Mary Frey Eaton, a former East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council member and mayor pro tem, philanthropist and force in the civic life of Baton Rouge, died at home Tuesday evening. She was 91.
Described by one colleague as the “grande dame of Baton Rouge,” she could roll with the political punches while working to improve the city.
Daughter Barbara Anne Eaton says her mother died peacefully at home about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“She was a remarkable woman, there was no question about it,” Barbara Anne Eaton said.
“She gave to the community with no thought to herself. When she ran for office at 60 years old, she saw there was a void and no one to fill it. I think that was what made her so special.
“To the bitter end, she had a grand sense of humor.”
Mary Frey Eaton served on the Metro Council, representing District 11, which included her home in Bocage, from 1988 to 2000. She was elected mayor pro-tem in 1996.
“She was a magnificent lady,” former Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh said Tuesday night. “If I talked to you all night long, I couldn’t think of anything bad to say about her. She was an extremely effective person in terms of convincing people.”
“Whatever good has happened in Baton Rouge over my lifetime, Mary Frey Eaton had a hand in it,” said Jay Dardenne, Louisiana commissioner of administration who served on the Metro Council with Mary Frey Eaton.
Even before entering politics late in life, Mary Frey Eaton left a deep imprint on Baton Rouge through leadership in a long list of civic and charitable groups. The arts and children’s charities were a particular passion, her daughter said.
“I think she was president of just about everything,” Barbara Anne Eaton said.
Mary Frey Eaton’s husband, former state Sen. Lewis W. “Puma” Eaton Jr., died in 1977 at the age of 55. Mary Frey Eaton, left a widow at 52, went on to launch what her daughter described as a second life in public service, including her tenure on the Metro Council.
Don Nijoka worked with Mary Frey Eaton when he served as council administrator/treasurer.
“She would come to the office and talk to me forever about every kind of issue there was,” said Nijoka, who retired in 1998. Nijoka said Mary Frey Eaton was like a mother to the entire council and earned a reputation as a public official who put the interests of the entire parish first.
She could be incredibly persuasive without ever being confrontational, Nijoka said, describing her as the “peacemaker” on the council.
“I loved her just like she was my own mother,” he said.
An Advocate editorial published when she stepped down from office noted: “She was a Mother Superior at City Hall, calling down the intemperate and rude with firmness wrapped in a Hollywood-perfect Southern accent. … The three-term member of the Metro Council became mayor pro-tempore, or presiding officer of the council, after a nasty racial squabble over the election of a new council head in 1997. She had the stature to overcome divisions sparked by the pro-tem dispute. Her contributions in both political and private life made her not just a healing force, but an active leader in major policies.”
“Mary Frey was a very special person. She was very much a friend of the arts and very much a friend of Baton Rouge’s. She will be greatly missed by anyone who ever knew her,” former Advocate publisher David Manship said Tuesday night.
His brother, former Advocate publisher Doug Manship Jr., noted that Mary Frey Eaton and his father, the late Doug Manship Sr., were close. “Their interest in the arts is what they really had in common the most. Baton Rouge has lost a great booster. The town is a little less without her.”
Dardenne said Mary Frey Eaton “was the grand dame of Baton Rouge. … She got into the world of politics late in life and that was just the cherry on top of the sundae for her.”
Mary Frey Eaton, who helped found the Community Fund for the Arts and Keep Baton Rouge Beautiful Inc., served on the board of directors of a number of organizations, including the Louisiana Preservation Alliance, the Baton Rouge Opera Association, the Louisiana Art and Science Center, the YMCA and the Baton Rouge Symphony Auxiliary.
She was also involved with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, the LSU Museum of Art advisory board, the Baton Rouge AIDS Task Force Advisory Committee, the Development Council for the Woman’s Hospital Foundation and the Frank Hayden Memorial Committee.
In an interview, Mary Frey Eaton had said, “If everybody would take politics as a community responsibility it would be so much more wholesome. … Running for office is just as much a civic responsibility as serving on the church board, working for the Boy Scouts or whatever. It is the loneliest, most exhausting thing in the world.”
In 1984, Mary Frey Eaton received the Golden Deeds Award. She was recognized in 1989 with the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s Sustainer of the Year Award, was inducted into the LSU Hall of Distinction in 1991, and she was one of six women of achievement honored by the YWCA in 1994.
She served on the Louisiana Educational Television Authority, was chairman of Keep America Beautiful in Baton Rouge and membership chairwoman for the Louisiana Preservation Alliance. She also has served as a committee member of the Downtown Development District. She was a member the Greater Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce, the Public Affairs Research Council, Council for a Better Louisiana and Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
She helped establish the Family Counseling Service of East Baton Rouge Parish and served as president of the Junior League of Baton Rouge.
She received the Brotherhood Award from the Baton Rouge Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1991.
Mary Frey Eaton was educated in the public school system and graduated from LSU with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Mary Frey Eaton and her husband had five children: Susan, Greg, Barbara Anne, Mary Frey Eaton Stewart and the late Lewis Eaton III.
She was a member of University United Methodist Church, where she served on the administrative board and the building, evangelism and missions committees. Mary Frey Eaton has also served as president of the Church Women United in Baton Rouge and has held numerous offices in the United Methodist Women organization. In 1980, she was given the Volunteer Activist Award.
Advocate staff writer Pam Bordelon contributed to this report.