In 1977, more than 280 people showed up in Madison, Wis., to start an alliance for the mentally ill, later named NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dorothy Holmes of Red Wing, Minn., was there.

"NAMI was founded by a lot of moms, frankly," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota. "They were called NAMI mommies, and they were women who just kind of found each other, pre-internet."

Holmes died on Oct. 29 at age 98.

Holmes' oldest son, Tom, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1970s, at a time when discussing mental illness in public was rare. His mom took a different path in confronting the disease.

"It was by far her stamp on life to educate people about mental illness, their perception of it, and the discrepancy it faced in health care," said her son Jeff Holmes of St. Paul. "My brother had a lifelong issue with it, and it pained her to have him treated differently than someone with cancer, heart disease or even a broken leg. The health care system didn't know what to do."

Abderholden said Holmes and others like her gave hope and solace to many moms and dads in the 1970s. "In the beginning it was mommy's or daddy's fault and people did blame the parents," she said. "People like Dorothy told parents that our kids have an illness and we're going to get help for them."

Her passion led to her becoming president of Goodhue County NAMI for 20 years and a member of the State Board for Mental Health Advocates Coalition of Minnesota. She worked with legislators to increase funding for supportive housing for the homeless and to change public attitudes to encourage people to discuss the disease openly.

Funding in Minnesota for community mental health was nonexistent in 1976, but by 1989 it had increased to nearly $40 million. "One legislator remarked during a legislative session on mental health funding, 'We'll do anything we can for the cause; just call off the mothers," Abderholden said.

Even after Tom died in 2008, Holmes persevered. Physically unable to attend meetings in the past few years, she made phone calls and wrote letters to legislators.

She immersed herself in a variety of causes. "She raised a family of five, and she started several businesses on her own," said Barb Riniker Daniels, a neighbor of Holmes in Red Wing who now lives in Florida. "She sold World Book encyclopedias because she believed everyone has to get educated, and she was a Red Wing city hostess for all new residents. She always had a purpose and a cause while raising a family and having fun."

Friends and family described Holmes as one who craved and loved social interaction. Son Jeff said she constantly reached out to the medical community for answers, but her family and friends received equal time. "It was like she had a fear of missing out," he said. "I'd come home at 1 a.m. with some buddies and we'd have a beer and Mom would join us and say, 'Let's have some chicken wings too.' They loved her. One would bring an accordion and Mom would sit down at the piano and we'd sing and laugh until 3 a.m."

A lifelong member of the League of Women Voters, Holmes was adamant about getting her ballot in before the election. And she did this year, too, shortly before she died.

A flurry of activity until only a few years ago, she always wanted to accomplish more. Her gravestone reads, "Not quite finished."

She was a vibrant person who experienced a lot of sadness. Three sons preceded her in death. She is survived by sons Jeff and Pete of New Orleans; four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A service will be held at a later date.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633