Joanne Meehan had a quiet passion for people, and it translated into a lifetime of service as a social worker and, later, as a mentor and consoler for others who may be struggling with the psychological demands of the job.
She worked in health services for Hennepin County for many years and later became the first director of social services at the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture.
She died March 15 from breast cancer at 82.
After working as a social worker focusing on the homeless in Hennepin County, Meehan moved on to be a pioneer at the Center for Victims of Torture, where she was the fifth person hired and became instrumental in starting its social work department. The center was founded in 1985 as the first treatment center in the United States for torture survivors. Its local mission includes outpatient care and counseling.
“The rest of us were all around the same age, and Joanne felt like a special treasure as she came in with much more experience in both work and life,” recalled Douglas Johnson, the center’s first director and now faculty director for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “She was a calming influence on both clients and staff.”
Over the years, she recognized the importance of not only helping clients with their traumatic life experiences, but also of assisting the workers dealing day in and day out with their stories.
“You need inspiration for a person to continue and thrive in that work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” said Evelyn Lennon, a social worker at the center who came in as an intern and recently retired after more than 17 years. “The compassion, the caring, the support needed. You need someone to share your stories. She listened to me. She said the right things at the right time.”
Clients often became friends who stayed in touch long after they no longer needed help from the center. One family from Cameroon, in particular, remained close after she retired.
Meehan had helped the man obtain financial support to bring members of his family to the United States. A son often played with her granddaughter, and Meehan regularly took them both to the lake or the zoo. Other sons would come over to help her around the house.
International students would often stay at their home through a connection to the University of Minnesota, said a daughter, Susan Cook.
“She was just more conscious than most people about what was really going on in the world,” Cook said.
She said her mother showed the importance of dignity and the value of humor in getting through difficult times.
“I would complain about a tough day. She would just have to mention some of the things her clients were going through,” Cook said. “Any day of hers was much harder than any petty thing that was happening to me at work.”
A life of “quiet servitude” was balanced by her more outgoing husband, her daughter said. Meehan was able to remove herself from work through hiking, books and traveling, her daughter said.
Born in Minneapolis, Meehan graduated from Macalester College with a degree in psychology. She later earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Minnesota.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Thomas Everton Meehan, whom she married in 1960. She is survived by daughters Sarah Meehan and Susan Cook and granddaughter Caroline Matie Cook..
A private memorial service will be held later.