Virginia Hyvarinen loved politics and she loved people. The more radical and forgotten, the better.
For more than two decades, she worked as a librarian for the Duluth Public Library and spent her life pushing for social change.
Hyvarinen died March 29 at 95 after a fall in New York City, where she had lived since 2004.
“She was so tolerant of human foibles and mistakes — unless they involved any mean-spiritedness or bigotry or greed,” said Susan O’Brien, a writer and longtime friend who lives in New Hampshire. “And then she ferociously did not tolerate them.”
Born in Albion, Mich., to an Irish-American father and French-American mother, the former Ginny Dunn grew up in Detroit and was forever shaped by the ravages of the Great Depression. Because her father worked for a cement company, their family weathered the economic hardships of the 1930s better than many in their middle-class neighborhood. The sight of a small girl eating oatmeal at a roadside table after her family had been evicted shook her to the core, her daughter said.
“This was a horrible thing that happened to good people,” said Eva Hyvarinen, the third of her four children. “That had an effect on her. She didn’t like injustice. That was her story for the rest of her life.”
After graduating from the University of Detroit, Hyvarinen took a job at the Detroit News working in “the morgue,” where the newspaper kept archives and reference books. She was so good at research, her boss suggested she take classes in library science. She earned a master’s at the University of Michigan.
While there, she met a dark-haired man at a school dance who loved to rumba, tango and cha-cha-cha. She presumed he was from South America, but Matti Hyvarinen was from eastern Finland, and the two soon married.
Matti was a scientist studying wood technology on a Fulbright scholarship, which helped him get a visa to the United States. His immigration status hit a snag a few years into their marriage, forcing the young couple and their infant daughter to move to Helsinki and live with Matti’s mother. They gained reentry to the U.S. about a year later and landed in International Falls, Minn., where Matti worked for the company that would become Boise Cascade. Virginia volunteered for the planning commission, hospital auxiliary and League of Women Voters.
When a city councilman died in 1965, she ran for his seat and became the city’s first female council member. Her daughter remembers going door to door, and the stacks of nail files her mother printed with her name to encourage women to vote. Though her mother liked to wear gloves, hats and big bold prints, she connected with the downtrodden and voiceless.
The family moved to Duluth, and Hyvarinen chose to spend the rest of her life as a rebel, working the system from the outside. She protested the war in Vietnam, joined the fight for civil rights, and stood up with farm workers and labor unions. She fought the freeway through downtown Duluth and was fiercely pro-choice.
Her skills as a researcher were without peer, said several friends and associates, earning her credits in dozens of published works. When she and her husband retired and moved to Cambridge, Mass., she continued to take on research projects. Her favorites centered on unearthing history’s forgotten radicals.
Last year, a friend pushed her wheelchair along the streets of New York City so she could participate in a march on climate, jobs and justice. “She lived life on her own terms,” O’Brien said.
In addition to Eva, she is survived by children Anne, John and Georg, all living in the Twin Cities area, and one grandson.