Mary Diaz didn’t just greet her new neighbors. She brought them a cooked turkey.
She didn’t just tell stories. Her friends recall her deep, raspy, voice that grew ever louder with the telling of her tales until her listeners’ stomachs ached with laughter.
Diaz didn’t just teach. Colleagues say she infused her students, many of whom would go on to teach refugees and immigrants, with her passion, her generosity and her determination to see refugee and immigrant children gain the tools to succeed.
Said her daughter Cristina Diaz: “She was the most generous person that I have ever known, who would do anything for anyone at any time, without hesitation. That was her duty. It was just who she was.”
And “she is going to be missed, because of her unconditional love for people,” said Marcia Rockwood, a Hamline University colleague and Diaz’s sister-in-law.
Diaz, 70, an adjunct professor in English as a Second Language (ESL) program within the Hamline University School of Education, died Oct. 29 at United Hospital in St. Paul because of heart and lung complications. In a message earlier this week, Marcela Kostihova, Hamline’s liberal arts dean, said “no one in Minnesota has done more for immigrant and refugee education than Mary Diaz,” adding that Diaz was “masterful at connecting with parents.”
She grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn., the oldest of six children and she was “a powerhouse,” said Rockwood, who took swimming lessons from Mary as a 10-year-old and later married Mary’s brother, Harvey.
“Her personality was very outgoing,” Rockwood said. “Every time you would see Mary, you would remember her. She was very funny but selfless. She never bragged.”
After high school, Diaz majored in Spanish at Lake Forest College in Illinois and studied abroad in Spain. She returned to Spain after graduation with plans to live abroad for a year. Meeting Natalio Diaz in 1968 changed the plans.
“She made me an offer,” he said. “I’ll teach you English if you teach me French.”
They got married in Fergus Falls and lived in Spain until moving to the United States for good in 1978. The couple settled in the Twin Cities. Daughter Elena was born in 1980, and Cristina in 1984. Mary Diaz, who earned master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and Middlebury College in Vermont, went to work at the state Department of Education. The couple divorced in 1999, Natalio Diaz said, but the family stayed close and continued to gather for holidays and other celebrations.
At Hamline, Diaz was one of the founders of the school’s ESL and bilingual programs. She also worked for the Comprehensive Assistance Center, housed in the Hamline School of Education, from which she provided technical assistance to school districts serving English learners to help them meet Civil Rights Act requirements.
Several colleagues said she was better known for her work with refugee and immigrant education than anyone else in Minnesota.
After retiring from the Comprehensive Assistance Center, Diaz returned to work with the Department of Education as part of a team that determined whether schools were meeting standards set by state and federal law. She also volunteered to work with immigrant and refugee families. In 2015, she was named Volunteer of the Year by the Advocates for Human Rights.
Cristina Diaz said her mother was committed to social justice and dedicated to those she served. “She lived the life that she wanted to live.”
Besides her two daughters, Diaz is survived by three sisters and a granddaughter. Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 901 Portland Av., St. Paul.