Gray Panthers' Founder Dies At 89 Maggie Kuhn Was Told To Retire At 65. She Forged A Second Career As An Advocate For The Elderly.

Posted: April 23, 1995

Maggie Kuhn, 89, who as the leader of the Gray Panthers became one of the nation's most prominent and outspoken advocates for the elderly, died yesterday at her Germantown home.

She died at 8:30 a.m. in the arms of her longtime nurse, Bertha Monroe. Miss Kuhn had suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis for years.

"She had always said she wanted to die before she reached the age of 90, and she was going to turn 90 in August. She kind of died her way," said Laura Quinn, a Philadelphia Inquirer freelancer who was one of two co-authors who helped Miss Kuhn write her autobiography, No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn.

Despite increasing physical frailty that often required her to use a wheelchair, Quinn said, Miss Kuhn had remained active until the end.

"Two weeks ago, she was out demonstrating with the transport workers (on strike against SEPTA)," she said.

Sue Leary, Miss Kuhn's personal secretary, said that Miss Kuhn had just finished writing an article on the future of the Gray Panthers.

"She was looking ahead. She was always looking ahead," said Leary.

Miss Kuhn, who once told an audience that she had been "a rabble-rouser all my life," was active in her younger and middle years in the peace, civil rights and labor movements.

However, her rise to national prominence followed her forced retirement

from the United Presbyterian Office of Church and Society at age 65. Her second career exemplified her contention that old age is "the flowering of life, a triumph, not a disease."

"The first myth is that old age is a disease, a terrible disease that you never admit you've got, so you lie about your age," she said in an 1989 interview. "Well, it's not a disease - it's a triumph. Because you've survived. Failure, disappointment, sickness, loss - you're still here."

She described herself as a "mad old woman" - mad because she said society discards the elderly (she considered such terms as "Golden Agers" or ''senior citizens" demeaning) the way drivers retire old cars.

Miss Kuhn attracted national attention soon after she and five retirement- age friends founded the Gray Panthers in the spring of 1970. She started the group, she once explained, "to answer the question: 'What do you do with the rest of your life?' "

"It seems to me that all of us at any time in life, but certainly in late life, can only survive and thrive when we have a goal, a passionate purpose that we're going to devote some time and energy and thought to," Miss Kuhn said. "It is important that this objective be beyond ourselves."

Her candor and her brand of confrontational activism, adopted from the civil rights and antiwar movements, alienated some elderly people.

On Feb. 14, 1989, she sent a raspberry in the form of a Valentine's Day gift to then-President Bush. The gift package included an empty plate for the hungry, a coat hanger for do-it-yourself abortions, and a large, sturdy cardboard box that could be reconfigured as a homeless shelter.

Miss Kuhn was undisturbed by criticism of her tactics, which won her a large following. The Gray Panthers lost some members in the 1980s, but when the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month, it had 40,000 members spread across 32 states and six countries. Only one of the founders, Polly Cuthbertson, is alive, in a Philadelphia retirement home.

Miss Kuhn was honored at the celebration on April 1. Several days earlier she had been named ABC News' "Person of the Week."

Miss Kuhn frequently criticized the media and entertainment industries for their portrayals of the elderly.

Christina Long, a co-author of Miss Kuhn's autobiography, said that Miss Kuhn had been a leader not just in elderly affairs, but in health-care reform, aiding the homeless, and other social causes. Long said that Miss Kuhn saw the Gray Panthers as an intergenerational organization to help all kinds of people, rather than as a special-interest group for old people.

"I really think the important thing about Maggie that sometimes just doesn't get across is how many paths she blazed," said Long.

In 1982, Miss Kuhn started the national Shared Housing Program, which allows unrelated families to split chores and expenses in a household. Since the 1960s she had rented rooms to women ages 25 to 50, charging minimal rent in exchange for help with the chores and companionship.

In 1989, she helped organize the first Panthers' chapter in a prison, at Graterford.

"I feel her message to continue her work and vision will go on," said Dixie Horning, executive director for the Gray Panthers in Washington.

Margaret E. "Maggie" Kuhn was born Aug. 3, 1905, the daughter of Minnie Louise and Samuel Frederick Kuhn. She was born in Buffalo, N.Y.; her mother traveled there from Memphis because she did not want her child born in the segregated South.

Miss Kuhn credited her authoritarian father, a credit manager for the

financial reporting firm of Dun & Bradstreet, for developing her rebellious streak early.

She believed activism was in her blood: Her aunt was a suffragette, and one of her grandparents helped smuggle fugitive slaves to Canada on one of the last Underground Railroads in western New York.

Miss Kuhn lived for a time in Buffalo, Memphis and Cleveland, where she graduated from high school and studied English and sociology at the Flora Mather College of Case-Western Reserve University.

After her graduation from Flora Mather in 1926, Miss Kuhn took a job as an organizer for the YWCA, working in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Later, she became publications editor on the agency's national staff in New York.

After leaving the YWCA, she began a nearly 25-year career with the social agencies of the United Presbyterian Church, where her duties included writing and editing the church magazine.

She was critical of what she called the church's sexism, complaining that it underpaid women and did not have enough women ministers. She also criticized the church's mandatory-retirement rules, which forced her to leave her job at age 65.

One of the Panthers' first targets was SEPTA. Seeking lower fares for the elderly, Miss Kuhn suggested that she and her followers might block the system's trolley cars with wheelchairs and canes. SEPTA agreed to the lower fares.

The group fought against rising utility rates, crusaded for nursing-home reform, and demonstrated on behalf of a national health-care system at American Medical Association meetings.

Miss Kuhn's candor shocked some elderly people. She acknowledged that she occasionally smoked marijuana and that - although she never married - she had enjoyed sexual relationships with men.

She insisted that Americans were brainwashed into believing sex among older people was dirty or abnormal.

"It's assumed that sex is a no-no - that sexual competence, interest, and the ability to attract members of the opposite sex are lost when one gets old," she said. "Such mythology must be eliminated from the thinking of people and from the practice of society."

In 1975, she ran unsuccessfully for City Council, receiving 6,400 votes on the Consumer Party ticket. Earlier that year, she had rejected an offer to run for vice president on the People's Party slate (no time, she said).

A memorial service for Miss Kuhn will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia , 21st and Walnut Streets. Burial will be private.

Miss Kuhn had written that she would like her gravestone inscribed: "Here lies Maggie Kuhn under the only stone she left unturned."

Contributions in her name may be made to the Gray Panthers, 2025 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, or the Northwest Interfaith Movement, 6757 Greene St., Philadelphia 19119.

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