Friday, November 18, 2005
In Memorium: Mary Ann Melchert
Mary Ann Melchert, my mother and the wife of my dad, Bay Area artist James “Jim” Melchert, passed away November 13 after a long illness. Her life is distinguished by extensive travels and her energetic commitment to a loving and secure domestic life for her husband and children.
She was born May 10, 1927, in Pontiac, Illinois, to Reverend S. Jay Hostetler and Ida Miller.
At an early age, Mary Ann moved with her family to Madhya Pradesh, India. Her parents served as Mennonite missionaries in a large network which included schools and a leper hospital. Living in the rural mission station during the winter, Mary Ann and her brother and sister boarded at the Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling. She visited the U.S. for one year, at age nine, and returned to India, her parents then starting a mission near Bihar. She graduated from school in 1944, with Mount Hermon’s top academic award for girl students. Her parents’ work interrupted by the war, the family sailed from Bombay aboard a troop transport ship, zigzagging to avoid being torpedoed, down to Melbourne, across to the Panama Canal, and landing in Boston.
Enthusiastically delving into German, Greek, and Theology at Goshen College in Indiana, Mary Ann received a BA in Sociology in 1948. I know she did some post grad work at Eastern Mennonite College, probably in Theology, but she did not get another degree. Three years later, after teaching first grade in Gary, Indiana, she went to Japan to do mission work, starting with language school. In the summer of 1953 she met Jim, who shared her love of singing. Their first date was an ill-prepared climb up Mt. Fuji, in which they had to spend a cold, foggy night before summiting. They were married in 1954 in Tokyo and had their first two children (Christoph 1955 and Davy 1956) while Jim was teaching at the Tohoku Gakuin Schools in Sendai. They returned by ship to the U.S. in 1956, where Jim worked to receive his Master of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Chicago.
Shortly after I was born, Mary Ann and Jim moved to the Bay Area in 1959, following Peter Voulkos, who was shaping a revolution in ceramic sculpture. Jim continued graduate work at UC Berkeley and eventually made his mark there as a popular professor of Art. Life at the Melchert home in Oakland was lively, regularly enhanced by visits from artists and students, with Mary Ann as their energetic and caring hostess. At Berkeley, she studied French and Japanese and received a California Teaching Certificate. She taught remedial reading at Roosevelt Junior High in Oakland in 1972 through 1973. She had a passion for quilting, sewing, and collage, and many of the latter were shown at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1981. She trained in the IRS to become a taxpayer service representative, answering taxpayer's questions phoned in to an 800 number. She stayed in that job for only a few years due to my dad's next move.
Jim’s postings as Visual Arts Director at the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, D.C. (1976-1980) and Director of the American Academy in Rome (1982-1986) increased Mary Ann’s role as an official hostess. While learning Italian and exploring the region, she also organized the frequent dinners and public events at the Academy’s Villa Aurelia, for a time employing San Francisco chef Deborah Madison. She began keeping travel diaries of trips to other Italian cities, to Tunis, to France, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. This practice would influence me when I went with her to India in about 1992 and I started my own collaged travel diaries.
Amidst her love of literature and biographies, Mary Ann regularly read several newspapers, and, a resolute pacifist, was outraged by injustices of all kinds. She touched the lives of many: not the least amongst them Jim’s students and colleagues, political leaders and activists, visiting luminaries, and her large extended family. She was capable of great kindnesses, sometimes caring for abandoned animals and injured birds. She is survived by her husband Jim, her brother John Jay Hostetler of Green Valley, Arizona, her sister Lois Young-Bjerkestrand of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, children Christoph Melchert of Oxford, England, David Seth Melchert of Oakland, and Renée Melchert Thorpe of Bali, Indonesia, and five grandchildren.