Mary Johnson Volpe lived all her life and raised her children in the same house on Kamerling Avenue in Austin. She was a proud and outspoken advocate for Chicago’s far West Side and she worked tirelessly to ensure that its residents received the respect and the quality of services they deserved. This was especially true as the racial composition of her community changed and city services deteriorated.
Mary Volpe died October 5 of a heart attack in her Austin home. She was 78 years old.
Volpe was a community activist with absolutely no patience for injustice, government corruption, ineffectual politicians, or dirty cops. Trained by Sol Aulinsky, she proudly wore the title “organizer.” She was an active member of Organization for a Better Austin and went on to lead Northeast Austin Organization from 1972 until 2001 from her office in the rectory of St. Peter Canisius Catholic Church on North Avenue. She was on the front lines of the legislative battles against block busting, real estate and insurance redlining, and was prominent in the effort creating the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act requiring banks to write mortgages and make loans in the communities they serve.
Volpe trained residents to create block clubs, fought prostitution, street gangs, and drug dealing. She worked to carve out the 25th police district and served on its Steering Committee for a quarter century. She fought to keep St. Anne’s Hospital open and North Avenue strip joints and liquor stores closed.
She helped launch the city’s Beat Rep and CAPS programs, served for years on the city’s Community Development Block Grant board and as an active member of IVI-IPO. Volpe worked to improve Austin’s schools, fought the proliferation of pay telephones used by drug dealers, and established programs to help ex-offenders obtain education and jobs. Every politician knew her and many feared her when she showed up at their doors with her jaw set for confrontation.
Mary Volpe helped launch CEDA and LI-HEAP. She worked for expanded library services, fought police corruption in the 15th and 25th districts, while demanding adequate police patrols in neighborhoods of Northeast Austin. She is responsible for many community improvements credited to others who did far less.
Through it all, Mary Volpe was a historian of West Side life and ultimately became an important part of West Side history.
“Mary Volpe was a giant,” declares Brad Cummings, Associate Editor of THE VOICE Newspapers. “She was a strong and loyal friend personally and to her community. She helped found THE AUSTIN VOICE Newspaper and actively crusaded for everything that was good for Austin. There are far too few people like her and she will be greatly missed.”
Volpe has three children: Reverend Gina Volpe, an Episcopal priest; a son Peter; and daughter Michelle Bardachowski.