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Ethel May Austin: A Tireless Advocate For Senior Citizens


January 20, 2012

Ethel Austin, a well-known advocate for senior citizens, sang tenor in a women's barbershop group and championed the Asylum Hill community where she lived in Hartford. Charming and outgoing, she was an independent, pioneering career woman who never married.

"She didn't need the women's liberation movement to motivate her," said Mike McGarry, a longtime friend. "If she had a good cause, she just did it."

Austin died on Dec. 27 at age 96.

She was born in Manhattan on March 11, 1915, the only child of Stephen and Anna Austin. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by an aunt and uncle, Gertrude and Aubry Sayre, in Ridgewood, N.J., where she attended high school.

Austin trained as a dental hygienist, but she worked mainly in the retail business for Montgomery Ward and, later, for the W.T. Grant Co. in Bridgeport. In 1943, the company transferred her to Hartford, where she lived continuously until her early 1990s.

She became an assistant buyer for G. Fox Co., and taught evening classes in retail marketing in the state vocational school system, was a buyer for the Steiger Co. and then opened her own store in Meriden, where she sold china and crystal. She enjoyed crafts, and for years had a home-based business making Christmas decorations and party favors.

In 1969, she went to work for the Travelers Insurance Co., where she stayed until she retired 10 years later.

She was an active and vocal participant in a number of organizations, many of them concerned with senior citizens. For a time, she worked for the Hartford County Medical Association promoting a courtesy card that gave seniors lower medical bills.

She wrote a weekly column, Senior Scene, first for Asylum Hill Ink and then for the Hartford News, for more than 25 years, and wrote a similar column for The Courant in the 1990s. Her advice ranged from food stamp eligibility to Section 8 housing regulations to getting property tax relief, and included folksy comments and observations. Like her, the column was down to earth and practical. She also had a similar show on a Hartford public access television station.

For 17 years, she worked in a tiny basement office at the Salvation Army on Asylum Street/Avenue advising senior citizens about their Social Security entitlements, their pension rights, and the subtleties of Medicare and Medicaid regulations.

She served for many years on the Hartford Commission on Aging and was appointed to the state Commission on Aging by two governors. She was known to many politicians, and had no qualms about addressing them directly.

"She was very concerned that elderly people were being duped or weren't aware of things to help them," said Sherry Ebner, a friend who helped Austin with her affairs in recent years.

Austin had a small apartment on Asylum Hill, in a tough neighborhood that was filled with drug and crime activity during the late 1960s and '70s. Other women might have been intimidated, but Austin was well known in the area and unflappable.

Austin served on an advisory board of Leadership Greater Hartford, a civic group that helped design a leadership program for retired people called the Third Age Initiative, then joined its first class in 2001.

"She was full of spunk and energy," recalled Doe Henschel, Leadership's vice-president. "Everyone loved Ethel."

Austin was on a team that volunteered at an elementary school at the University of Hartford teaching children about their neighborhood.

Austin was a moderate Republican who served on the Hartford Republican Town Committee. She was ousted, though, after she supported Lowell P. Weicker who was a U.S. representative, a U.S. Senator and a state governor because he was considered too liberal. She worked for other Republican candidates, including McGarry, when he ran for the Hartford City Council.

She was also a member of the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, which works with the city to try to eliminate blighted areas. After McGarry was elected and became head of the city's housing committee, Austin would voice her opinions with brio, and was a strong defender of the rights of apartment dwellers. "She was feisty, but in a nice way," said McGarry.

Austin sang for years with the Hartford chapter of Sweet Adelines, then joined with several other women to form a Farmington Valley chapter in 1974, and sang with the group until 2002. She donated proceeds from her craft projects to support the chorus.

Austin was modest about her own accomplishments, and showed a strong interest in other people. She was outgoing enough to wear a dancer's tutu on her head during a zany Hooker Day parade in Hartford, but usually dressed formally, "like a lady." She was known for her cucumber sandwiches with carefully trimmed crusts.

"She always had a young outlook, but always was an advocate for the seniors of Hartford," McGarry said.

As her hearing deteriorated, she was not shy about demanding that others speak louder. As her health deteriorated, she spent the last seven years in nursing homes, and died of multiple organ failures.

When a friend said her mother was getting old and depressed, Austin's response was immediate and totally up-to-date: "Nobody should be depressed. Get some pills," she told Jennifer Cassidy, an Asylum Hill neighbor.

She also advised Cassidy to broach the subject of death with her mother, and told her that dying with dignity was an essential right.

"I should respect what my mother wanted," Cassidy said Austin's told her. " 'Let it be as dignified as it can be.' It was."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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