Obituary: Margaret Vaillancourt, community activist

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2013 - 7:34 PM

A friend recalled Margaret Vaillancourt this way: Many activists burn with Old Testament outrage over injustice. Margaret Vaillancourt was one who got things changed.

Vaillancourt’s force as a writer and community activist furthered a number of causes in Minnesota, including the Hepatitis B Coalition that she cofounded (now the Immunization Action Coalition), the welfare rights group Minnesota Recipients Alliance, the local Children’s Defense Fund and the Self Reliance Center.

She was instrumental in helping pass Minnesota’s Children’s Health Plan in 1986, according to Luanne Nyberg, former head of the local Children’s Defense Fund.

Nyberg recalled how during the Children’s Health Plan campaign, Vaillancourt wrote powerful biographical sketches of uninsured children in Minnesota who had experienced preventable health problems. The group stuffed the stories into the mailboxes of every lawmaker and reporter at the State Capitol for 20 days in a row.

“She was a genius at humanizing and telling the real story, the heart story,” Nyberg said.

Vaillancourt died Oct. 15 at 67 after a 10-month battle with uterine cancer. She donated her body to the University of Minnesota’s anatomy bequest program.

Margaret Victoria Noonan was born in Alexandria, Minn., in 1946, where her father operated the North American Creamery. She was the second of four children.

Her mother died when she was a teen, said her daughter Chelsea Miller of Minneapolis, propelling her to create a collection of writings by women who lost their mothers early in life. “Kiss Me Goodnight,” which she co-edited with Ann Murphy O’Fallon, was a 2007 Minnesota Book Award finalist.

Miller said her mother graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul, then set out for Boston, where she worked in publishing. She was briefly married but eventually divorced, keeping the name Vaillancourt.

Her mother was a free spirit who hated the term “outside the box,” but lived it, her daughter said. Her favorite T-shirt was the one saying: The Hippies Were Right.

In the early 1980s, they moved to Virginia, Miller said, making their home in a two-room schoolhouse at the foot of Jump Mountain while her mother was a copy editor at the News-Gazette in Lexington. They raised hogs, traded horses and listened to a lot of live bluegrass music.

Back in Minneapolis, the two eventually settled into a mint-green stucco bungalow in the Corcoran neighborhood, where Vaillancourt’s organic vegetable gardens flourished.

Good friend Bonnie West of St. Paul said she introduced Vaillancourt to her friend Buzz Mandel in New York when Vaillancourt was working there on immunization issues for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two married when Vaillancourt was 55.

West said she and Vaillancourt did at least eight triathlons together starting around 1992: “We were always the oldest and pretty much the only in our age group for the next 10 years.”

“Anything we thought of to do, she was always game,” West said.

After retiring from the Minnesota Department of Health, Vaillancourt became a popular water aerobics instructor at the YWCA in Midtown and the Blaisdell YMCA.

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