Born: Oct. 21, 1940. Resident of Fairfax City. Died: May 28, 1999.
Family meant everything to Marta Villalpando Wyatt. The daughter of a Mexican doctor and his homemaker wife, she grew up with her two brothers outside Mexico City, surrounded by a large extended family. And when she married American journalist Paul Wyatt in 1964, she devoted herself to him and their three children.
Years later, with her family grown or nearly so, Wyatt's embrace widened, eventually enveloping the entire Washington area Hispanic community. When she died in May at age 59 after a 10-year battle with hepatitis C and a failed liver transplant, the hundreds whose lives she touched joined her family in mourning.
"She was the strongest advocate I have ever met for Hispanics," said Elita Christiansen, director of Women and Children Ambulatory Services at Inova Fairfax Hospital. "But she didn't shove it down people's throats. . . . It was through her gentleness and using herself as an example that she taught us."
Marta Villalpando's journey to Fairfax County began in 1963 when she met Paul Wyatt, an American student attending college in Mexico City for the summer. "We just fell head over heels, I guess is the only way you can put it," recalled Wyatt, now a senior editor at the Census Bureau, of the dark-haired, vivacious woman he married one year later.
While moving around the world because of Paul's job, including a stint in Washington in the 1960s, Marta focused on their three children, who were born within five years of one another. Arthur, the oldest, is now a D.C. prosecutor, while Theresa is an architect in the city and Martita teaches high school in Reston.
In addition to participating in Girl Scouts and other youth activities, Marta tutored American business executives in Spanish and was active in women's organizations.
When the family moved back to this area in 1987, she was looking for a new challenge and found it with Catholic Charities in Arlington, which hired her to direct its emergency assistance program for Hispanics. "With her warmth and the way she connected with people, we thought she was going to be very good" at the job, recalled Eliana Turina. "And she was."
The severity of the poverty Wyatt witnessed was eye-opening, family and friends agreed, and she rose to the occasion. She was passionate about her work, they said, and attracted an equally committed cadre of volunteers.
In 1989, she became director of the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, a nonprofit organization that assists Hispanics with immigration problems, emergency aid, work and housing needs.
Wyatt built the committee into a powerful voice for Hispanics, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of 21.
In the last decade of her life, the former at-home mother "blossomed as a leader," often spearheading special causes, her husband recalled. A few years ago, for example, she led the effort to raise $60,000 for a bone marrow transplant for the baby of a local Salvadoran couple. She even accompanied the family to Duke University Medical Center for the procedure.
She also fought for her organization with the firm but nonconfrontational style that became her trademark. When Fairfax moved to cut its $554,000 grant to the Hispanic Committee in 1996, Wyatt argued that her group was more efficient, noting, for example, that the county paid its social workers more than her organization did. Fairfax restored full funding.
As a working mother, Wyatt successfully walked the tricky line of simultaneously devoting herself to her work and her family. Her children knew they came first: She had instructed her secretary to put their calls through, no matter what she was doing at the time.
Growing health problems cut short Wyatt's twin dreams of further developing the Hispanic Committee and enjoying grandchildren. Afflicted with hepatitis C for years, she underwent a liver transplant in early 1998. Within the year, the virus was attacking her new liver.
She entered Georgetown University Hospital in May, clinging to life in hopes of seeing her daughter Martita married in June. Determined though she was, she couldn't wring more time out of her failing body. She died May 28.
With short notice on a holiday weekend, 500 mourners turned out forher funeral at St. Mary's of Sorrows Catholic Church in Burke. The opening hymn, sung in Spanish, included this verse:
In this world, we will always find
Those who are weeping, sick in heart and mind.
They need our help, they need our care.