Obituary: Winifred Feise / Advocate for civil rights, child development

May 21, 1918 - April 22, 2014

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Winifred Feise, a New York liberal who championed civil rights in the segregated South and later made her life in Pittsburgh as a child development specialist and director of St. Paul's Episcopal Nursery School in Mt. Lebanon, died Tuesday.

She was 95 and had lived for many years in Upper St. Clair.

Known as "Winnie," Ms. Feise served on the boards of many child development organizations, most notably Idlewood Children's Center, which ran group homes for people with mental disabilities and later merged with Horizon Homes to become Mainstay Life Services.

She had no direct experience with the mentally disabled but felt that all children, regardless of ability, should be treated with dignity.

"She was a fiercely independent advocate for children," said Tom Junker, a Mainstay board member. "She was soft spoken but very involved. She was a real inspiration to me. She spoke her mind and she stood up for what she believed in."

After earning her master's degree in child development from the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, she served as director of St. Paul's Episcopal Nursery School from 1979 until her retirement in 1993.

"She was kind of a force in a way," said her daughter, Barbara Nordhaus, 72, a social worker in New Haven, Conn. "She had very great energy for life and engagement with people and issues. Originally it was political issues and later became very much child development-focused."

Born Winifred Leeds in Manhattan in 1918, Ms. Feise attended the Walden School in New York and grew up with socialist leanings. At 16, she enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she met her future husband, Richard Feise.

In her college years, she committed herself to social causes as a member of the Progressive Party, which advocated an end to segregation in the South.

She and her husband moved to New Orleans in 1944, where Richard worked for the National War Labor Board during World War II and later at the Higgins Industries shipbuilding company.

He and Ms. Feise also ran a travel agency, and she later became a librarian at the private Isidore Newman School.

During their time in New Orleans, she and others traveled to Mississippi to support Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman in 1945. The case, which ended with Mr. McGee's execution in 1951, became a cause celebre for white liberals and blacks who believed Mr. McGee was prosecuted unjustly.

Participating in one demonstration at the state capitol, Ms. Feise confronted Gov. Fielding Wright, according to the 2010 book, "The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South" by Alex Heard.

Because of her activities in Mississippi and elsewhere, Ms. Feise was called in 1955 to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the Senate equivalent of the more well-known House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Mississippi Sen. James Eastland.

Ms. Feise and her husband lost their employment as a result, according to her family, and moved to Massachusetts.

There, Ms. Feise began working as a nursery school teacher, sparking her interest in child development. In the early 1960s, the Feises moved to Western Pennsylvania when Richard took a job at a United Mine Workers medical clinic in Centerville, Pa.

Ms. Feise earned a psychology degree at Pitt in 1972 and then went on to get her master's degree. Her focus changed from politics to child advocacy.

In the summers, she also served as director of the Indian Brook Camp, a Quaker-based Farm & Wildnerness Camp in Vermont.

"She became completely committed to programs that had to do with children and families," her daughter said.

She and Richard, who raised three children, separated in the late 1970s, and he moved to Baltimore. He died in 1983.

Ms. Feise's brother, Anthony Leeds, a prominent professor of anthropology at Boston University, died six years later.

After her separation from Richard, Ms. Feise remained in Upper St. Clair with her youngest son, Gregory, who now lives in Seattle. Another son, Christopher, also is in Seattle.

Memorial plans aren't finalized. Contributions in her memory may be made to St. Paul's Episcopal Nursery School, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh or Mainstay Life Services.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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