Mary E. Schneider, a pioneering social worker who traveled the Minnesota countryside in a 1935 Chevrolet, launching school lunch programs in small towns, died Dec. 26 in Minneapolis. She was 99.
At a time when women were discouraged from pursuing professional careers, Schneider earned two college degrees and became a prominent dietitian. She managed school lunch programs in outstate Minnesota and later helped create nutritious meals for Northwest Airlines in an era when airlines still had their own kitchens and prepared full meals from scratch.
Schneider, a devout Catholic and granddaughter of Irish immigrants, was also an outspoken advocate for the poor, who in her final months fought against plans to tear down an affordable housing project in the Prospect Park area of Minneapolis where she had lived for more than six decades.
“Mary was always fighting for the underdog,” said her brother, James Waddick. “She had strong opinions about what was morally right and wasn’t afraid to act on them.”
Schneider was born in 1916, the second of four children, and grew up near Folwell Park in north Minneapolis. She attended St. Bridget’s Catholic School and North High, where she became an avid tennis and piano player. On holidays, the family would gather around the piano and sing as Mary would play, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and other songs handed down from their grandparents.
She lived through the great influenza pandemic of 1918, and later recalled gazing out the window of her bedroom as hearses carried coffins down Fremont Avenue.
After graduating with a degree in home economics from the University of Minnesota, Schneider became manager of school lunch programs in outstate Minnesota. At the time, rural schools were part of a pioneering effort by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) to feed thousands of schoolchildren with fresh vegetables picked from local gardens.
When her longtime sweetheart, Wilford, returned from serving overseas in World War II, Schneider married and stayed home to raise five children. For a brief while, the couple was stationed at a U.S. Navy ammunition base in the Nevada desert, a base so remote that wives made curtains out of military shirts, she later recalled. Years later, at age 52, she returned to the U and earned a second degree in social work, then worked for the Minneapolis schools until she retired at age 70.
Donna Schneider recalls her mother staying up after a long day at work and night school, typing research papers after the rest of the family had fallen asleep. “My mom thought it was really important that a woman not be dependent on anyone,” she said. “That was forward-thinking for her generation.”
Schneider remained loyal to her parish and neighborhood into her final years. Early this year, she became bitterly opposed to a plan to tear down the Glendale public housing complex near Prospect Park and convert it to a mixed-income development. Schneider was concerned that gentrification would force out poor families, diminishing the vitality of the entire area. Though too frail to speak at public meetings, she encouraged neighbors to get involved.
“She was fearful that if they tore down the projects, then the poor would be out on the street, the school would close, and … that would spell disaster for the neighborhood,” said the Rev. Harold Bury, formerly of St. Frances Cabrini Church, a longtime friend of the family. “Here she was, 99 years old, still fighting and caring for those less fortunate.”
Besides her brother, Schneider is survived by her five children, a sister, five grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. Visitation 9:30-11 a.m. Thursday followed by burial mass at St. Frances Cabrini, 1500 Franklin Av. SE., Minneapolis.