Mary Ann Huelster was a pioneering advocate for children with Down syndrome and other disabilities. More than 60 years ago, she and her husband, Howard, helped found what was then the Association for Retarded Citizens in St. Paul, and for decades worked on behalf of disabled people.
The St. Paul resident was a special education teacher at Como Park Junior High School and Washington Junior High School in St. Paul for two decades, and taught English to immigrants at the International Institute of Minnesota.
She died Aug. 12 of a stroke at age 91.
“We held a pioneers lunch and celebration last year, and Mary Ann was there,” said Kim Keprios, CEO of Arc Greater Twin Cities. “She was part of that generation that brought hope to families of children with disabilities.
“People at the time were being told by their trusted physician to put their children into institutions,” she said. “That generation worked to improve conditions in the institutions, to shed light on how awful they were, and to keep children at home with services.”
Huelster was born in Colorado in 1925, one of three children of Frances and Roderick MacDonald. She grew up in Chaska and attended Macalester College in St. Paul, earning degrees in English and Speech/Drama. There she met her husband, Howard, later a Macalester English professor, and they married in 1948.
When Huelster’s son Scott was born with Down syndrome in 1950, Mary Ann Huelster was urged to place him in an institution early on, said her son Hugh Huelster. She did so reluctantly, he said. “It was extraordinarily hard for her.”
The Huelsters joined other parents in similar situations, meeting in living rooms to lend moral support to one another and to find ways to improve the lives of the children, Hugh Huelster said. The St. Paul chapter of Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) emerged from these meetings in 1950.
Four years earlier, an ARC chapter started in Minneapolis. Soon, people in Minnesota and around the nation were building a disability rights movement, Keprios said.
From 1950 to 1990s, Mary Ann and Howard Huelster volunteered for ARC, including lobbying at the State Capitol, staffing a booth at the Minnesota State Fair, and fielding parent phone calls. Huelster also taught special education from about 1960 to 1980 in St. Paul Public Schools.
“She’d come home totally exhausted,” recalled Hugh Huelster. “I asked her why she didn’t just quit. She said, ‘If I had just one success, that’s enough.’ ”
Huelster also was active in the League of Women Voters in the 1960s and 1970s, including working election nights to count and report ballots to the media, said her son Ross Huelster. She had both local and global interests, he said. On Halloween, for example, her children carried UNICEF boxes to raise funds for children in poor countries. Said Ross Huelster: “She always said, ‘Be a credit to the world.’ ”
Her son Dan Huelster described his mother as a “proper” woman who supported the arts, but also embraced nature, in particular Lake Superior shores and bird-watching.
Mary Ann Huelster was a lifelong advocate for the environment and social causes near to her heart.
She was a longtime member of Unity Church of St. Paul, teaching religious education early on and later getting involved in library acquisitions, the book club and an elder circle.
“She was a matriarch of one of the pillar families at the church,” the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs said.
She is survived by sons Dan and Ross Huelster of St. Paul and Hugh Huelster of Afton. Services have been held.