Mary Therese Armstrong Mackenzie died peacefully in Pasadena on June 20, 2016 of natural causes. She was 90 years old.
Strength of will and compassion for the less fortunate were central to Mary’s (known to many as Terry) life-long values, which she pursued relentlessly through much of her long and active life.
A child of the depression era, she lived with the challenges her family faced during that critical time in our history. She was familiar with adversity from a young age, from depression austerity to the serious illness in early childhood of osteomyelitis and, shortly after her recovery, her father’s untimely death. Yet, throughout her life she found the resources within herself to surmount her challenges with grace.
Born to Roger Dale Armstrong, a silent-era cinematographer and writer, and Elizabeth Therese Eliason, an open-minded thinker and non-stop story teller, she arrived at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles on Oct. 27, 1925, she was the second child of this marriage.
Her parents had waited long for the birth of both Mary and her older brother, Roger Joseph. While waiting for the arrival of their own children, the Armstrongs cared for many children of their extended family, which became a model to Mary and her brother in her support for the underprivileged and unfortunate.
Mary Therese married Gordon Keith Mackenzie in 1945 while he was serving in the US Navy in the South Pacific during leave. She remained in Sierra Madre for the next five decades of her life where Gordon built another house on the same plot of land to raise their growing family. She was a longtime Quaker and member of the Orange Grove Friends Meeting as well as a founder of Pasadena Mother’s Club which filled the needs of disadvantaged parents and single mothers for childcare. In her 40s, she returned to college to study early childhood education and earned her master’s from Pacific Oaks College.
As a Headstart director in East Los Angeles, she would take children to the beach who had never seen the ocean and exposed them to the wonders of children’s literature, music, and the beauty of nature. She was active in protests against the Vietnam War and helped organize sanctuary for draft protesters. During the early Cold War and later, she was an advocate for nuclear disarmament.
During her active life, she traveled with her painter brother to experience her visual artistry in distant places and also built houses with Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity project in Mexico.
She was a reader of books and a voluminous writer of letters to family and friends, as well as congressmen and women, never afraid of speaking her mind and reminding those in power of their responsibility to the vulnerable. She had a sharp eye for detail and often celebrated the overlooked and the hidden. In her later years she wrote poetry:
Books and books and books
stand silent behind the glass
words on paper cannot fill my soul
I turn and read the orchard,
quiet, still –
but bursting with light and color,
all I need to know.
The tiny, single-wall house in Sierra Madre where she grew up and later, on the same piece of land, raised her own children, was to her “a symbol of the core of her being” with its beckoning warmth, which she said, drew her parent’s friends, relatives, and passersby in need.
She is survived by five of her children: John Alexander Mackenzie, Roger Cameron Mackenzie, Susan Elizabeth Biesek, Julia Margaret Mackenzie-Miller, and David Martin Mackenzie. She is survived by her five grandchildren: Sophia Mackenzie, Benjamen Biesek, Madeline Biesek, Rose Mackenzie, and Haley Mackenzie. She is preceded in death by her son George Andrew Phillip Mackenzie, and husband Gordon Keith Mackenzie. She will be missed by so many of the people she touched in life.