Mary Duckworth Gellerstedt, who helped many others over decades, dies at 95

Mary Duckworth Gellerstedt
Mary Duckworth Gellerstedt

Piedmont Hospital and Planned Parenthood, Agnes Scott College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, all thrived with the help of Mary Duckworth Gellerstedt.

“The devotion she showed to the orchestra for so many years was extraordinary and sustaining and deeply appreciated on every level,” said Robert Spano, the orchestra’s music director.

“Planned Parenthood’s doors are open across the Southeast because of Mary’s commitment and contribution,” said Staci Fox, the organization’s regional president and chief executive.

Gellerstedt, who lived in Atlanta for more than eight decades, died on Dec. 27, according to an online announcement by her family, which included tributes by Fox, Spano and others. She was 95.

At a later date her ashes will be interred next to her husband, Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr., in the Decatur Cemetery. The longtime chief of Beers Construction Co., Lawrence Gellerstedt died in 2003 at age 77. He oversaw construction of many iconic Atlanta structures: the Bank of America tower, the 191 Peachtree Building, Coca-Cola’s world headquarters and the Georgia Dome, among others.

Mary Gellerstedt’s survivors include two daughters, Dorothy Gayle Gellerstedt and Mary Ellen Gellerstedt; a son, Lawrence Gellerstedt III; a sister, Dorothy Duckworth Williams; and a brother, William Henry Duckworth Jr.

Born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1925, Gellerstedt moved with her family to Atlanta in 1938 after her father, William Henry Duckworth Sr., was elected to the Georgia Supreme Court. In 1948, he became chief justice, a position he held until his death in 1969.

Gellerstedt met her future husband as a teenager at Druid Hills School and married after she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 1946. She was later a trustee for the school and was president of the Agnes Scott Alumnae Association. The school also named her an outstanding alumna.

She taught elementary school in Atlanta before becoming a full-time mother and volunteer. She was a vocal advocate for public schools, particularly Morris Brandon Elementary, which her children attended. In the 1970s, she encouraged neighbors to continue sending their children to Morris Brandon, even as a growing number of white families opted for private schools, according to “Halting White Flight,” a 2012 dissertation by Georgia State University student Elizabeth Egan Henry.

Gellerstedt began making her mark in civic circles in the 1960s, when women were defined as much by who they were married to as by their abilities.

“I was a threat to a lot of men because I was this wild woman coming into board meetings,” she said in a 2002 interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

In the same interview, her husband said, “If I had a fundraising campaign, I’d take her over any man.”

Gellerstedt chaired the orchestra’s board from 1986 to 1988 and served on the boards of numerous other civic and nonprofit organizations. They included Planned Parenthood, the Woodruff Arts Center, the Galloway School, the Visiting Nurse Association, Literacy Action and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. She and her husband also raised money for Hospice Atlanta.

Among other honors, Gellerstedt received the Human Relations Award from the Institute of Human Relations of the American Jewish Committee in 1990; the In the Moment, a Celebration of Life award by Hospice Atlanta in 2016; Fundraiser of the Year from the Atlanta Chapter of Fundraising Professionals; and the Saints and Legends Award from Wesley Woods Senior Living.

“Mary had a passion for community and service,” Alicia Philipp and Frank Fernandez, the former and current heads of the Community Foundation, said in a statement, “but her defining feature that made her an invaluable board member was her ability to empathize, understand and act on the needs of Atlantans.”

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