In 1956 Marlene Kayser was a senior in high school when she joined her first Democratic political campaign — the second presidential run of Adlai Stevenson, who lost in a landslide to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
She was devastated as only an idealistic teenager could be, she told friends throughout her life.
"But then I got used to it," she always added.
Kayser, one of Minnesota's most powerful forces for human rights and the Democratic candidates who supported them, died Oct. 5, six days short of her 80th birthday.
She was born in 1938 in Albert Lea, the daughter of a bricklayer. She and her two brothers grew up poor, though they never knew it because their parents were always giving things to people who had less than they did, said Carol Kayser, her daughter.
After high school she moved to Chicago and got job as a reservationist with an airline, said Carol Kayser. College wasn't an option — her parents couldn't afford it.
She met her husband, Tom Kayser, on a blind date, and they moved to San Antonio, Texas, where he served in the military. There, Marlene Kayser saw a side of the country she'd never witnessed before — overt racism. At the time, it was against the law in Texas to eat in public with African-Americans, Carol Kayser said. Children of different races could play together on the base, but not off it.
It strengthened her commitment to social change, starting with the integrated dinner parties she held in Texas, and leading to the biracial son, David, she and her husband later adopted. In addition to Carol, the couple had a third child, Tom Jr.
When they came back to Minnesota in 1965, Tom Kayser, worked for the law firm that is now Robins Kaplan, and Marlene began her own career of campaigning for political candidates, fundraising for them and for Minnesota nonprofits that largely focused on human rights.
All of it without a college education or a salary.
For 30 years she served on the board for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. She also volunteered for the organization and would walk through the line of protesters that routinely gathered outside the building in St. Paul's Highland Park. And she would always talk to them as she passed, said Carol Kayser.
"It was a different atmosphere than it is today," she said. "They could talk without name-calling and without hating that other person."
She worked on the political campaigns of liberal candidates from school boards on up to governor and congressional seats, including for Sen. Tina Smith, who is now running to serve the rest of former Sen. Al Franken's term.
"She really helped me learn the ropes," Smith said. "I can't remember a time when I asked for her help and she didn't just say yes."
She was a linchpin for the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights, in particular the work it did around the world supporting women's rights. She traveled to Eastern European countries many times to teach fundraising and organizing to women who were starting with nothing, said Robin Phillips, executive director.
"She had the kind of kindness and grace that transcended any language," said Phillips.
And she was an astute teacher. While in Bulgaria, she came to understand that "volunteering" in Eastern European countries frequently meant forced work for the government. She helped the fledgling organizers figure out other ways — and words — to recruit supporters.
And she was endlessly creative, Phillips said. Nothing was off-limits — not even her own illness. Before her August diagnosis of brain cancer, she had planned her own 80th party as a fundraiser for Advocates for Human Rights. It was the kind of big event she held frequently in her home on the Mississippi River Boulevard in St. Paul. She suggested they use her condition to leverage even more donations from the crowd.
"I said, 'I am not going to use your diagnosis to raise money,' " Phillips said. "Her response was, 'Haven't I taught you anything?' "
The family is planning a memorial service in the spring.