Hours before Mary S. Alton died following complications with emphysema, her son, Joseph, bent by the hospital bed. His brothers, Adam and Charlie, making the journey from Portland, had just arrived, he said, squeezing her hand.
“Great,” the 71-year-old replied with a wry smile. “You guys can clean the garage.”
The Minneapolis native — who paved a career as an attorney, mediator and teacher and built a reputation as someone who told “edgy dad jokes,” grilled a mean rib eye and navigated complex problems with ease — would be going out with a bang, to the surprise of no one.
“She was fierce in everything she did,” said Joseph, a freelance journalist who formerly ran the Growler magazine. “She was so good at life.”
And unapologetic in its pursuit, according to her loved ones.
She relished simple pleasures, like sitting on the dock at her beloved lake home in Alexandria, cleaning the fish her sons caught and listening for her favorite cacophony of sounds: waves lapping, loons calling, trains whistling and the patter of rain. Perhaps from years of scraping by as a single parent, she also derived great satisfaction from finding a deal. She often scoured several stores to find the best-priced toilet paper. She’d talk the neighborhood lawn-cutter into taking half his rate — and then invite him in for a vodka when he was done mowing.
But Alton, recognized by many for her “superior intellect,” had limitless enthusiasm for challenging herself, too, Joseph said.
After graduating from Morris High School and marrying at 19, she began “collecting degrees,” first earning a bachelor of science from the University of Minnesota, then, after her first husband died, a master’s from the University of St. Thomas and juris doctor from Hamline Law School. Alton remarried and, with three kids in tow, started a mediation business — realizing early that she’d rather help people avoid conflict than litigate it. Her sharp mind and keen insight made her a sounding board to those around her, said Karen Irvin, a longtime friend.
She had a deft touch at negotiating. Irvin, who then ran a private law practice with her husband, recalled when a wealthy couple negotiating a divorce — and extensive property division — came to her, distraught. They had been told the process would require two years and $200,000 each in attorney fees. Instead, Irvin brought Alton in to mediate; six months later, the two were divorced for a total of $10,000.
“She was skilled at navigating complex situations,” Irvin said. “She saw different sides. She just read situations and people really well.”
She retired in 2013 after two decades teaching classes in mediation at William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline) and then running various programs at the University of Minnesota, where students grew to love her holistic approach to law.
“Ninety-eight percent of the things I learned in law school, I learned from Mary Alton,” said Ben Tozer, a former student. “She really taught problem-solving — not just from a legal perspective but from a life perspective. I still hear her advice.”
Later, she filled her time by teaching friends to cook, turning her St. Paul kitchen into a makeshift classroom. Here, too, she hatched brilliance.
“I made her give me her Caesar dressing recipe,” Irvin said. “But I’ll make it 20 times and one time out of 20 I’ll say ‘That was close, but it’s not Mary’s.’ ”
And then there’s the story of her correcting recipes in the highly lauded French Laundry cookbook.
“She was that kind of person,” Joseph said. “She’d say ‘That was OK. But I made some notes.’ ”