Shirley Maxwell was known for her antiwar activism, civil rights advocacy and feminist beliefs, but she'll be remembered best for her tenacity and sense of humor.
Her close friend, Carole Rydberg, will never forget how Maxwell could muster a one-liner for even the bleakest moments, like the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
"She would say to me, 'Oh, that Alzheimer's is a [expletive], but I'll never forget you, Betty,' and then she cracked up laughing," Rydberg said. "I don't know how you could make a joke at such a time, but she did. That was her remarkable spirit."
Maxwell died Feb. 24 after battling Alzheimer's for 13 years. She was 88.
Maxwell graduated in 1945 as valedictorian of Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. She got her education degree at the University of Minnesota, then taught high school while raising seven children with her husband, Don.
Maxwell's son, Howard, said his mother was a typical Midwestern mom in many ways — making hot dish dinners and pushing academics — but she was a force to be reckoned with on the political front.
"When it came to civil rights and advocating for anyone who was downtrodden, my mom didn't much care about being politically correct," he said.
"She was feisty," said daughter Sally Bergerud. "She was a very kind person, but she said what needed to be said and she didn't beat around the bush."
Curiosity and lifelong learning drove Maxwell. At 50, she applied to the University of Minnesota law school.
"It was by chance she got in," said Bergerud. "The person who usually handles admissions was out that week and said they never would've admitted someone that old."
After graduating in the top of her class, Maxwell worked as an attorney in Minneapolis. Most of her legal work centered on helping immigrant families; much of it was pro bono for those who could least afford legal assistance.
A few years later, Maxwell turned her passion for politics into a run for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Her slogans? "A woman's place is in the House" and "Put a Maxwell in the House."
Although she didn't win, Maxwell never stopped fighting for social justice. In 2007, during an antiwar demonstration with members of Northwest Neighbors for Peace, she told the Star Tribune: "I've been protesting every war there's been. Well, not World War II, but since then. I'm a real rebel from way back."
Maxwell served in many leadership capacities with First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. She also enjoyed music, especially the Minnesota Orchestra, and nature — camping, biking, hiking and cross-country skiing.
She and her husband traveled the world in search of cultures different from their own. They kept a sailboat in Bayfield, Wis., and enjoyed taking friends on adventures on Lake Superior. When Maxwell was 70, the couple spent most of the year sailing.
In her final years, she lived at Jones-Harrison Residence, where she was known as "the gal with the million-dollar smile."
"Even when she was near death, that sparkle in her eyes was still there," Rydberg said. "Like a light inside of her."
Maxwell was preceded in death by her first husband, Richard Carlson, and by her second husband, Donald Maxwell. She is survived by her children — Sally, Howard, Stuart, Melissa, Mark, Ann and James — 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
There will be a celebration of her life June 25 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Av.