Mary Lucille Mickman was happy at the end of her life, even if she couldn’t say so.

After a yearlong battle with lymphocytic leukemia and a series of strokes, she was unable to speak, so her doctors asked how she felt by showing her a series of pictures featuring different facial expressions. Mickman pointed to the smiling one.

“She still was the eternal optimist,” said her son, Chris Mickman.

A few days later, on June 5, Mickman, a retired nurse who vigorously fought for mental health resources, died peacefully in the company of her family. She was 91 years old.

Born Mary Muller, Mickman grew up in downtown Minneapolis, near Loring Park, and attended Catholic school. Her father worked as a foreman for a commercial installation company, her mother a homemaker. Though her family didn’t have much money, her parents still helped feed the less fortunate during the Great Depression by serving soup at their back door — even after Mickman’s father lost his job.

After graduating from St. Margaret’s Academy, Mickman won a scholarship through the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps to study nursing at the University of Minnesota, which required her to work at university hospitals six hours a day, six days a week. It was at college she met John Mickman, whom she would eventually marry. The couple settled in Fridley and raised five children.

Nursing became Mickman’s passion. She earned a certification in psychiatric nursing and began working at mental health wards in Twin Cities hospitals, where she realized the conditions were terribly insufficient to treat patients in great need of help. So she decided to do something about it. Mickman co-founded Anoka County Family Life Center, where she worked with people with mental illness for 30 years.

She continued her fight by lobbying the Anoka County commissioner’s office for more funding — for decades — until the county started to pay more attention to psychiatric needs.

“It was a real uphill climb,” said Chris Mickman. “It was a different time ... She helped a lot to raise the specter and let people know about it.”

At home, Mickman was known as the de facto nurse of an entire neighborhood. Whenever kids on the block came home from school with an injury from the playground, Nurse Mickman was there to bandage them up. In her spare time, she was also the only salesperson — for 35 years — of a family business that sells wreaths to thousands of customers every Christmas.

Mickman also endured more than her share of tragedy. Three of her children died before their time. Her husband and friend, John, also preceded her in death.

But Mickman stayed strong through it all, remembered Chris. “She was just a real positive human,” he said. “If you were talking to her, it was like you were the only person on the planet. Just really, really made you feel special.”

Mickman’s loved ones held a service on June 8 at the Church of St. William in Fridley. She is survived by sons Chris and John Steven, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.