Mary Jane Vanderwilt, who served for decades on the Charleston City Council, led the city’s Beautification Commission and served as an unofficial historian of Charleston city government, died over the weekend. She died unexpectedly after a brief illness. She was 85.
Her death was announced Sunday morning at First Presbyterian Church and confirmed by her eldest daughter, Mary Ellen Vanderwilt.
Vanderwilt served on the City Council for 32 years, beginning in the 1960s. She is believed to be the first female member of the Charleston City Council, Mary Ellen Vanderwilt said.
Vanderwilt served as council president, Republican majority leader and chair of the finance committee. Her eight-term tenure on the council ended in 1995, when she lost by 41 votes in a year in which Democrats took 20 of the council’s 26 seats. In 1987, Vanderwilt presided over City Council meetings for about a week after then-Mayor Mike Roark pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and resigned.
Vanderwilt went on to chair the city’s Beautification Commission, where she worked to maintain and improve the city’s public areas and parks. She served on the commission until her death.
Those who worked with Vanderwilt describe her as a meticulous records-keeper with an encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston’s history and city government.
“We always said she had a memory like an elephant,” said Jody Connell, who served with Vanderwilt on City Council for 18 years. “If we ever wanted to know something, we’d call Mary Jane.”
Vanderwilt’s memory was buttressed by decades of records that she kept on what happened at thousands of council and committee meetings.
“If you could go in her basement, you would be absolutely flabbergasted,” said Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis, describing a room filled with neatly organized file cabinets. “You could call Mary Jane and she could tell you what happened in 1952, or she could tell you what happened yesterday.”
Davis recalled a time in 2005 when she chaired the council’s riverfront committee and had a question about the transformation of the road that is now Kanawha Boulevard.
Davis called Vanderwilt to pose the question.
“I think that meeting was in June 1964,” Vanderwilt told her, before going to check her records.
When she returned to the phone it turned out she was mistaken. “I was wrong, it was July 1964,” Vanderwilt said.
Jim Balow, longtime city hall reporter for the Gazette, remembered calling Vanderwilt for her help on a story on the 20th anniversary of the Charleston Town Center, which opened in 1983.
“She brought her files down to the Gazette and let me borrow them, just stuff from 20, 25 years ago that she’d stored at her house,” Balow said. “She was like the historian of City Council, city history, city business.”
Kanawha County Commissioner Hoppy Shores called Vanderwilt “One of the finest representatives of city government the City of Charleston has ever known,” and ordered that flags be lowered to half-staff at county facilities in her honor.
“Mary Jane leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten,” Shores said in a news release. “Her time on City Council and long service with the Beautification Committee helped set the course for Charleston to become the great city that it is today.”
Vanderwilt was born in Rochester, New York, but moved to Charleston at the age of five. Her parents then built a house in South Hills, which, except for a 10-year period, she lived in for the rest of her life.Vanderwilt is survived by her husband of 64 years, C.J. Vanderwilt; daughters Mary Ellen Vanderwilt, of Nashville, Tennessee; Ruth Shepard Vanderwilt McVey, of Tempe, Arizona; son and daughter-in-law William John Vanderwilt and Catherine Pihoker Vanderwilt, of Seattle; and grandchildren Seth and Mia Vanderwilt.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.