Mary Williamson McHenry died peacefully in Washington, DC. on March 1, 2021. She was 88 years old. Mary was born on January 23, 1933, in Washington, DC, to Alphonso Williamson and Elizabeth Bennett Williamson. She graduated from the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1950. Mary attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she received a B.A. in 1954.
She received a M.A. in English from Columbia University in 1960 and went on to teach English at Howard University, George Washington University, and Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia). In 1974, she returned to Mount Holyoke College as a professor of African American literature, where she remained until her retirement in 1999. Mary was an instrumental member of the Mount Holyoke faculty, transforming the college by establishing departments of both African American Studies and American Studies and providing vital leadership to the five college community. She was a gifted teacher, who is credited with enriching the lives of her students, not only by introducing them to writers like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, but also by showing them the power and the beauty of their own written expression. She cared deeply for what could be communicated through words and was committed to sharing with students all that she knew about reading and writing. Mary was a demanding but tireless and dedicated teacher for whom the role of an educator did not end at the close of a class period. She welcomed students into her home, where they were nourished by food, conversation, and laughter. She was the "favorite teacher" whose warmth and generosity as a mentor inspired generations of students. Her impact as an educator was recognized in 2019, when she was awarded the Elizabeth Topham Kennan Award, given to a Mount Holyoke College alumna for outstanding achievement in and contributions to the field of education.
Mary was an independent and adventurous woman. She drove with what she described as a "heavy foot" (some police officers agreed with that assessment). She never hesitated to jump in the car to go wherever she was wanted or needed. She made countless solo journeys to visit her children wherever they were living, and to see her parents in Washington, DC or "down to the beach," Highland and Venice Beach, the home of her childhood summers and extended family. Mary created warm homes and large networks of friends wherever she went. In South Hadley, she loved to host dinner parties and entertain colleagues, friends and neighbors. She was the "substitute mother" to anyone-friends, students, acquaintances-that needed it, and grew accustomed to cooking an enormous turkey on Thanksgiving Day so she was sure to have enough for anyone who happened to be on their own on that day. In addition to her love of family, literature, and teaching, Mary loved to travel. She returned from one trip to the West Coast of Ireland having bought a small cottage just outside the village of Castletownshend, where she retreated during breaks from teaching and the summer months. There, she enjoyed writing, taking long walks, and visiting with dear friends-neighbors from across the way or visitors from afar. She also loved the beach and found joy in being able to see the ocean every day.
In addition to countless former students and friends, Mary McHenry is survived, loved, and mourned by her former husband Donald F. McHenry, their son, Michael McHenry and their daughters, Christina McHenry and Elizabeth McHenry; their daughter-in-law, Janice McHenry and son-in-law Gene Assaf, and their five grandchildren, Claire, Daniel, and Caroline Lempres and Electa and Quinn McHenry-Assaf. Services will be held in Washington, DC and South Hadley, MA when it is safe to do so, and the family plans to establish a scholarship fund in Mary's name at her beloved Mount Holyoke. The details for each will be shared at a later date.