MARY AMANDA SPONSELLER LAWRENCE
September 15, 1921 to August 18, 2014
Adored Wife, Mother and Teacher
Mary Amanda Sponseller Lawrence, whose ancestral roots extend back to the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, died peacefully at home in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Monday, August 18, 2014. She was 92.
Striking and willowy with dark blonde hair, Mary Lawrence used her height (she was six-feet tall) to advantage in ways that always spelled out gratitude and love. She had a habit, in fact, of pointing accusingly at someone, looking them in the eye, and then saying emphatically, “I love you!” (Mary is shown above and at left as a Temple University student, a picture used on an invitation to her 90th birthday party in 2012.)
No one was more moved by Mary’s passing than her 18-year-old grandson, Thomas Lawrence. Unable to be at her side as she lay dying, Thomas wrote what he described as “the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write.
You taught me not to judge
“I am so proud to be your grandson,” Thomas wrote. “You taught me not to judge others and to keep an open mind while still maintaining a vivid sense of character. You taught me to always speak with kindness and never exclude anyone. … If I ever felt like all odds were stacked against me, I always knew you would believe in me.”
Mary held the letter close at the end and was later cremated with it.
Born September 15, 1921 in Frederick, MD, Mary Amanda Sponseller was the youngest of three children of Harling E. Sponseller, President of Shippensburg State College (now Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania), and The Reverend Grace Sponseller, the first woman ordained in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, now part of the United Methodist Church.
Mary’s father Harling was a descendant of French Huguenots who came from the Alsace-Lorraine section of France and landed in Philadelphia in 1720. A member of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI, Harling fought in battles ranging from Belleau Woods to Verdun. Returning from the war, he relinquished farming to become a teacher, obtaining his B.S. degree in 1928 from Shippensburg State Teachers College (which he would go on to head), and his M.A. from Columbia University, NY in 1932.
Grace (Hummelbaugh) Sponseller, Mary’s mother, graduated from Hood College in Speech and Dramatics in 1916. She was President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the first woman elected to public office in Cumberland County, PA, serving as Director of the Poor. Grace served on numerous boards, including the P.T.A. and American Legion Auxiliary, as well as serving as Secretary-Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of Shippensburg State Teachers College.
Figuring prominently in Mary Lawrence’s maternal genealogy is Hummelbaugh farm in Gettysburg, the scene of fierce fighting between Union and Confederate forces during the Battle of Gettysburg, one that involved the largest number of casualties in the entire Civil War. “Hummelbaugh House,” (shown at right) now an historic landmark owned by the National Park Service, is located near the State of Pennsylvania Monument, the largest monument dedicated to the battle that history says changed the course of the war in favor of the North.
Deeply aware of the significance of education within the family, Mary graduated with a B.A. degree and a M.A. in Home Economics from Temple University, where she met the love of her life, Gayle Kingsley Lawrence. While Mary went on to teach, Gayle, after earning his B.A. at Temple in 1941, merited an M.B.A. from the Wharton School in 1943, and a PhD in Political Science in 1951, both from the University of Pennsylvania.
Serving as Professor of Political Science at Temple for over two decades, Gayle became President of Girard College, a private boarding school for academically capable students of limited financial resources in Philadelphia. He also oversaw the controversial and contentious integration of African American students into the student body.
Taffy and Daffy
Married in Shippensburg, PA on June 24, 1944, the two were utterly compatible, an absolute delight to be around. Gayle called Mary “Taffy” (due to her caramel-colored blonde hair) and she called him “Daffy” because it rhymed. Both were long-standing members of the Lansdowne United Methodist Church where Gayle served as President of the Sunday School Association for years.
Smart as a whip, spirited, with a lively sense of humor, Mary taught Home Economics up until 1952, when the Lawrence’s first and only child, James Arthur, was born. After six years at home in Lansdowne, PA, Mary was eager to return to work and resumed teaching at Darby Colwyn High School. She retired in 1986 as Chairman of the Home Economics Department of Penn Wood High School, a merger of three suburban high schools.
Family legend has it she disliked Home Economics and preferred dining out to cooking any day of the week. Mary, who always expected everyone to do their best, also smoked for many years—up until her son Jim began. From then on, smoking was verboten.
In 1999, the couple relocated to Edina, Minnesota to be closer to family, and in 2005 the Lawrences moved in with their son, Jim, and his wife, Mary, in Minneapolis. Mary made her imprint on her grandsons right away, her daughter-in-law Mary said, impressing them with her repartee and wit.
Entwined in all the boys lives
Upon Gayle Lawrence’s passing in 2007, Mary continued to live with her son and daughter-in-law, even when the two were living and working in London, New York and Washington, D.C. Always thrilled to help with the care of her grandsons, Mary took charge of Christian, with the assistance of his maternal grandfather, while Christian’s parents were away during his 2011-2012 senior year.
She became so entwined in the all the boys’ lives that—as Thomas recalled in his letter—“you earned the title of ‘Grandma’ from nearly all of our friends.”
Thomas goes on to say how “proud” he is to be Mary’s grandson. “No one I have ever known has been more capable than you at spreading joy and love.” After apologizing for perhaps not “trying” his best in the past, he vows to work on himself in the future to live up to Mary and Gayle’s name. “I love you more than anything,” he writes.
A treasured companion for Mary, especially after her husband died, was the family Labradoodle, Katty, named after Mary’s mother’s sister, Aunt Katty. The dog became Mary’s constant companion and protector.
Despite progressive Alzheimer’s disease in her later years, Mary remained physically strong and disciplined. Up until the last few weeks of her life, she worked out twice a week at Lifetime Fitness. She also loved Minnesota because, ironically, she met other women of similar height.
Mary died four weeks prior to her 93rd birthday and will be greatly missed by many, especially her caregivers and house staff who loved her like their own family. Like her adored grandsons, they also called her Grandma.
Mary Lawrence is survived by her son, James A. Lawrence; daughter-in-law, Dr. Mary Gilbert Lawrence, and three grandsons, twins, Christian John and James Samuel, both 21, and Thomas Kingsley, 18. Mary’s two older brothers, Edward and Jay Sponseller, preceded her in death.
Memorial services are pending at Lansdowne United Methodist Church, Lansdowne, PA.