Former ISU religious studies professor Mary Sawyer dies at 71

Mary R. Sawyer was gathered into the loving embrace of the universe on May 20, 2015. Born April 14, 1944 in McCook, Neb., she grew up in the farming community of Beaver City, Neb.

Mary was a life-long social justice activist, beginning with her involvement in the civil rights movement as a college student. Her passion for eliminating racism and other forms of oppression was the driving force in her life. After many years of human relations and human rights work, in 1986 she began a 25-year career teaching Religious Studies at Iowa State University in Ames, where she co-founded the African American Studies Program, created a Peace and Justice Internship option, and was a voice for the empowerment of women.

As a scholar-activist, with advanced degrees from Howard University Divinity School (M.A.) and Duke University (Ph.D.), she authored and co-edited three books and numerous articles on African American religion and politics. 

Mary was devoted to her family, loved the out-of-doors, and treasured books. A strong supporter of ISU women’s basketball, she also remained a loyal fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Mary was preceded in death by her parents, Harold and Polly Kentfield Sawyer; a sister, Louise Sawyer; and a brother-in-law, Dennis Richter. She is survived by two sisters, Kathy (Don) Tegtman of Stamford, Nebraska, and Polly J. Richter of South Haven, Michigan; nieces Wendy Tegtman, Kathy Louise Kent, Sheila Pabst, Karen Kramer, Mary Dawn Voisard, Jenny Richter; nephews Brad Tegtman, Gart Kent, Cory Tegtman, and Bill Richter; and friend, Yvette Louisell. Also by 16 great nieces and nephews, a great-great niece and two great-great nephews.

Mary was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2014. Her family wishes to thank the following for the loving care given to Mary throughout her illness: Dr. Christian Schultheis and staff of Medical Associates; Hospice of Dubuque, especially Melanie and Lisa; members of the Dubuque Franciscan Community and her Franciscan Associate groups; Lisa Schmidt; and her beloved cat, Sammi.

A service of remembrance will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, 2015 at Clare House, Mount St. Francis, 3340 Windsor Ave., Dubuque. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be given to Opening Doors (Maria House and Teresa Shelter), 1561 Jackson St., Dubuque, IA 52001.

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