Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe/file 2015
Democrats who wanted to win New Hampshire’s presidential primary all made a pilgrimage to Mary Louise Hancock’s home in Concord, where they sought her counsel and support surrounded by personal totems of political history. In the kitchen was a watercolor signed by President Carter, in another room a photo from a visit by a young Bill Clinton — “Before his hair got white,” she would note.
No less a part of New Hampshire history was Ms. Hancock herself. She was 97 when she died Monday in her home in Concord, the state’s capital and a community where she lived for nearly nine decades.
“Mary Louise Hancock was a role model for me, and for so many other women who’ve stepped up to run for office,” US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who formerly served three terms as the first woman elected governor of New Hampshire, said in a statement.
After working in state and federal government for nearly 40 years, Ms. Hancock began offering advice to presidents and presidential candidates, governors and US senators, state lawmakers and political novices. The list of those who found a seat in her parlor to talk — and often to mostly listen — reads like a roll call of every Democrat who ran in the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary for the past three decades: Joe Biden, Howard Dean, Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson, to name but a few.
She was friends for some 30 years with Bill Clinton and with Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose two presidential bids she backed. “Mary Louise Hancock will be missed by many, including me,” Hillary Clinton tweeted Tuesday morning, praising her friend’s “passionate, independent spirit” and her “fierce commitment to Democratic values.”
Captivated as a child by the political discussions in her father’s drugstore, which was across the street from the State House, Ms. Hancock devoted her life to public service, including a 32-year stint with what was then the Office of State Planning. She was the first woman in the nation to run a state planning department, a job she held for 16 years.
Ms. Hancock also was the first woman and the first Democrat elected to the state Senate from her Concord district.
“I was there when she ran for state Senate and we were sitting together in her kitchen, listening to the results,” said John Lynch, a Democrat who served four terms as governor.
Of his longtime friend he added: “I don’t think she cared as much about making history. She cared about making a difference in the lives of the people in her district and in New Hampshire.”
“Politics is the government, really,” she said in a 2013 interview with University of New Hampshire magazine, and “the government is supposed to look after people.” Upon retiring from government work, she began looking after rising political stars, too.
US Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat and former two-term governor, said in a statement that “as the first woman state planning director in the nation, Mary was a trailblazer for countless women entering public service across New Hampshire, and I was blessed to be able to call her both a mentor and a friend.”
And US Representative Ann McLane Kuster, a Democrat from the state’s Second Congressional District, said in a statement that “Mary Louise was a person one could always turn to for sage advice.” Kuster recalled a long-ago Concord Monitor editorial that called Ms. Hancock “a diamond in a coal field of politics.”
Born in Franklin, N.H., on July 5, 1920, Ms. Hancock had family political roots that dated to the nation’s founding. She was a descendant of John Hancock, the first Massachusetts governor, whose signature stood out on the Declaration of Independence.
Of perhaps more importance, she was one of four children born to Herbert Hancock and the former Amanda Lambert, who moved their family to Concord when Ms. Hancock was 8 and ran the pharmacy where she was introduced to politics through overheard conversations.
“In those days, all drugstores had a soda fountain, and the political people would hang out there,” said Debby Butler, a longtime friend and Democratic political activist. “That gave birth to her lifelong passion for politics and her understanding that government can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Ms. Hancock’s parents were Republicans, but she favored the Democratic Party and Franklin D. Roosevelt in particular. Like the president, she had polio – diagnosed when she was 3. “I became an adherent of FDR at an early age,” she said on her website. “His programs seemed designed to help people who couldn’t help themselves.”
She graduated from Concord High School and received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire. On her website, she said her first job after college was a $750-a-year stenographer position with the State Board of Education. In 1944, she started her career at the Office of State Planning as a research librarian. Ms. Hancock was appointed director of the office in 1960 and retired in 1976.
Nearly a half-century ago, she advocated for legislative changes to allow open land to be taxed for its current use, rather than its development potential, as a way to help property owners afford to preserve state woodlands.
“When we look over our shoulders to the South, the crowded, growing, pushing urban army is still on its way, coming here,” she told the Globe just days before the 1968 presidential election. Urban sprawl from Massachusetts, she said, posed a threat to the Granite State’s “quiet, wooded mountains, the rolling hills, the crystal lakes.”
Ms. Hancock served in the state Senate in the late 1970s until she was appointed in 1979 to a planning job with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she worked until 1981.
The Economist magazine called her home the state’s “pre-eminent political salon,” though she noted in a 2015 Globe interview that had she lived in any other state, she “wouldn’t be nearly so important.”
Conversations weren’t confined to politics. A lover of poetry, Ms. Hancock could recite verse from Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Shakespeare. Among her many honors, Plymouth State College gave her the Robert Frost Contemporary American Award in 1989 for “a lifetime of advocacy in planning, politics, education, and women’s and handicapped rights.” And her birthday, July 5, was proclaimed Mary Louise Hancock Day in 2000, the year she turned 80, by then-Governor Shaheen.
A service to celebrate Ms. Hancock’s life will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord.
Though Ms. Hancock left no immediate survivors, her political offspring can be found throughout government in New Hampshire, Lynch said, and her influence is felt in homes throughout the state.
“Her legacy is that she’s made a difference in the lives of the people in New Hampshire,” he said. “It’s not necessarily what she’s done for the Democratic Party, which is substantial. It’s not what she’s done for presidential candidates, which is huge. It’s what she’s done for the people of New Hampshire, one by one. That’s what matters. And that’s what mattered to her.”
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