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Opinion: The life and legacy of Marie Greenwood, an extraordinary woman

Marie Greenwood, left, and Anna Alejo in Greenwood's home on Aug. 28, 2019. (Courtesy of Shepard Nevel)

Our dear friend Marie Greenwood passed away on Friday, just nine days from her 107th birthday. She left our community way too soon.  

To refer to Marie as “our” friend is akin to describing the Colorado River as “our water.” Marie’s remarkable legacy is a precious resource for all Coloradans.

Her story is inspiring and genuinely heroic. As a young African American girl in the 1920s, and a star student in East High, Marie was summoned to the Dean of Girls adviser’s office. 

Shepard Nevel

It was the dean’s practice to counsel all of the top-ranked students in anticipation of college. But when the dean realized that Marie was black, she offered very different advice.

“Well, there’s no point in wasting your father’s money,” Marie recalled her saying, “because all you can do is work in somebody’s kitchen or clean somebody’s house.”

Somewhere deep within herself, young Marie found the strength and courage to contradict the dean and declare that, yes, she is going to college. Marie stormed out of her office, rushed to the bathroom and began to sob. 

But those tears did not last long, as Marie transferred to another school with a more progressive and supportive Dean of Girls (whose last name, aptly, was Sweet), graduated third in a class of 357, earned a scholarship to college, and eight decades ago, became the first African American tenured teacher in Denver Public Schools. 

Marie also designed her own family home, which remains standing to this day, raised her children with her husband, and then broke another racial barrier by becoming the first African American teacher in DPS to teach at a predominantly white school.

The Marie L. Greenwood Academy in northeast Denver stands as a continuing tribute to Marie’s legacy and accomplishments.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

But this Marie, the one who has earned a prominent and celebrated place in Denver’s history, is not the person I wish to remember today. 

The Marie my wife and I had the privilege getting to know and love these past 25 years — in her 80s, 90s and 100s – had all those historic accomplishments behind her. 

But she retained the deep reservoirs of optimism, kindness, energy and creativity that propelled her throughout her life. Marie embraced all those in her presence with genuine interest, empathy and sparkling eyes. 

Think about that for a moment: a 105 year-old woman who always said she was “doing great” no matter what discomforts she was quietly enduring. And who by every indication was far more concerned about how you and your loved ones were doing than she was about herself.  

We have a beautiful daughter who is non-verbal and severely autistic. Marie, despite her age, was the picture of serenity amidst our daughter’s often tumultuous and disruptive behavior. 

Our daughter sensed that she was with a person of great compassion and would become unusually calm in Marie’s presence. It was this manner, combined with superb teaching skills that undoubtedly made Marie so effective with her students and why she was always highly-requested by parents.  

At the age of 94, after an uncommonly consequential life, Marie turned to yet another profession – writing. Her first book, “Every Child Can Learn,” tells about the students in her classroom who were considered “problem kids” by other educators. Students whose lives Marie transformed with her caring, effective and smarting teaching style.

At the age of 100, Marie authored her second book, her autobiography, “By the Grace of God.” It is a wonderful book of her exceptional journey that Marie wrote by hand. We would see the pages filled with her handwritten notes scattered on her table.     

Marie’s mental acuity, charm, curiosity and sense of humor never diminished, until the very end. It happened quickly, as is so often the case.

During one of our regular visits, Marie was alert and engaged, and upbeat. Typical Marie. Just a month later, she had slowed down, and for the very first time in the all the years we knew her, Marie gave something other than a positive response when we asked how she was doing.

Three weeks later, Deputy Mayor of Denver Happy Haynes and I were at a reception to welcome a marvelous new civic leader who had just relocated to Denver.

Our conversation turned to Marie, and we exchanged one story after another of her many qualities and accomplishments. Shortly after the party ended, Happy sent me a text: “Just found out that Marie Greenwood passed away earlier today. We were channeling her spirit this evening. What a life.”  

At that same party, the new-in-town civic leader was telling me that he is reading as much about Denver history as he can, to fully immerse himself in his new city. 

Here’s what I would tell him now: If you want to learn virtually everything that is good about Denver, its character, beauty, hopefulness, resilience, integrity, kindness and greatness, you could do no better than to read about the life of this extraordinary woman, diminutive in size and epic in impact.

Marie Greenwood is in God’s embrace now, and the heavens are as blessed by her presence as we were on Earth.   

 Shepard Nevel is senior policy adviser to former Gov. John Hickenlooper and CEO of a health technology company.  

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