MERIDEN — If there is one thing to know about Marie LeVan, it’s this — she was the uncompromising architect of her own life.
Coming of age when women had few choices and even less autonomy — LeVan’s own father rejected the idea that women could drive a car — she refused to give away her opportunity for a career or travel.
“I’m independent. Too many men had their own ideas, and I did, too. And so … it’s a matter of making a choice,” LeVan said in an interview with her great-niece, Addy Schuetz, recorded this year.
LeVan died on Aug. 29 of congestive heart failure at her Arlington Street North home. She was 110 years old, making her among the four oldest people in the state, according to her nephew, Jeff Schuetz. She was never married and had no children.
“She wanted to be in control of her own life. She always wanted to be the one making the decisions,” Schuetz said.
For many supercentenarians, their age is the most noteworthy thing in their lives. That is not the case with LeVan. Listening to interviews done when she was 103 and 110 show a woman with a sharp mind and forceful voice. Her intelligence comes through clearly.
LeVan was born in 1909 and grew up in Hartford. She was in the first graduating class of the College of St. Joseph in 1936, an experience she credited with teaching her an important principle. The nuns in charge of the school “said how important it was to get to the truth of things,” she said in an interview recorded by the school when she was 103.Innovative educator
LeVan taught for two decades in the Berlin school district, and moved to the Meriden school district, serving as director of pupil personnel services for the Meriden Board of Education in the 1960s until her retirement in 1973.
Michael Iovanna spent two decades working in the Meriden public schools. He got his job thanks to LeVan.
“She was my boss, but she didn’t act like a boss,” he said.
He credited her with increasing the district’s focus on individual education plans long before the practice was mandated by the state for children with special needs.
“Every child learns differently — that was her approach. She helped people realize it was the right thing to do,” Iovanna said.
Karen Krick, a longtime guidance counselor at Lincoln Middle School, worked with LeVan for years, but became close to her in 2004. She would take LeVan, an environmentalist in many ways, out along the trails near Red Bridge. Krick would push LeVan’s wheelchair as LeVan held her feet up because she had nothing to rest them on.
“She just loved it,” Krick said.
The scope of LeVan’s life can’t be underestimated. She lived through World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the victories of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, and the leadership of 19 presidents.
She recalled digging trenches as a child in her yard emulating what was going on in Europe during World War I and then using those trenches in fear when she saw her first plane fly overhead, Schuetz said.
In 1944, as a young teacher, she attended the circus in Hartford with some of her young charges. When a fire started that ultimately would claim almost 200 lives, LeVan calmly told her children to walk and if they did that calmly they would get out, Krick said.
In the late 1960s, she watched a young pregnant woman sitting outside Meriden City Hall by herself, a girl who should have been in school. Iovanna said she invited the girl into the building, got her a tutor and then promptly set up a program so that young women who became pregnant didn’t have to give up their education, he said.‘Her way’
LeVan was also a poet and a painter, publishing her work in local newspapers and adorning the walls of her house with her art. She traveled the world, seeing England, New Zealand, and Egypt, among other places.
“To me she was so inspiring,” Krick said.
LeVan spent a great deal of time paying attention to the current political situation in the United States, something she viewed with trepidation.
“She watched a lot of changes in the world in her life and she took the long view of things,” said Jeff Schuetz.
Advanced age was a mixed bag in some ways for LeVan. About 15 years ago, Jeff Schuetz recalled that LeVan mentioned that all of her peers were gone.
“That was a hard thing on one hand, but she had a lot of relationships with younger people. That sustained her,” she said.
The Rev. John Afman, LeVan’s pastor well into her 90s, praised her spirit and remembered that she wrote very caring messages to friends in her beautiful script.
“I was blessed to know her,” Afman said in an email.
This past year, LeVan’s great-niece, Addy, a senior at Brown University, interviewed her for four hours for a family oral history. Schuetz said his daughter reminds him of LeVan— her personality, her interest and caring about people. Even the physical resemblance is strong, he said.
“She has a lot of admiration for her great-aunt and likes her as a person,” Schuetz said.
The college student immersed herself in Marie’s world. It wasn’t always easy, she said. LeVan’s memory played tricks on her about her later life, but when LeVan described her early years, the images rang true and clear.
“It was wonderful. She breathed life into all of it,” Addy Schuetz said.
She admired LeVan’s work ethic, and her desire to be involved and be a leader. LeVan wanted to make her school, her church, and her community a better place.
“She wanted to do things her way,” Addy Schuetz said.
Did Marie LeVan ever express any regret?
“No, not at all,” she said.