Mary Jane Lenz (1930-2016)


Mary Jane Lenz passed away March 30 having just celebrated her 86th birthday. She was born in Milwaukee, WI, on March 24, 1930 to Edna Joyce Brooks and William Burr Downs. She attended the Jefferson Elementary School in West Allis, until her family moved to Detroit, MI. There Mary Jane went to Wallaceville Junior High School, then moved to Bradbury Heights, MD, for a year, and finally to Kansas City, MS, where she graduated from Southwest High School in 1948 as a member of the National Honor’s Society. She sang alto in the glee club, worked on the school paper, was in student government and was vice president of the Literary Society. The following year she attended Kansas City Junior College and went on to earn a BA in anthropology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1952.

From the beginning, Mary Jane excelled academically and showed what a true intellectual she was. She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania as a Graduate Fellow to pursue her master’s degree in anthropology. It was there where she met her future husband, Ben Lenz, who was attending The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. In 1954 Mary Jane spent her final semester at Bryn Mawr in the small American Indian village of Yakutat, AK, where she conducted fieldwork among the Tlingit Indians under the direction of distinguished anthropologist, Frederica De Laguna. Mary Jane got married a year later at her parent’s home in Edmore, MI and moved to Yorkville, Manhattan where she worked for a temp agency as a secretary. When she had her first child in 1956, she chose to stay home full-time. In 1962, her growing family moved to Glen Head, where she would live until 1998.

Mary Jane Lenz, Associate Curator selecting objects for a loan exhibit. Research Branch, Bronx, NYC, NY. Museum of the American Indian. (Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian). May 15, 1987
Mary Jane Lenz, Associate Curator selecting objects for a loan exhibit. Research Branch, Bronx, NYC, NY. Museum of the American Indian. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian). May 15, 1987

As a mother of five children, Mary Jane was very busy as an active member of the PTA, a volunteer at the library,and with making her hand-sewn dolls and crafts. But Mary Jane never lost her passion for studying anthropology. One day she saw an article in the New York Times about how the Museum of American Indian-Heye Foundation in Harlem was a national treasure that had been forgotten. She wrote a letter to the museum director asking if he could use her as a volunteer and in 1974 she began working at the research branch in the Bronx where she analyzed pottery sherds. In 1978 she became a full-time curatorial assistant and four years later enrolled at the City University to pursue her Ph.D. in anthropology. In 1989, the museum collection was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. At 68 years old, after almost a decade of preparing for the move, Mary Jane decided to leave her home of 36 years and move to Washington D.C. The new National Museum of American Indian (NMAI) opened on the Mall in 2004 and Mary Jane continued her work as a curator in Suitland, MD, at the Cultural Resources Center where the collections are housed.

Mary Jane had a very successful career with NMAI, specializing in dolls and the northwest coast Indians. She traveled to China in 1982 with the Ancestors exhibit and to Madrid with the northwest coast show. She traveled domestically with the doll show and worked on the Windows on Collections exhibit at the new NMAI. In 1996, she won the “Unsung Hero” award, which was bestowed upon her by her colleagues. She also published The Stuff of Dreams in 1986, Small Spirits: Native American Dolls from the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004, and numerous articles throughout the years.

In 2011, at age 81, she finally retired as the NMAI’s first Curator Emeritus. In 2013, she moved closer to family in North Andover, MA, where she lived until her final days.

She was a wonderful mother, grandmother and person with an incredibly optimistic outlook on life, a lifelong love of learning, a great sense of humor, and an appreciation for museums, musicals, literature and current events.
She is survived by her five children: Michael Lenz, Tim Lenz, Peggy Issenberg, Patty Lenz Bovie and Sue Lenz Nahon, her brother Robert Burr Downs and 10 adoring grandchildren. While she will be missed by so many, she will never be forgotten.

Memorial Services will be held at Temple Emanuel in Andover, MA, on Friday, April 8 at 11 a.m. and at the Congressional Cemetery Chapel on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., on Sunday, June 19, 2016 at 11 a.m.

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