Thank You, Dr. Mary Beck: Meet the Trailblazing Ukrainian American Councilwoman Who Saved My Family
By Vera Sirota
Mary Beck was the first woman to be elected to serve on the Detroit City Council. She also personally sponsored my grandparents to immigrate to the United States. This is my tribute to her.
Writer’s Note: This piece touches upon violence as it relates to the plight of refugees, my grandparents, escaping to the United States after WWII.
More than 4.6 million refugees have fled Ukraine with the onslaught of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion. An imperial power wrestling to subjugate Ukraine is a familiar story to her people. More than 70 years ago, my dido (grandfather) Osyp, babtsia (grandmother) Maria and teta (aunt) Helen escaped Ukraine, too. My dido was an Auschwitz captive surviving internment for subversive political organizing toward an independent Ukraine. He and his family were ensured safe passage to the United States thanks to the heroic efforts of a Ukrainian American woman named Marusia “Mary” Beck.
Our family’s guardian angel, Marusia, personally sponsored Dido Osyp, Babtsia Maria and Teta Helen to immigrate to the United States in 1948. It is an extraordinary testament to one woman’s deep sense of altruism. Marusia’s intervention enabled my family’s survival. In fact, upon their arrival, Dido Osyp, Babtsia Maria and Teta Helen were welcomed into Marusia’s home in Detroit, MI to restart their lives in the Motor City.
What sets this story apart is the fact that their generous sponsor, Marusia, was a trailblazer for women in politics. She became the first woman elected to serve on the Detroit City Council, later the first woman Council President and first woman Acting Mayor. My family was afforded a chance at a new life in the United States thanks to her. Unfortunately, Dido Osyp, Babtsia Maria, Teta Helen and Councilwoman Marusia Beck are all no longer living. I piece together this history by interviewing my father, Mark, who was the American baby born to the family in 1949. I can never truly repay Councilwoman Marusia Beck for changing the trajectory of our family’s life. I can only honor her by recording this special story.
My Babtsia Maria grew up in Kolomiya, Ukraine. Halfway across the world, Marusia Beck was born on February 29, 1908—Leap Day—in Ford City, PA to Ukrainian immigrants. From birth, Marusia was already unique. The two women met when Marusia’s parents sent her to Western Ukraine at age 12 to complete her schooling. My Babtsia Maria and Marusia befriended one another in school in spite of the four-year age difference. When Marusia completed the equivalent of high school, she returned to the United States to start an undergraduate program at the University of Pittsburgh. My Babtsia Maria, meanwhile, remained in Ukraine. However, the two maintained their friendship across the Atlantic Ocean.
Educational achievement was very important to Marusia. Even though she lived in an era with few opportunities for women, Marusia completed her studies at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and earned a Bachelor of Laws Degree (equivalent to a present-day Juris Doctor). According to Forum: A Ukrainian Review Magazine, Marusia was the first Ukrainian American woman to become an attorney at the age of 24. She maintained her connection to her roots by addressing the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America in 1932, and organizing UNWLA chapters for Ukrainian American women across the country. Marusia also launched the first bilingual magazine “The Woman’s World.”
In addition to her Ukrainian advocacy, Marusia was involved in important work as an attorney. She joined the Wayne County Juvenile Court, where she worked for 12 years. She continued to advance by accepting supervisory assignments in the Department of Delinquent Children. A year after sponsoring my family, Marusia entered the field of politics by running for Detroit Common Council, thus making local history.
Marusia’s time in politics is marked by many important accomplishments. She supported rent control, water fluoridation and the hiring of women as meter maids, among other progressive causes. At one point, she successfully fought back against an effort to remove expiration dates from milk bottles. To thank her, 10,000 children donated one penny each to support her re-election filing fees.
Marusia was acutely aware of her status as the first woman to serve on the Detroit Common Council, and its accompanying pressures. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Marusia expressed, “I will have to shoulder additional responsibility. Everything I do or say reflects on all women.” Her colleagues did not welcome her warmly at first. One of her first initiatives after joining the Common Council was establishing a small wooden “swear box.” Whenever her colleagues used profanity during a meeting, they were compelled to contribute money to the box, and proceeds were then donated to local charities. This speaks to how Marusia commanded respect in a male-dominated field, and how deftly she navigated it.
Marusia went on to serve on the Detroit Common Council for 20 years and 19 years on the Wayne County Board of Supervisors. All the while, she remained committed to an independent Ukraine. She would be horrified at the plight of Ukrainian refugees today—millions forced to leave their native homeland due to a callous war criminal. If Marusia was alive today, she would be on the front lines helping them, just as she did for my family. There is no greater act of good than to be there for others in their time of need. Thank you, Marusia.
I had the privilege to participate in Sheena Daree Miller’s Community Chat called “Chronicling Our Lives” in honor of Women’s History Month. This workshop inspired me to record the story of my family’s connection to Councilwoman Marusia Beck. My resolve to complete this piece was strengthened with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. My greatest hope is for all refugees to encounter the generosity of a person like Councilwoman Marusia Beck in their time of need. I also would like to find any of her living relatives so I can express my gratitude for what Marusia did for our family.
Vera Sirota is a poet, freelance writer and teacher. She was a NYC public school teacher and teaching artist specializing in writing instruction. She wrote her master’s thesis about using photography as a writing tool for English Language Learners. Vera was raised in a bilingual and bicultural home as the granddaughter of Ukrainian immigrants. Vera serves as a mentor for Girls Write Now, NYC’s premier creative writing organization for high school girls and gender-expansive youth. She is a finalist for The Poetry Barn’s 2022 Poetic License contest. Vera’s poems are forthcoming in the anthology: Ukrainian American Poets Respond. Her work was also published in The Poetry Distillery.