Margaret M. Reuss; Political Activist, Professor

Margaret M. Reuss demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
Margaret M. Reuss demonstrated against the Vietnam War. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Margaret M. Reuss, 88, a political, social and environmental activist who was also chair of the economics department at the University of the District of Columbia, died Sept. 30 at her home in Chicago. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Reuss and her late husband, Wisconsin congressman Henry Reuss, were stalwarts of the Democratic Party's liberal wing from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. She demonstrated against the Vietnam War, volunteered on local issues involving the homeless and taught economics for 15 years at the old Federal City College, which became part of UDC.

A woman who loved the outdoors, she and her son Christopher Reuss bought Minnie's Island in the Potomac Gorge in 1980. The island -- between the American Legion Bridge and Glen Echo Park near Lock 8 on the Potomac River -- is home to many rare species of plants brought by frequent floods.

The island also was a temporary, if primitive, home for her son, who camped in a cabin there for two years, pumping water from a well, cooking on a kerosene burner and heating with a wood stove. He'd canoe or wade the 100 yards to shore during the week and drive to his law office in the District.

"You'd come out and there was nobody here," Dr. Reuss told a Washington Post reporter in 1994, when she donated the 8.5-acre island to the Potomac Conservancy. "It's the sense if you're out here of just having dropped into the land the way it used to be -- totally wild."

She was en route to the island in 1980 when the fast-flowing, rain-swollen Potomac River tipped her canoe over in a strong current. She hung on to branches that reached out 15 to 20 feet from the river bank until the Cabin John volunteer fire department retrieved her.

The island has since become a popular wildlife preserve and river education site.

Dr. Reuss, a resident of Southwest Washington, spoke out publicly in support of mixed-income housing when neighbors fought the construction of those projects near their more affluent homes.

"Racism has always been lurking beneath the surface, but no one says they are racist," she told a Post reporter shortly after a lawsuit to bar the development was filed in 1974. "They say they don't like children or large families or something else. So it's hard to put your finger on."

Margaret Magrath was born in Chicago, the daughter of an engineer who "thought that being an economist or a mathematician was what every human being wanted to do," she once said. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and worked at the Office of Price Administration in Washington in the early 1940s.

She and her new husband returned to his hometown of Milwaukee and she worked on her master's degree in economics at the University of Chicago. She received the degree in 1944, but she had trouble getting a professor to even read her thesis.

"I had to practically swear on a Bible that I would teach," she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He kept telling me I was wasting his time. . . . That's the way things were for women then."

When her husband was elected to Congress in 1954, they returned to Washington. She received a doctorate in economics from George Washington University in 1968 and began teaching at the old Federal City College in 1970. The school became part of the University of the District of Columbia in 1977. Dr. Reuss, who rose to economics department chair, retired in 1985.

She served on then-Mayor Marion Barry's transition team and he appointed her to several city policy committees in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A donor to Democratic candidates, Emily's List and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, Dr. Reuss also supported international environmental and cultural groups, as well as the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation, a Wisconsin scenic trail.

Dr. Reuss and her husband co-wrote "Unknown South of France: A History Buff's Guide" in 1991. She also co-wrote, with Jerome S. Paige, "Safe, Decent and Affordable: Citizen Struggles to Improve Housing in the District of Columbia, 1890-1982" (1983).

Her husband of 60 years died in 2002. Their son Christopher died in a 1986 kayaking accident on Virginia's North River.

Survivors include three children, Michael Royce and Anne Magrath, both of Portland, Ore., and Jacqueline Reuss of Paris; a sister; seven grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

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