Lucy Durr Hackney died peacefully on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, surrounded by four generations of her loving family. For all who knew her, she will forever be an inspiration to embrace life’s joys and to fearlessly face its challenges.
Born in 1937, the second of Virginia and Clifford Durr’s four daughters, Lucy grew up in Montgomery, Ala., where her parents, prominent progressives, were civil rights activists. Her father, an attorney who defended those accused of disloyalty during the New Deal and McCarthy eras, played an important role in the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. He helped bail family friend Rosa Parks out of jail, and aided her representation in the case that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Parks, a seamstress who was also secretary of the NAACP, fitted Lucy’s dress for her 1957 wedding to Sheldon Hackney.
Lucy met Sheldon at a party. She was a high school senior, and he a junior in college. Their long-distance relationship (Vanderbilt was 93 miles away) became longer when Lucy graduated and moved north to attend Radcliffe. The distance became too great, though, and after Sheldon’s graduation, when Sheldon was moving too slowly for her liking, Lucy suggested marriage as a proper next step. So they wed midway through her sophomore year, and then moved to Norfolk, where Sheldon began a five-year stint in the Navy.
Lucy often told of arriving at the hotel on their wedding night after a long drive, only to encounter a line of angry workers picketing for higher pay. With her upbringing, crossing a picket line was definitely not an option. So she used her best Southern charm, and soon the picketers graciously parted so that the weary newlyweds could cross over and get some “rest.”
In Norfolk, Lucy and Sheldon had their first child, Virginia. Several years after her birth, they discovered that Virginia was mentally handicapped. The challenges Lucy faced in getting Virginia the education and services necessary for her to live her fullest life changed Lucy’s life, and informed her future advocacy work for children. Lucy called Virginia her “muse,” and was in awe of Virginia’s amazing ability to find and create community, and of the independence that Virginia insisted on throughout her life.
After Sheldon’s five years in the Navy, the family, which now included their son, Fain, who was born while they were stationed in Annapolis, moved to New Haven, Conn. There, Sheldon earned his Ph.D. in history from Yale University, under the mentorship of well-known Southern historian C. Vann Woodward. During this time, Lucy gave birth to the couple’s third child, Elizabeth, worked at the Yale library, was active in local politics, and took care of the children.
The next move, after Sheldon received his Ph.D., was to Princeton in New Jersey, where Sheldon taught history and later became provost. In Princeton, Lucy was active in the League of Women Voters, and helped found the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped, an organization founded by the parents of developmentally disabled adults dedicated to providing an array of social services so that developmentally disabled adults could live in the community, as independently as possible, with dignity and respect. She spent countless hours making sure that Virginia received the help she needed in the public school system. Reluctantly, Lucy eventually concluded that Virginia could not get the support she needed, and Lucy and Sheldon made the difficult decision to have Virginia attend the Elwyn School in Pennsylvania, where she learned many of the skills that helped her to live a truly independent life.
In the midst of her busy Princeton life, Lucy knew she needed to continue her education, and enrolled part-time at Princeton University in the third class to accept women. She graduated with a political science degree in 1975, just in time for Sheldon’s acceptance of the position of president of Tulane University. And off they went to New Orleans.
During their Princeton years, Sheldon and Lucy were introduced to the Vineyard by Lucy Myers, Lucy’s friend from Radcliffe, who invited them to stay at the Myers family’s house on Owen Little Way in Vineyard Haven in 1966. Later, they rented the second floor of the old Bayside rooming house, located on Main Street behind the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, for the month of July. In 1975 they purchased the house where they lived, and died, at the corner of Owen Little Way and Main Street. The house was the scene of many parties and social events, big and small, including a dinner party with Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, many raucous birthday celebrations for Lucy’s mother each August, and countless family dinners.
In New Orleans, Lucy enrolled full-time at Tulane Law School. Mother and law student by day, Lucy honed her talent as “charming wife of” by night. Sheldon and Lucy were truly a team. Many remarked that in hiring Sheldon, the university got a twofer because of all that Lucy contributed. On a typical day, she woke at 5 am to study, then got Elizabeth and Fain off to school, headed off to classes herself, and returned in the evening to host or attend almost nightly social functions as the president’s wife. She earned her law degree in 1979. During her time in New Orleans, she also pressed for reforms in the mental health field.
The next move, in the winter of 1981, was to Philadelphia, where Sheldon served as president of the University of Pennsylvania. Lucy worked as a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center for many years, under the tutelage of Bob Schwartz. In this role, she was tenacious in her work on behalf of numerous children’s health, welfare, and justice programs. She also founded Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to improving the health, well-being, and education of Pennsylvania children. Her efforts resulted in health coverage for 100,000 previously uninsured young people in Pennsylvania. She also served on the board of directors of the Children’s Defense Fund, where she became friends with Hillary Clinton and Marian Wright Edelman, and on the board of the Hershey School in Hershey, Pa.
After Sheldon’s 1993-97 stint as chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lucy and Sheldon came back to Philadelphia, where Sheldon returned to his roots as a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. As always involved in her community, Lucy became a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after going through a rigorous training program. She loved taking her children and grandchildren on museum tours. While in Philadelphia, they together plotted ways to spend more time on the Vineyard. Sheldon and Lucy both became more involved with the Island community. Lucy served on the board of directors of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and was active with Camp Jabberwocky. When Sheldon finally retired in 2010, they moved to Martha’s Vineyard full-time.
An enduring theme of Lucy’s life was her love of Martha’s Vineyard. Given how much Sheldon’s career required them to move, the Vineyard was the one constant in her life — the place to which she always returned. Eventually all of her children came to live here. She loved that the Island embraced her daughter Virginia. Virginia was able to live independently in her own apartment, ride her bike, karaoke at Season’s, and eat almost daily at the Black Dog. When Virginia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Lucy moved to the Vineyard to help care for her. Sheldon also spent most of his time on the Vineyard during that period — sending out regular email updates on Virginia to her legion of admirers and friends. Virginia’s death in 2008 was extremely difficult for Lucy. She no longer had her muse, nor her regular routine of speaking with Virginia by phone every morning.
Lucy and Sheldon’s dreams of a long and active retirement on Martha’s Vineyard were dashed on a single day in 2011 when Sheldon was diagnosed with ALS and Lucy with Alzheimer’s. Sheldon died in 2013. Lucy grieved but continued to live her life to the fullest. Fiercely independent to the end, she vigorously refused her children’s constant efforts to get her help. As Lucy had always spoken of allowing Virginia the dignity of risk to live independently, so she required her children to allow her the same. The only “help” she would accept was her beloved and troublesome dog Gin Gin. Her family assures the residents around Owen Little Way that Gin Gin will be trained to behave from now on, so they can stroll unassaulted down the road.
Lucy was the rock of her immediate and extended family. She was vibrant and full of energy. She was unrelentingly optimistic. “There will be no woe is me!” was a favorite saying. She offered a smile and a greeting to all those she encountered. She was an amazing mother and grandmother. She could be counted on 100 percent by her family whenever she was needed. She would defend any family member, even when they were wrong. Unconditional love is hard to find — and she gave it to her family in full measure. She had many, many friends she kept in touch with her entire life — from Montgomery and her days in high school, from Princeton, Philadelphia, and particularly from Martha’s Vineyard. She will be deeply missed by her friends and family.
She was predeceased by her daughter, Virginia, and her husband, Sheldon. She is survived by her children, Fain Hackney and Elizabeth McBride, their spouses, Melissa Hackney and Brian McBride, her eight grandchildren, Samantha Hackney, Z Hackney, Declan McBride, Larkin McBride, Jackson McBride, Annabelle Hackney, Lucy Hackney, and Madison McBride, and her two great-grandchildren, Myuna and Enoah Hackney. She is also survived by her younger sister, Lulah Colan. Donations in her memory may be made in her name to Camp Jabberwocky, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, or Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.