January 29, 2003




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Mary Cynthia Dunlap, 1948-2003
Civil rights lawyer, OCC director, and force of nature dies at 54

By Eva Paterson

On Jan. 18, 2003, a great woman passed from this physical plane. Before she died, Mary Cynthia Dunlap, who had fought the good fight against pancreatic cancer, asked her partner, Maureen Mason, if she could leave this earth.

Word slowly spread among Mary's many admirers and friends. It was hard to believe that this funny, brilliant, irreverent, sensitive, courageous woman was no longer on the scene.

For the past eight years, Mary was the director of San Francisco's police-watchdog agency, the Office of Citizen Complaints. But there was much, much more to her life.

My first recollection of Mary is from when I was a baby lawyer, back in the mid 1970s. I remember hearing her speak on a panel and being blown away by her brilliance and her humor. Later I was lucky to work with Mary on the case that desegregated the San Francisco Fire Department.

When the case was filed in 1984, there had never been a woman firefighter in San Francisco – women weren't even allowed to apply.

I was providing legal counsel to the black firefighters, and there was a rumor that the black firefighters would be filing a motion to prevent the admission of women to the department. A subsequent series of meetings led to a unique collaborative lawsuit that initially advanced the collective interests of women and African Americans. We later added Latinos and Asian Americans to the litigation.

We needed to find an attorney who would vigorously represent the interests of white women while being sensitive to the history and aspirations of black men. Mary came to the rescue. She was fabulous. Sometimes her clients did not get it with regard to racism. She was always ready, willing, and able to school them.

I remember her arguing the motion, which Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ultimately issued, that allowed women to become firefighters for the first time in San Francisco's history. That case was very difficult. The Reagan "Justice" Department was involved and wanted to settle without any guarantees of remedial action to the aggrieved women and people of color. We civil rights lawyers call these settlements "We did not do anything wrong, and we will not do it again."

Mary helped devise legal theories that fought the reactionary point of view advanced by Reagan's crew. We ultimately prevailed, due in no small part to her brilliance.

Last week I was at Anna's Bistro in Berkeley, listening to jazz. Heidi, a friend of the saxophone player, informed me that a woman she knows is now serving in a fire station staffed almost entirely by women, a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Those women have Mary Cynthia Dunlap to thank.

In 1983, the students at Hastings College of the Law voted to ask me to give the commencement address. The Hastings board didn't want me to speak because I had publicly spoken against letting Edwin Meese, who was attorney general under President Reagan, dedicate Hastings' new law library. The next year the students voted again to have me as commencement speaker. Again the board said no. When the students decided to sue their law school, Mary represented the students and won an injunction that allowed me to speak. Speaking under court order was one of the best moments of my life. Mary demonstrated the majesty and power of the law to me and to those students. She was a modern-day Thurgood Marshall opening previously closed doors.

Mary Cynthia – and I use her middle name quite deliberately to demonstrate her soft side – was also a kind woman. I can hear her voice filled with passion and concern at less public injustices and slights. And she was an artist who delighted in presenting her work at the Open Studios held periodically in San Francisco.

Dale Minami, a noted civil rights attorney, told me that when he received an alumni award from Boalt Hall, the law school at UC Berkeley, Mary attended the ceremony and brought him one of her artworks depicting the island of Kauai. Minami also said that when he was one of the few students of color at Boalt, Mary was one of the few white students who went out of her way to be friendly. I also heard from a woman who is a partner at one of the largest law firms in San Francisco that Mary was her law professor at UC Davis from 1974-1975. Mary taught sex discrimination and made certain that the professional and intellectual needs of single mothers were taken into account.

Two weeks ago, the legal community lost another great hero, Joe Remcho. Those of us who are middle-aged are now realizing that life is short. As I reflect on how Mary touched us all, I am left with this: right before she died, she asked her partner if it was OK for her to leave. This request tells me that death is not to be feared. That death can be a comfort. That may be the greatest gift she could have given me and others like me.

Mary, we love you, and we will miss you. If the spirit lives on, please hover around us and give us strength, humor, and, most of all, grace.

For more information on a memorial service, check www.marydunlapspancreas.org. Eva Paterson is director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.