Mary Louise Hancock, a regular stop on the presidential campaign trail, dies at 97

  • Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with long time friend and political adviser Mary Louise Hancock, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Concord, N.H. Clinton is ending a two-day campaign swing through the nation's earliest presidential primary state. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with longtime friend Mary Louise Hancock during a campaign stop in Concord on April 21. Jim Cole

  • Mary Louise Hancock earned a reputation as a pioneer in New Hampshire politics and built a friendship with numerous high-profile figures in the Democratic Party. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Mary Louise Hancock, who opened doors for women in public service and became a political giant on the state’s liberal landscape, died Monday at the age of 97, one day after receiving a phone call from one Democratic heavyweight – former vice president Al Gore – and one day before a potential meeting here with another – former first lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Hancock had been in failing health over the past several weeks, but she remained sharp and her afternoon lunches in town continued, friends said. Using a wheelchair, Hancock would get a ride from friends in a van borrowed from the Granite State Independent Living Foundation to go on her weekly outings.

“Two weeks ago she was out and about,” said Debbie Butler, a longtime friend with close ties to the Democratic Party. “She would go out every Sunday and drive around and eat somewhere.”

Hancock was born in Franklin on July 5, 1920, about one month before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Eighty years later, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen declared July 5 to be Mary Louise Hancock Day for her “extraordinary service to her state, her country and her community.”

Hancock’s colorful personality, endless energy and toughness – she was stricken with polio at the age of 3 – became a major draw for important political figures, and she was best known for the parade of Democratic presidential candidates who visited her Concord home every four years, prior to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.

The list included Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Joe Biden, Gore and Jesse Jackson. Hancock developed a personal relationship with the Clintons, and is now the second Concord woman, also named Mary, with that distinction to have died recently.

Mary Hill, a longtime cashier at Mamos Market who died last month, befriended Bill and Hillary while they were on the campaign trail and corresponded with them through the years.

Hancock’s political foundation evolved during the 1920s, when her father owned a drug store on North Main Street, across from the State House. There, she’d listen to the day’s political banter, conversations that would feed her love of public service.

Hancock’s distinguished career included several pioneering roles. In 1975 she became the first Democrat and first woman from Concord elected to the state Senate. She was also the first female state planning director in the country, and later worked for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Elsewhere, Hancock served on the Concord School Board; the Concord Hospital Board of Trustees; the Downtown Concord Revitalization Corporation Advisory Committee; the governing board of the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities; and the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women.

Her impact on others could be seen in all corners of the state. Arnie Arnesen credited Hancock as her inspiration to run for governor in 1992 and for Congress four years later.

“The Mecca of Democratic politics,” Arnesen called Hancock in a phone interview.

Sens. Maggie Hassan and Shaheen both issued statements calling Hancock a role model, with Shaheen saying she was a “steadfast advocate for equal rights, affordable housing and domestic abuse survivors.”

“Her sage counsel was sought after by generations of Democrats, whether running for local office or the Oval Office,” Shahen said.

In another press release, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said, “Mary Louise Hancock was a giant of New Hampshire politics. More than a senator and glass-ceiling shattering woman, she was the embodiment of what it meant to be a New Hampshire Democrat.”

Byron Champlin, a local historian, saw Hancock in October and said he’d been told to limit his visit to 10 minutes so as not to tire her out. Hancock wheeled herself into the living room, positioned herself behind her desk and “bent my ear for 30 minutes,” Champlin recalled.

“She talked about city politics and my history project. She just wanted to talk, and I was glad I had that time to spend with her,” he said.

Last month, the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce honored Hancock with a special award during its annual banquet. Champlin went to her home shortly before the banquet to tell her she’d won.

“She appeared more frail than the previous time,” Champlin said, “but she was very pleased to hear about the honor.”

Hancock’s home became part of the campaign trail for Democratic candidates and nominees for president. Butler said Hancock remained upset over Al Gore’s controversial loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Butler, in fact, emailed Gore to tell him shortly before her death.

“I didn’t know if he’d respond,” Butler said. “But he wrote back and asked if he could call her, and he did.”

That was Sunday. Hillary Clinton is due in Concord on Tuesday for a book signing at Gibson’s Bookstore. Clinton had mentioned Hancock at a rally two years ago at Dartmouth College, telling her interviewer, former governor John Lynch, “When I started this campaign, I went to see her, and I just adore being around her and listening to her.”

Butler had been wondering whether the former first lady would visit Hancock on Tuesday.

“I had hoped Hillary would come,” Butler said. “I didn’t know, but I had had a few indications that it might happen.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)