mrs. Wilson provided hands-on training and support to help residents have successful transitions to living in the community,” said Sondra Hellman Caplin of Waltham, a former psychiatric nurse and clinical specialist at Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
“In some ways it was like manna from heaven because of her extensive experience, personal warmth, and the availability of beds within their beautiful home.”
Mrs. Wilson, who didn’t have biological children, but was a mother to many, died of Alzheimer’s disease June 1 in her Lula, Ga., home. She was 91.
“Mrs. Wilson was caring, compassionate, and spiritual,” Hellman Caplin said.
“She maintained high standards for the residents with daily living activities and behaviors that conform to community mores.”
She added that the agency had “an excellent working relationship” with the Wilsons, who “became members of our clinical teams” while they provided vital services, took part in treatment and rehabilitation planning, and engaged in crisis intervention when needed.
Mary Elizabeth Moon was born Nov. 8, 1922, in Lula, Ga. She graduated with honors from high school in Gainesville, Ga., and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1942, where she lived with relatives and worked while attending Howard University.
In 1949, during a Labor Day Weekend trip to Boston, she met Mordecai Wilson.
“The first thing I liked was her appearance,” he recalled.
“I also liked her ability to think, to judge, and to make decisions. Those are some of the things I observed after meeting her and talking with her for about an hour. On our third date I asked her to marry me, and after she got through crying she said yes.”
She moved to Boston and they married on Dec. 12, 1949. They remained together for more than 64 years until she died.
“She believed in the almighty God and the Bible and its principles,” her husband said.
“She was taught that quite a bit, particularly by her maternal grandmother.”
His wife, he added, “had a good sense of business about her. She was interested in buying and selling property, and she knew how to get mortgages more so than I. She was also an excellent cook, she knew how to sew and she was a very neat dresser.”
In the years before they opened their group home in Boston, Mrs. Wilson answered a newspaper advertisement for a Lexington family that needed a governess.
“Mary came into our lives in about 1958 when she began working in our home assisting my parents with raising five boys,” said Paul Haible, who now lives in San Francisco.
“She was not just raising us, but instead became a stand-in parent because our mother got sick and our dad worked full-time. She became an essential part of our family fairly quickly, and we grew in love and affection over the 10 or so years she worked with us. She also became one of my mom’s closest friends.”
Haible said Mrs. Wilson, whom he considers his second mom, was courageous, highly intelligent, and beautiful. He said Boston owes much to her and her husband.
“They rescued and raised maybe 1,000 children, including the five of us,” Haible said.
“How can we not be grateful for that which was done out of love and compassion, and never for the money? The Wilsons were not overtly involved in the political events of the day, but they were directly involved in building a multicultural community in their household and leading by example in a racially tough town.”
Over the years, the Wilsons received commendations from elected officials, and “when I learned about all of the awards I wasn’t surprised,” Haible said.
During tumultuous years of cultural changes, Mrs. Wilson “showed by example the real nature of human relationships and always stood as an equal to anyone,” Haible said.
“She would not have been intimidated, nor would Mordecai, by whoever sat at their kitchen table, and they were pioneers and leaders in the field of mental health and outpatient care. They cared for people of all races and both genders, including some with real bad histories.”
Mordecai, who moved with his wife to Lula in 1996, credited her business savvy for their success running a group home.
“Three years after we started the foster home, we needed to purchase another house for the home for mentally challenged adults, but at that time there were a lot of banks that wouldn’t loan money to black people,” he said, but Mrs. Wilson “went to the bank and talked to a loan officer and told him about our intentions, and they thought that was a good idea.”
His wife, he added, “was a go-getter. She was a wonderful, very helpful woman. Whatever I have, whatever I am, I give all the credit to her.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Wilson, who in addition to her husband leaves a sister, Maudine Williams of Lula, Ga.
“My wife would have loved to have children, but we never did and didn’t get into the whys and wherefores,” her husband said.
“Whatever God gave us we took.”
But she was always a maternal figure to Haible and others like him.
“She was a mother to us, not a nanny or a baby-sitter,” Haible said.
“It’s hard to explain, but that was her gift. I miss her as I miss my mom.”
Her death is a loss to her family and those who knew her in Boston and Lula, Haible said, and “it’s also a loss because she showed, by example, how it’s possible to make a life assisting others. She came out of that civil rights era and made something of herself. She became a leader and a mother to so many. They don’t make too many folks like Mary Wilson.”Laurie D. Willis can be reached at email@example.com.