But Hill’s simple act is a humbling lesson for anyone who might be thinking of not bothering.
Hill turns 98 years old this month. She was born four years before women could vote — a barrier that “struck me as funny,” she said.
Hill’s mother and aunts taught her early in life about the “unremitting 70-year effort” by women and men to pass the 19th Amendment. When she finally registered to vote, at 21, it was “like a rite of passage to full citizenship. I believe the right to vote is among our most important rights.”
So, despite one close call, Hill never has missed a vote — any vote.
PTA president, Park Board, school board, City Council, U.S. president (FDR was her first), Hill has enthusiastically exercised her little-d democratic right, and she’s made sure that her four daughters did, too.
“We always knew we would vote,” said Sue, the eldest. “No doubt, just like we were all going to college, we knew we would vote. Not necessarily her way, but I’d be real surprised if we didn’t.”
Sue is pretty sure that her mother named her after suffragist Susan B. Anthony, “although she did not reveal that to my father,” Sue said with a laugh.
The girls didn’t just vote. Sue recalls many an afternoon licking envelopes with her sisters and mother at the League of Women Voters Minneapolis headquarters, where, more than 50 years ago, Hill found her calling.
“That’s how I picked my friends,” Hill said of the league, a nonpartisan political organization where she served as executive secretary and attended many national conventions. “We were all goofy about government doing the right thing.”
The league taught Hill to dive deep into complex issues — climate change, sex trafficking, single-payer insurance, voter ID — and find common ground.
“We’re strong party people,” said Hill, dressed in a baby blue sweater and seated in the stately living room of her century-old home in Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood. “But we give that up to get the program right. The league studies issues. They don’t just willy-nilly say, ‘We’re going to vote for this.’ ”
From heroes to a mentor
Hill keeps a world map on her kitchen wall, so she knows exactly where issues are playing out. Her study features a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt (“I always thought so much of her”) and the books “Fighting for Common Ground” by Olympia Snowe and “Hard Choices” by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In one of Hill’s treasured framed photos, she stands with Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“Mary Lou is the dream constituent of any elected official,” said Kelliher, president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association and former two-time speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
At age 24, Kelliher moved into Bryn Mawr, where Hill quickly became her mentor. “My invitation to join the league came from Mary Lou,” Kelliher said. “She is the poster person for showing up and having your voice heard.”
Later in her political career, Kelliher remembers looking up and seeing Hill coming her way at the Capitol.
“She would always come to visit me at least once during the legislative session,” Kelliher said. “I can’t remember a particular concern, but I can remember her face. When she disagreed or had a point she wanted to make, she went from a smile to a serious, dogged face.
“I just knew I’d better perk up and pay attention, or I’d have my lunch eaten by Mary Lou.”
Gwen Myers, 74, a league member since the 1960s, also admired Hill’s “enormous energy and willingness to express herself.” In 2011, Myers assisted Hill with a personal statement to the Senate elections committee, which was considering requiring photo IDs to vote.
As always, Hill had done her research. Eighteen percent of people over age 65, she told the committee, do not have a current, government-issued photo ID, a number that escalates rapidly with age.
That means thousands of disenfranchised voters, she said, “who have been proudly casting their ballots for 50 or 60 or 70 years.” One of them was Hill herself, she noted.
The voter ID bill failed.
Up to her eyebrows
Mary Lou Faetkenheuer (“It was a treat getting rid of that,” Hill joked) was born in November 1916 to Agnes and Lester, who met at North High School. Her grandfather, William Faetkenheuer, was a timpanist with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which performed at Northrop Auditorium. While studying political science and history at the U, she would drop by to hear him practice.
She married Philip Hill in 1940, and together they raised their daughters (one of whom, Mary, died in 1981). After divorcing, Hill became “involved up to my eyebrows” in the League of Women Voters, learning, lobbying and leading league-sponsored trips to Eastern Europe, China and Russia.
Hill remembers attending a convention in the early 1950s in Denver, where league members rushed outside to watch the televised Joseph McCarthy hearings on a big screen.
“All these smart League of Women Voters members came out and listened to that son of a gun. That dummy. He was so awful. He was stirring up things that didn’t make sense.”
In the 1960s, Hill worked for Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag in the human rights department, then lobbied the Legislature for better pay for women. She researched single-pay health care long before it was fashionable, and advocated for higher wages for home health care aids.
She’s only beginning to slow down. She’ll eagerly get to the polls, with a little help from family, for as many more November Tuesdays as she can.
Sue remembers her mom voting absentee just once. It was decades ago and her mom forgot to sign her ballot.
“Somebody down there [at City Hall] knew her,” Sue said with a laugh, “so they sent her ballot back for her to sign.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum