Mary Lee Dayton married department-store heir Wallace Dayton in 1948 and received a financial gift from her new mother-in-law that ensured she could be an autonomous and independent woman, a rarity for the time.
Impressed by the gesture, Dayton, a modest preacher’s child who grew up in St. Louis and Minneapolis, spent a lifetime giving others that same gift of freedom and independence. For 65 years Dayton spun her good fortune into gifts that empowered thousands of women, children and students.
“She was in support of opportunities for women and girls long before it was part of the social norms,” Gov. Mark Dayton said of his aunt. “She just was always farsighted and yet she treated everybody with grace and dignity. She was a really lovely person. We will miss her very much.”
Mary Lee Dayton, the civic lioness who headed countless boards and fundraising drives at the YWCA, Breck School, Macalester College, Vassar College, Planned Parenthood, the United Way, the Minneapolis Foundation and others, died peacefully in her Wayzata home on Aug. 21 after a 10-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 88.
“We are all going to miss her a lot. She left a great legacy. She was iconic,” said Sally Clement, the oldest of Dayton’s four daughters.
Dayton, who was born Mary Lee Lowe in Marshall, Mo., grew up in St. Louis and moved to Minneapolis in 1941 at age 16 after her father became the senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.
He preached about civic good, community and service, and Mary Lee took note. She graduated from the Northrop Collegiate School for Girls (now Blake) in Minneapolis, and received a child studies degree at Vassar College in New York in 1946. She went onto teach kindergarten for two years at Northrop, before marrying Wallace Dayton, whom she met at church. They were married for 54 years until his death in 2002. Wallace Dayton was one of five brothers who inherited what became the Dayton Hudson department store chain. It was later renamed Target Corp.
Calm, dignified and steady, Mary Lee never wore the mantle of wealth on her shoulders.
“She was a very gracious woman and very unpretentious,” Gov. Dayton said. “Her father was a very prominent minister at Westminster and so she comes out of that sense of faith and service. She just exemplified that. She was so selfless.”
Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg discovered her kindness first hand 10 years ago while enduring a series of nail-biting interviews, one of which included dinner at the iconic Bruce Dayton’s house.
“She knew it was a pressurized situation; she did everything to make me feel relaxed and at ease. She was relentlessly kind. I never met anyone who was so consistently kind and modest,” Rosenberg said. “In my job, you get to know a lot of generous people. But even in that group, she really stood out as modest and so happy to do good. She always realized that she was in a situation in life where she never expected to be.”
What struck Rosenberg and others is when fundraisers asked Dayton for money, she thanked them. “It was almost as if you were doing her a favor by asking her to do something for you.” Rosenberg said. “Not many people think that way. It struck you.”
While kind, Dayton was no wallflower and certainly no pushover.
As a young mom to four girls, Dayton became president of the Minneapolis YWCA. She led Planned Parenthood of Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s and in 1983 founded the Minnesota Women’s Fund. She started day-care centers so women could work. And she insisted that it was a woman’s right to decide when she should start a family.
She scoffed when one rich institution offered her a cookbook instead of money when she came calling about a building campaign, said son-in-law Stephen Clement. And she scoffed at those who doubted her resolve to build a new home for the YWCA of Minneapolis in the 1970s.
“So many people, men mainly, thought that these women couldn’t go out and raise the money and build a new building. ‘What were they thinking of?’ said Dayton during a taped interview by the Y several months ago. “I think we convinced a lot of people that we knew what we were doing, which we did. We did raise the money. We did hire the architects. We built the building and it’s still there. The Y helped me become a leader in the community.”
Dayton, an active birder, gardener and fan of the arboretum, followed in the footsteps of her father, becoming a board member and then board chair of Macalester College. She raised money for the campus library, arts center and athletic field. She believed in leading by example and often was the first to write a check and invited others to join her.
Dayton is survived by her four daughters, Sally D. Clement of New York City; twins Katherine D. Nielsen and Ellen D. Grace, of Minneapolis; and Elizabeth D. Dovydenas of Lenox, Mass.; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.