Mary Etta Litsheim knew her job was risky. Before a deployment to a disaster site as an equal rights adviser with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she’d talk with her husband about the personal toll of leaving home, sometimes for months at a time, the exposure to disease, the dangerous road conditions.
Still she went, eager to help people living in regions ravaged by a hurricane, choked by fire or grieving after a terrorist attack. Her final deployment was to California to assist the survivors of recent wildfires.
Litsheim, of Roseville, died Nov. 19 in a car crash while on her way to establish a disaster recovery center in Chico, Calif. She was 74.
In her role, she would act as an intermediary between disaster victims and the government, to ensure that victims’ civil rights were being honored. “Mary would be there to support them, mediate, fix it. Sometimes just be a listener,” said her husband, Jim Litsheim.
At home, she was a mediator both for the state of Minnesota and state Human Rights Commission.
Litsheim worked as a homemaker until her two children were teenagers. Then she dove into academia, earning a master’s degree in design and another in organizational development, followed by a Ph.D. in human resources development at age 67. Her love of the arts — she was a weaver and a pianist — meshed with her studies; her dissertation focused on how museums teach about the work of Norwegian and Norwegian-American artisans.
“She was a true Renaissance woman — she did everything,” Jim said.
Litsheim had taken care of family and friends since childhood, said longtime friend Susan Lillehei, who met Litsheim when they were students at Folwell Junior High School in Minneapolis. “She was always there for everybody and anybody, so joining FEMA was right up her alley.”
About 20 years ago, Litsheim began working for FEMA, in the Department of Homeland Security. She was deployed to New York City after 9/11 and had to keep herself safe from toxic air. She headed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year, and drove through the night on broken roads with no lights and no stop signs.
“She was a pretty strong woman,” Jim said.
One of her more dangerous deployments was to Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Northern Mariana Islands, after a typhoon in 2015. She had to sleep outside due to rampant mold in her hotel. One of her colleagues died on that trip and another got critically ill, her husband said. “I worried about her every minute,” he said.
“Nerdy travel junkies,” the couple took educational tours all over the world, Jim said. They had just gotten back from 3½ weeks in Europe when the fires broke out in California. Litsheim saw the destruction on news reports. “It was driving her crazy, and she kept saying these people need help out there,” Jim said.
They had only been home a week when Litsheim got her deployment orders. She left the same day.
Four days later, a pickup truck broadsided her car on what should have been a 40-minute ride.
Her job was a “mixed blessing,” Jim said. She loved it, but often there would be 12-hour workdays, seven days a week. And being apart for so long could be painful for a couple that married right out of Roosevelt High School in south Minneapolis. Litsheim would speak to her husband every day, and communicate electronically as well.
“It was almost like she was here, just in a different room,” Jim said. “But after 60 years, you’re pretty connected, no matter where you are.”
In addition to her husband, Litsheim is survived by a daughter, Sara; a son, Scott; a brother, Eric Rorris, and one grandson. Services have been held.