Obituary: Mary J. Paradise / Founder of Peace Links, Preservation Pittsburgh
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Mary Paradise, a quietly tenacious activist who founded and led both Pennsylvania Peace Links and Preservation Pittsburgh, died Oct. 19 in Belmont, Mass., where she and her husband moved in 2009 after nearly 40 years in Pittsburgh. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer's disease, said her husband, Dr. Jack Paradise. She was 86.
Mrs. Paradise chose daunting causes that many would have considered "lost" -- saving future generations from the nuclear arms race and saving old buildings from the wrecking ball -- but friends say she was never discouraged by an uphill struggle.
Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and China spurred her to citizen diplomacy via Peace Links, formed in 1982 by Betty Bumpers, wife of Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and other congressional wives who feared for their children in a nuclear war. The goal was to work with women at home and abroad to abolish nuclear weapons and find alternatives to war.
Mrs. Paradise, who had a daughter and four stepchildren, set out to form the Pennsylvania Chapter. The first meeting was held in the Paradise home in Oakland, where countless other functions would take place over the years. She was president of the chapter for five years, and remained a board member until her illness in 1997.
"I was at the first meeting at her house," said Toni Conaway of Mt. Lebanon. "We were stirred by Mary and found ourselves taking on things we never imagined. She had a grand vision for ordinary citizens to have a voice."
Mrs. Paradise was a key organizer of the multi-sponsored In Concert for Peace in 1984, with Andre Previn conducting volunteers from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The proceeds allowed Peace Links to open an office in the YWCA Downtown.
Under her leadership, at least eight more Peace Links chapters formed in Western Pennsylvania. Members held symposiums and spoke at civic and religious meetings. In 1995, a group traveled to Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.
Fellow Peace Links activist Lois Goldstein of Oakland said Mrs. Paradise's sweet temper and gracious style won over many women who had never been involved in a cause before.
"Mary's strong point was energizing and convincing women who had not necessarily been activists in the past," Mrs. Goldstein said. "She had a quiet persistence. It was very hard for people to say no to her."
Peace Links closed its Pittsburgh office in 2007 because, Mrs. Goldstein said, not enough young women were joining to replace the founders as they retired.
Even as she worked for Peace Links, Mrs. Paradise was propelled to action by the demolition of the Syria Mosque across the street from her home.
"That was a tragedy," said Dr. Paradise. "Mary worked night and day opposing it, raising awareness of its historic and architectural value. That's what spurred her to found Preservation Pittsburgh and become its first president. She didn't want to see anymore gorgeous historic structures demolished in the interest of whatever."
Member Gretchen Haller of Mt. Lebanon said Mrs. Paradise had "the magic touch" of persuasion.
"People listened to her," Ms. Haller said. "She could gather a bunch of angry, wild-eyed preservationists, calm them down and make it work. That Preservation Pittsburgh still exists is the true legacy of a great lady."
The mosque was lost, Ms. Haller said, "but the mere fact there is awareness of preservation issues has an enormous amount to do with Mary."
The fourth of six children born to Italian immigrants, the former Mary Spina grew up in Morgantown, W.Va. Her father, a coal miner and union activist, was blacklisted by the coal companies for 10 years due to his union work, so his wife took in washing and all the children worked to make ends meet.
Her mother always drew the blinds in the evening when the lights were on for fear that he would be shot through the window -- a habit Mrs. Paradise continued throughout her life, her husband said.
After high school, she worked as an administrative assistant at the United Mine Workers Health and Retirement Fund in West Virginia and Oglebay Park in Wheeling, then at the Bellaire Medical Group just across the border in Ohio, where Dr. Paradise practiced.
They married in 1969 and moved to Pittsburgh the following year for his position at Children's Hospital, and she worked at Montefiore Hospital as administrative assistant, first for Mark Ravitch, the surgeon and textbook author, and later for Bernard Fisher, the pioneering breast cancer specialist.
At 50, Mrs. Paradise retired to continue her education, earning a bachelor's degree in art history and American literature in the early 1980s.
The Paradises hosted countless parties and receptions for hospital residents and medical students, not to mention Peace Links and Preservation Pittsburgh events.
"Whenever there was a need for any kind of affair, Mary jumped in," Dr. Paradise said. "She was a phenomenal cook and hostess. She kept a record of which guests liked which dishes so she could serve them again when they came to dinner."
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Paradise is survived by a sister, Antonette Colvin of Columbia, S.C., and three stepdaughters, Jan Paradise of Newton, Mass., Julia Paradise of Washington, D.C., and Emily Paradise of Arlington, Mass.
Burial was private. A memorial service will be held Nov. 14 at Heinz Chapel at 3 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to UNICEF, www.unicef.org, or the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, www.paconserve.org.
First Published October 27, 2012 12:00 am