In the kitchen of Mary Lou Fendrick’s home, she keeps a porcelain jar of sugar on a shelf where she stores $100 cash – for any person in need.
And every night, she goes to her front door and turns the porch light on – so people always know they are welcome in.
As the 2019 Citizen of The Year, Fendrick is being recognized for her lifetime of service to those people in need. Beyond simple gestures like the ones she does at home, she’s also helped found longstanding charity and community organizations, volunteered her time with kids, fought for the disabled and worked with the local food pantry.
“Imagine with me being generous, selfless with no sense of giving or making a personal sacrifice… a grand, grand lady, true goodness, that’s my mother, Mary Lou Fendrick,” her son Tom wrote about his mother in 2010.
More than 40 years ago, she started as a reading program volunteer in Stoughton schools, reading to young children and encouraging their families to do the same. And that is what propelled her to help others.
From there, as the director of Stoughton Head Start, she went on to fundraise for a building to call its own, when it was previously a transient organization. She was one of the founding members of the Stoughton Area Resource Team, known as START which filled the large gap in services for people under 55 years old.
She submitted the first ad for the Stoughton Village Players Theater in the Hub 50 years ago, calling for local actors to come together and create a theater group.
While she was a teacher’s aide, Fendrick walked from business to business in Stoughton asking owners to employ people with disabilities, outlining the exceptional abilities of people with autism, cognitive and physical disabilities, she said. She remembers sitting in different homes and business, sipping coffee with strangers.
“For the longest time we just ignored them – for so many years – and now all this potential is sitting there waiting for us to tap into it,” Fendrick remembers telling the business owners.
In 2019, she retired from a 20-year volunteer position at the Stoughton Food Pantry, and she sometimes questions that decision, saying sitting around the house at age 82 is not for her.
Fendrick, has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but she often refers to other people around her as her kids – including her her doctor, neighbors and clients.
And although Fendrick has a reputation for being a pleasant caretaker, she is fierce when it comes to amplifying the voices of the underdog, whether it is serving on the Stoughton Ethics Board or advocating for the families in Head Start.
“When you talk to her, you start to understand that it didn’t matter what she was doing as an occupation – which tended to be around human service – she was always looking out for somebody. It didn’t matter what age of person, it was children, young, disabled, homeless and aging,” Cindy McGlynn director of the Stoughton Senior Center said.
“She is the original social warrior.”
One of her favorite memories is of a mother whom she only recently lost contact with. Fendrick said she watched this mother grow from being in prison and having little contact with her children to assimilating back into society and becoming a caring mother.
The two would have lunch together, after Fendrick took her to the mandated weekly drug test.
This need to serve others came from her family, Fendrick said.
She grew up poor but didn’t know it, because everyone in her Minnesota neighborhood was poor. Her parents would often take in homeless folks off the street.
But through all her years or serving others, she doesn’t believe she has done anything special.
“I’m really selfish,” she said with a laugh. “ I do this because it makes me feel good.”
Always lending a hand
Fendrick’s friends and family know well how her work reached far beyond her day job.
Her husband, Richard, said she had so many projects, people and organizations she is working with, he just stays out of the way.
He jokingly refuses to drive around the city with his wife, because she forces him to stop and pick up gently used mattresses, couches and other free furniture for people who have none.
Shelley Moffatt, who has known Fendrick for 16 years, said Fendrick has even been known to donate mattress from her own home, leaving her family to lay in sleeping bags on the floor.
“She is just a great human being,” Moffatt said. “And it would be sad to not recognize her – all of us know what she does – and she doesn’t like any notoriety at all. She is just living her life. But I watch a person like that and I think what a wonderful example she is.”
Fendrick does not consider what she did a sacrifice, even when it wasn’t convenient. Volunteering, she said, has always been a part-time or full-time job for her.
Once, while working at the Stoughton Holiday Fund, which served hundreds of meals to families during the holidays, a blizzard hit Stoughton. And although Fendrick is uncomfortable driving in bad weather, she drove to Madison and picked up donated bread, to ensure every family had a fresh loaf for the holidays.
McGlynn has served on several boards with Fendrick, and said she has known the name Mary Lou for decades. McGlynn said just as important as Fendrick extending her own hand to help an individual, she also rallied others around her, too.
“It didn’t stop at, ‘I’m going to help them.’ It was ‘I’m going to bring them into my home. I’m giving them my own things.’ It was personal,” McGlynn said.
Her ‘holy terrors’
Fendrick said her fondest memories and the stories that make her laugh the hardest are the stories that almost ended in disaster, she said.
Her favorite students or clients were always the ones that had the thickest walls that needed to be broken down. She called them her “holy terrors.”
Once she remembers a student at Yahara Elementary School, destroying a room by throwing all the toys and supplies on the ground. She never raised her voice at children, she said, but simply asked him what they were going to do about this mess.
“At the end, we were both crying,” she said. “And then we hugged.”
Fendrick still has handwritten notes from parents of those “holy terrors,” thank her for making an impact on their children.
She keeps the notes, awards and cards in a closet near her dining room table. Although she dislikes the attention and accolades, she still sifts through the binders and scrapbooks to remember those people in her life.
“There is so much to do,” Fendrick said. “And I hope others will find the joy in helping others that I found.”