Mary Lou Sunderwirth-Conner
The Sunderwirth and Conner families announce with immense sadness the death of Mary Lou Sunderwirth-Conner of a stroke at the age of 92, on April 19, 2019, at Stamford Hospital, CT. Mary Lou resided with her husband, James M. Conner, at Edgehill Retirement Community in Stamford.
On December 5, 1926, in the lively small town of Lenox, Iowa, a daughter was born to Hugh Roy and Lela Long. They named her Mary Lucille and called her Mary Lou. Growing up in Lenox, Mary Lou participated in many activities, including playing on the high school basketball team, playing flute and twirling a baton as a majorette in the school marching band, and singing in church. Mary Lou’s mother, who taught piano and voice to the children in Lenox, soon realized that her daughter had a beautiful soprano voice with great range. She encouraged her to sing opera, and opera became Mary Lou’s career direction when she graduated from Lenox High School.
After high school, she entered Tarkio College in Missouri, where she met her first husband, Alfred Sunderwirth. After her freshman year, Mary Lou transferred to Cornell College in Iowa to pursue her singing career. She graduated with a degree in music, and although she had a beautiful voice, she did not pursue a singing career.
The couple moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Alfred attended Divinity School. Mary Lou taught kindergarten and first grade in Ne
Mary Lou Sunderwirth-Conner New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Their first church was in Casper, Wyoming. Working side by side, they built a church and a congregation, and started a family. Mary Lou gave birth to Stephen in 1952 and Ramona Suzanne in 1954. She set up Sunday schools for children and bible schools for adults in the community. She became a “minister of music” at the church.
Mary Lou and Alfred returned to Princeton, NJ, where they took a missionary training course and had a third child, David. When he family moved to Brazil as missionaries with the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations (COEMAR), they initially received language and cultural training in Campinas, Sao Paulo. Their first mission in Brazil was in Formosa, Goias, a satellite town near the new capital, Brasilia, then under construction. For 12 years they served Presbyterian churches in various locations in Brazil: Sobradinho, Planaltina, Formosa (Goias), and Vitoria (Espirito Santo).
Mary Lou’s boundless energy, optimism, beautiful smile, infectious laughter, and utter joy in life and people turned around many challenging situations during those years in Brazil. She was indispensable in successfully developing local churches, their congregations, choirs and mission schools. She even drove the mission bus.
Mary Lou never stopped directing choirs, heading Sunday schools and running the home. Alfred was often gone for weeks at a time. She home schooled her children and still found time to teach English and American Literature at the University of Vitoria, their last posting in Brazil. After their years of service as a missionary team, and before returning to the USA, their fourth child Robert Mark was born.
Upon returning to the USA in 1968, the family lived briefly in Harlem, where Alfred pursued a PhD in Theology at Columbia University. Eventually the family moved to Rye, NY, where Mary Lou gave private singing lessons and taught at Rye Country Day School. After a few years she became the Head of Lower School.
Though the years lived in Rye were positive for the children’s education, Mary Lou and Alfred’s marriage ended. The couple no longer had a mutual mission to hold them together and their interests diverged.
After the divorce, Mary Lou, still with Mark at home, went on to obtain multiple master’s degrees: in the Art of Teaching at Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY, in Administration and in Special Education at Bank Street College of Education, New York, NY.
She became the Principal of Archway School for Emotionally Disabled Children in New York City and worked there until the school closed.
In 1982 Mary Lou became the Head of the Lower School at Friends Seminary and moved to New York City. She applied all her teaching and life experiences, devised a new curriculum with the latest teaching concepts consistent with the Quaker philosophy, and hired gifted teachers. Under her leadership, the Lower School at Friends Seminary became one of the most respected in New York City.
When she retired in 1999, she was honored for: “her tireless, irreverent leadership, indomitable initiative, and absorbing interest in the good of the student have been a gift of incalculable value.” Also noted at her retirement was that one of her most appreciated traits was her overwhelming, contagious energy. She “never walked down the halls of Friends . . . she bounced, she hummed, she laughed, and when she laughed, if you were within earshot, you laughed too”.
“Mary Lou’s infectious spark of good cheer transferred to those she worked alongside. She was an incredible team leader. Her bright energy made tough situations tolerable. With a confident smile, she would convince her faculty that problems would find solutions. Her joyful demeanor uplifted the spirits and expectations of those around her.” The years she spent at Friends Seminary were among the most productive and happy of her teaching career and life.
After a blind date, arranged by mutual friends, Mary Lou and James (Jim) Conner became a couple, and later married. Mary Lou’s generosity, love of children and family, glued together a new family – her children, James’ children, grandchildren, ex husband Alfred’s new wife Carol and her children. They went on to enjoy holidays and vacations together.
When Mary Lou and Jim retired to Old Greenwich, their lives revolved around children, grandchildren, friends, dinners, travel, opera, and church events. With a son and grandchildren living in France, they spent many holidays there. They became members of the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich, where Mary Lou served as a Stephen’s Minister and sang in the church choir. Mary Lou also volunteered at Neighbor to Neighbor in Greenwich, and generously contributed to many humanitarian, educational, and health-promoting organizations.
As more grandchildren arrived, Mary Lou and Jim became more indispensable, caring for them as their parents worked and traveled, becoming trusted confidants as they grew into teenagers and young adults. Family gatherings for most of the holidays took place at Mary Lou and James’ home – a home filled with everyone’s laughter, discussions, music, and food. These gatherings continued at Edgehill, Stamford, CT where the couple moved to in 2016.
Mary Lou’s joy and love of life; her sparkling smile and contagious laughter; her energy, generosity, inclusiveness and optimism; her immense ability to bring family and friends together – all these we will remember and cherish.
Mary Lou Sunderwirth-Conner is survived by her husband, James Conner, her biological children: Stephen Sunderwirth and his wife, Evelyn; Ramona Sunderwirth and her husband, Carmine Calzonetti; David Sunderwirth and his wife, Laura; Mark Sunderwirth and his wife, Stacie Deiner; stepsons Jeff Conner and his wife, Melanie, and Tim Conner; eight grandchildren: Nestor Bailly, Vanessa Postel, Pauline Sunderwirth-Hennequin, Manon Bailly, Samantha Sunderwirth, Quinn Sunderwirth, Desmond Conner, Billy Miles Sunderwirth; and one great-grandson, Gabin Lhuillier. She also leaves her sister-in-law, Barbara Long and her children John and Andrea, and their children (Amanda, John, Jason, Jacqueline, Jessica).
Celebration of Mary Lou Sunderwirth-Conner’s life was held at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich, on Saturday June 29, 2019, at 10 am, in the Sanctuary, with a reception to follow in the Fellowship Hall One West Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830. Phone (203) 869-8686 www.fpcg.org
Friends Without a Border, 1123 Broadway, Suite 1210, New York, NY 10010 https://fwab.org/donate/tributegift/ Phone (212) 691 0909 Please earmark donations: In memory of Mary Lou Sunderwirth Conner.
James Conner (203) 637-8772, email@example.com; Ramona Sunderwirth (646) 322-2564, firstname.lastname@example.org