Mary V. Beck, trailblazer for women on American political scene, Ukrainian activist

by Ika Koznarska Casanova

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. - Dr. Mary V. Beck, one of Detroit's most renowned and respected political figures whose numerous contributions in the areas of public service and politics to both the American and Ukrainian American communities, and the Ukrainian diaspora in general, spanned half a century, died on January 30 at the age of 97.

As the first woman to be elected to the Common Council of Detroit in the city's 250-year history, Dr. Beck was a visible and productive trailblazer for women in government service. Upon her election to the council in 1950, she was re-elected five consecutive times to that prestigious legislative body, including tenure as the first woman president in 1957.

Dr. Beck served on the Common Council for two decades, 1950-1970, during which time she was also the first woman to serve on numerous committees and commissions, as well as in other capacities, including that of acting mayor of Detroit (1958-1962).

Concurrently, she served on the Wayne County Board of Supervisors and chaired its powerful Ways and Means Committee, another political first for a woman (1950-1969).

In 1962 Dr. Beck was appointed and served as a member of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women.

As a politician and civic figure, Dr. Beck was well-known and respected for her efforts on behalf of Captive Nations within the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian Americans and the Ukrainian diaspora worldwide. Later, in the 1960s she also became a strong supporter of dissidents and human rights activists.

Throughout her career she was an equally effective ambassador in promoting Ukrainian culture, as well as the achievements of diaspora Ukrainians in various fields.

In 1973 Dr. Beck was appointed vice-president of the executive committee of the Ukrainian National Assembly of the Ukrainian government-in-exile and later as director of foreign affairs. She also served as executive director of the Ukrainian Information Bureau in Detroit.

She served as chair of the Ukrainian Bicentennial Committee for Michigan in 1977. In the 1990s she was active in the Children of Chornobyl Fund to provide medical and other assistance to children affected by the nuclear disaster of 1986 at the Soviet nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Dr. Beck traveled to Ukraine in 1963 and to an independent Ukraine in 2003. That year, she also received the St. Volodymyr Medal for lifetime achievements from the Ukrainian World Congress.

Mary Virginia (Yevhenia) Beck was born February 29, 1908, in Ford City, Pa. into the family of Mykhailo and Anna Voytovych-Bek. She spent her high school years studying in western Ukraine (1921-1925), where her immigrant parents, who hailed from the Lemko region, had sent her at age 13 to acquire knowledge of her ancestral homeland.

Upon her return to the United States, she entered the University of Pittsburgh in 1925, earning a B.A. in 1929, a bachelor of laws degree in 1932 and juris doctor degree in 1968. Dr. Beck was admitted to the Michigan State Bar in 1944.

In 1934 she came to Detroit, where she worked for the International Institute as a social worker in group and individual case work (1934-1935) and as a Juvenile Court investigator for Wayne County (1935-1947).

Dr. Beck was a practicing lawyer in Detroit in 1947-1950, discontinuing active practice once she entered politics. She retired from city politics in 1970, but continued in the role of elder statesman at city functions and as key leader in the Ukrainian diaspora community.

Throughout her career, Dr. Beck was active as a founder and developer of a wide range of Ukrainian activities and projects. She was publisher and editor of the Ukrainian woman's monthly magazine Zhinochyi Svit (Woman's World), a pioneering bilingual English-Ukrainian publication, which came out in Pittsburgh in 1932-1934; editor of the English sections of Ukrainska Zoria (Ukrainian Star) of Detroit, published by her brother, John J. Beck, and "Vilne Slovo" (Toronto).

Apart from helping to organize new branches for the Ukrainian National Women's League of America (UNWLA) in the 1930s, she was a long-time officer in UNWLA Branch 16 and in the UNWLA Regional Council in Detroit.

In 1933-1934 she was active as an initiator in the committee for setting up the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

As a supporter and patron of the arts, she was founder and benefactor of the Ukrainian Women's Literary Award in Ukrainian literature (effective 1958-1978) and continues to this day, under the auspices of the World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations in Philadelphia; and sponsor and patron of the Worldwide Ukrainian Art Exhibit held at Wayne State University in 1960. In addition to promoting the work of Ukrainian diaspora artists, Dr. Beck commissioned works, in the form of portraits, from leading Ukrainian diaspora artists, among them Michael Dmytrenko (in 1960) and Myron Levytsky (1968), as well as contributed to the support of Ukrainian artists and civic activists of the older generation who lived as émigrés in Germany, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia.

Among Dr. Beck's numerous citations and awards, which attest to the wide spectrum of her commitments and activities, were the Ukrainian Community Service Award - for promoting Ukrainian cultural activities, presented by the Detroit Ukrainians on behalf of Ukrainians in the Free World; a panegyric-commendation by Ukrainian artists - for the support and assistance rendered Ukrainian artists in diaspora and specifically, for sponsoring the worldwide Ukrainian Art Exhibit held at the MacGregor Center at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1960; and the Ukrainian of the Year title bestowed by the Ukrainian Graduates Club of Detroit and Windsor in 1963.

A commemorative stamp featuring Dr. Beck was issued in 1965 by the Women's United Committee of Detroit to commemorate her election in 1950 as the "First Woman to the Detroit Common Council."

Dr. Beck received a certificate of honor for dedicated efforts for the constructive advancement of womanhood and for cultural and civic contributions to the community from the Federation of Women's Clubs of Metropolitan Detroit (1968); a Certificate of Merit from the Ukrainian National Women's League of America for continuous effort in the promotion of Ukrainian women's interests and projects (1975); and a certificate of merit from the World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations for the advancement of Ukrainian women and their goals (1975).

A Captive Nations Eisenhower Proclamation Medal and Certificate were bestowed on Dr. Beck in recognition of her contributions to the pursuit of freedom and independence for all Captive Nations, in a presentation by the Captive Nations Committee of Metropolitan Detroit (1970).

Throughout her career Dr. Beck was a much sought after speaker on subjects relating to youth, juvenile delinquency, women's rights, as well as on current political issues, American foreign policy and détente, and the Captive Nations, including Ukraine. Her speech tours took her throughout the nation and abroad, and in visits to Ukrainian communities worldwide.

Following retirement from city politics in 1970, Dr. Beck was honored in numerous testimonials variously sponsored by the Common Council (City Council) of Detroit, the Nationality Groups of Metropolitan Detroit and the United Ukrainian Women's Organization of Greater Detroit, among others. These civic tributes often coincided with Dr. Beck's leap-year birthday celebrations, at which expressions of recognition for Dr. Beck's public service were tendered by various governmental bodies and public officials, including congratulatory letters from President Richard M. Nixon, U.S. senators and Michigan Lt. Gov. James H. Brickley, in 1972; and President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Concurrently with the celebrations, came the issuance of proclamations of "Dr. Mary V. Beck Day" by Detroit Mayor Roman S. Gribbs, as well as the mayors of Dearborn, Hamtramck, Warren, Southfield and Livonia, Mich., on February 29, 1972, and of a certificate of special tribute "in honor of distinguished Ukrainian American citizen, Dr. Mary V. Beck" by James J. Blanchard, governor of the State of Michigan, in 1984.

An exhibition celebrating the life and work of Dr. Beck was held in 1993, on the occasion of her 85th birthday at the Eko Gallery in the Ukrainian Village in Warren, Mich.

The Detroit Free Press was a consistent chronicler of Dr. Beck's 20-year political career - of her various causes and crusades, her mayoral campaign as a law and order candidate, and not least, her leap year birthday celebrations.

As noted in the Detroit Free Press obituary that appeared on February 1, Dr. Beck was remembered by her political opponents and her colleagues on the Common Council for several other things as well - "her unusual hats" and the "swear box," which, in an era when the council chambers were "outfitted with spittoons and stained by cigar smoke," she initiated to fine councilmen who used profanity during sessions, with the proceeds going to charity. "For two decades she was a presence in city politics, and when she left it would never completely be a man's world again."

Dr. Beck was predeceased by her brother, John J. Beck (1993), former state representative from the 1st District and deputy clerk in Wayne County for 20 years. She is survived by a sister and numerous nieces and nephews.

Panakhyda services were held in Sterling Heights, Mich., with Bishop Oleksander Bykovets of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church officiating, followed by burial at St. Andrew the First-Called Apostle Ukrainian Orthodox Cemetery in South Bound Brook, N.J.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, February 20, 2005, No. 8, Vol. LXXIII

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