1941 – October 25, 2011
DEER ISLE – Lael Swinney Stegall died peacefully Oct. 25, 2011, surrounded by loved ones at home, one year after her first symptoms of pancreatic cancer. During that year, as in the 70 preceding it, Lael led the charge, delivered life lessons, gained admiration and devotion, and called the shots through treatment options and clinical trials. To complete her journey, she chose hospice care with family and friends in Sunshine, Deer Isle.
Lael was a mother, wife, political activist, campaigner for human rights, strategist and organizer for the empowerment of women, and mentor to all who encountered her in Europe – East and West – Asia, Africa, North America and the Middle East.
In recent years she used her own consulting practice, Social Change International, to help environmental and women’s advocacy groups in Maine, and UNIFEM – the United Nations organization – in its global outreach.
Among the greatest pleasures of these Maine years were being the sternman on Joanne Heanssler’s lobster boat, gardening with help from the master gardner programs and serving Opera House Arts, Stonington, as board chair and in other roles. She has received countless honors, citations and recognitions during her massively productive lifetime, but none more fun than being Ms. December in the Lobster Women’s Calendar of Maine in 2004. A close second, however, was introducing candidate Barak Obama to the largest political rally in Maine history at the Bangor Auditorium in 2008.
Tireless social service was learned by Lael and her brother, Dan Swinney of Chicago, from their parents, Olive and Daniel Dean Swinney Jr. Her parents came to Washington from the School of Social Work at the University of Chicago, and served in Roosevelt’s new Employment Administration before entering the international public health and social housing professions as dedicated civil servants. Their son, Dan, became a nationally known community organizer and educational reformer in the midwest.
Lael also earned her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Chicago and helped found the first school of social work in Turkey as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-1960s. As a student at Maine’s Colby College, she had attended a midnight airport rally to hear candidate John Kennedy discuss his plans for starting the Peace Corps, and committed herself on the spot. It was in Turkey that she met her husband, Ron Stegall, who worked there for CARE, Inc. They became engaged a week later.
Lael helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1973 and served as its development director until 1979. She is rumored to be the model for “Joanie Caucus,” of the Gary Treudeax comic strip.
In 1980 Lael helped Ellen Malcolm form the Windom Fund and served eight years as its executive director, supporting voting rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. Those efforts gave rise to Emily’s List, a singularly effective fundraising machine for progressive women candidates for political office. In the Carter Administration, Lael served as Advisor on Women in Development to Peace Corps director Richard Celeste, where she created the first Women in Development program aiding volunteer activities around the world.
She worked on U.S. Agency for International Development programs to assist women in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. The Clinton Administration Transition Team asked her to help find outstanding women for political appointments. In 1988 Lael was a co-founder of Communications Consortium Media Center, a pioneering nonprofit strategic communications firm devoted to gaining media attention for important social issues. She spearheaded organizing and media work for several women’s rights efforts at international conferences, including the successful drive to get women’s rights declared human rights at the 1993 United Nations Human Rights Conference in Vienna.
With co-director, Jill Benderly, she founded the Strategy, Training, Advocacy and Resources Network in 1993 during the Balkan Wars. STAR flourished for more than a decade, assisting thousands of women in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo. It garnered millions of U.S. government and private dollars to establish micro-credit programs and opportunities for women to reach across ethnic and religious barriers to advance peace, economic development and political access.
The Stegall family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from around the world during this difficult year. Churches across Deer Isle and across the country have joined synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, Roman Catholic monasteries, Russian and Serbian Orthodox congregations and countless individuals at various places, on and off their spiritual journeys, to focus on Lael’s challenges. It reflects her inclusive spirit and dedication to others … “the way life should be!”
Their two children also chose service careers: Shana Cousins is a veterinary technician and lives in Sedgwick with her husband, John Cousins Jr., a Maine forest ranger. Skyler Stegall is a federal law enforcement officer headquartered in Washington. Other surviving family including Dan’s wife, Pam, daughter, Erica and son, Brett; cousins, stepgrandchildren, “chosen relatives” and international students, who have become family, gather regularly in Deer Isle.
A memorial service will be held 2 p.m. Nov. 19, 2011 at St. Brendon the Navigator Episcopal Church, Deer Isle, and Feb. 11, 2012, at St. Marks Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
— Published in Bangor Daily News on October 29, 2011