A Champion Departs Gray Panthers Founder Maggie Kuhn Dies

Posted: April 24, 1995

Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, the woman who told the world that old age was the flowering of life and not an affliction, died Saturday at her home in Germantown. She was 89.

Kuhn had battled arthritis and osteoporosis for the past decade, which forced her to carry on the fight for social justice for the elderly and disadvantaged from a wheelchair.

Earlier this month, Kuhn demonstrated in solidarity with striking Transport Workers Union bus and trolley operators during their two-week walkout against SEPTA.

The internationally known Kuhn radically altered the American conception and stereotypes of the elderly.

She loathed the terms "senior citizens" and "the golden years," dismissing them as public relations buzz words. "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," said Kuhn in a 1989 interview.

"Well, it's not a disease. It's a triumph. Because you've survived. Failure, disappointment, sickness, loss - you're still here," added Kuhn.

The Rev. Richard Fernandez, director of the Northwest Interfaith Movement, had been a personal and professional friend of Kuhn's for the 30 years.

"In the field of aging, Maggie Kuhn changed forever the way people in this country view older Americans," said Fernandez.

"And she was a bridge in the intergenerational movement, bringing young and old people together in the workplace, in social contracts, and in housing arrangements," he continued.

"For Maggie, the Gray Panthers were more than a special-interest group for older people. It was a movement designed to benefit everybody."

Kuhn, who would have marked her 90th birthday in August, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the daughter of Minnie Louise and Frederick Samuel Kuhn.

Her family was from Memphis, but her mother traveled to New York because she did not want her daughter to be born in Tennessee, then part of "the segregated South."

During her early years, Maggie Kuhn lived in Buffalo, Memphis and Cleveland, where she majored in English and sociology at Case-Western Reserve University.

Her social conscience developed at an early age. After graduation from

college, Kuhn took a position at the YWCA office in Cleveland. Later she transferred to YWCA offices in New York City.

After World War II, Kuhn went to work for the National Alliance of Unitarian Women in Boston. She eventually was hired in her capacity as writer and editor by the United Presbyterian Office of Church and Society.

"She never swerved from her course. Her tenacity was unshakable," said Fernandez. And she never grew bitter, not even after muggers in 1987 broke her shoulder and arm while stealing her purse.

She held no grudge. "They're sick and troubled or they wouldn't turn to violence. The alienation between old and young is dreadful," she said.

When Fernandez went to visit her at Germantown Hospital after the incident, all she wanted to do was to discuss new ideas for the Gray Panthers to add to their agenda for social reform.

During its early years, the Gray Panthers not only worked to expand the role of the elderly in American life, but also opposed the war in Vietnam.

Later, its membership turned to other issues, among them sexism, racism and the right to free choice in abortion.

She said her involvement with the Gray Panthers began when at age 65 mandatory retirement forced her out of her job as writer and editor for the United Presbyterian Church magazine.

"Maggie Kuhn had an unwillingness to accept the present, because she knew the future could be much better," said Fernandez.

"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 are going to devote some time and energy and thought to. It is important that this objective be beyond ourselves," said Kuhn.

The Gray Panthers today are active in 32 state and six countries, with a membership of about 40,000 activists.

"I feel her message to continue her work and vision will go on," said Dixie Harding, Gray Panthers executive director, speaking from organizational headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Candid in both private and public matters, Kuhn, who never married, admitted she always enjoyed sex with men.

As for sensuality among elderly people, Kuhn claimed Americans were brainwashed into believing sex among older people was either dirty or abnormal.

Her gentle demeanor and soft-spoken ways hid as well a sharp wit, a facet of her personality that will make people snicker for generations to come.

In her memoirs, Kuhn requested her gravestone be inscribed with the following epitaph:

"Here lies Maggie Kuhn under the only stone she left unturned."

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church, 21st and Walnut streets. Burial will be private.

A contribution may be made to the Gray Panthers, 2025 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; or to the Northwest Interfaith Movement, 6757 Greene St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19119.

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