Hours before her death, former mayor and civic leader offers a message of hope for New London
New London - On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before she gently breathed her last, Eunice McLean Waller had much to say.
In her room at Lawrence & Memorial, where she had been hospitably holding court even as she faded away, the 90-year-old grande dame of New London politics and the city's African-American community wanted to leave this message:
"I have truly enjoyed my 54 years spent in small-town New London.
"We have to live together and cooperate to keep a good small town.
"When one loses, we all lose. When one wins, we all win.
"When one starts fighting another, we're not taking care of the town's business, so we need serious cooperation there.
"That's about it."
But that wasn't all of it.
Soft brown hands resting lightly on the pinks and reds and whites of a patchwork quilt, no tubes to keep her from talking in a soft but clear voice, Waller took her time to reflect.
Two of her loved ones kept watch, including a niece just in from Phoenix, who wept softly in the corner room where spring sunlight could stream in from morning till late afternoon.
Mrs. Waller wasn't weeping. The conversation trickled as if she were rocking on her porch on Vauxhall Street or in the summer heat in North Carolina, where she grew up, instead of lying still in a hospital bed.
A little of the Southern pace and grace lingered in her speech, and she chuckled when her own comments struck her funny.
The lady who got herself elected ceremonial mayor in 1988 with some intricate maneuvering in the Democratic Town Committee, coached generations of black women in leadership, and with her husband gave the first donation to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund, is known in all those circles as a firm, even relentless, guiding hand, and she wasn't quite ready to give that up.
Listen up, she was saying. It's up to all of you.
Looking for cooperation
From the perspective of almost 91 years, and knowing that she had little time, Eunice Waller was done with political battles of will and was looking for statesmanship.
"Everybody has to get working to save New London, and we can do that. They think it's impossible, but it's not. We can do that. We have to do that.
"I hope it happens soon, too."
Daryl Justin Finizio, elected last November as the city's first strong mayor in 90 years, is where he is in part because of her, she believed. A friend set up a meeting for the two last year.
"He came and spent one afternoon with me and I gave him a lot of advice. I said some of it may work for you and some of it may not. What worked for me may not work for you.
"But he was experienced at Harvard and went down to New York and had a big, big job, and everything around him was huge, but when he came to New London, it's a whole different personality, a whole different take on things, which he had to drop down to from the New York experience. That's why he made a lot of mistakes.
"He didn't realize big cities are very, very different from small cities.
"I think he handled it well, 'cause it was overwhelming for him at first, and I think he may come out of it."
She made a last wish for cooperation.
"We may as well accept our new mayor and keep him from going too far - in a quiet political way.
"We should be working together, all departments. We don't have the financial means for grandstanding ... Like him or not, the mayor is what we've got, so cooperating with him is item No. 1 on the list."
A legacy in activism
Many of the city's longtime activists learned their skills from Eunice Waller, often starting with teachers union business.
"I took Jane Glover (now chief of staff to the mayor) and Shirley Gillis (former head of the New London Housing Authority) to all the national meetings when they were just new teachers. ... They started out early."
Glover later served as ceremonial mayor herself. A retired children's librarian, she left a position as director of the Kente Cultural Center last fall to serve as chief of staff for Finizio. And her old mentor has been watching.
"I feel sorry for her, even though it's a good paying job." Mrs. Waller laughed at her own joke.
"She's got to learn how to smile. ...She made the state NAACP president mad, and he then called in the national president. So she just lumped stuff on her head.
"I think she'll be able to handle it. It's her responsibility. She didn't greet the state president too pleasantly, and he's one of those 'I'll get you back.'
"We're saying to her, 'Don't do that.'
"I still admonish them that being peaceful is the way to handle your problems."
As a New London Democrat, Mrs. Waller herself could be strong-willed, including in her own maneuvering to become mayor.
She chuckled but didn't deny it. "It's the only way it would have happened."
"I didn't have any unpleasant moments. I had lots of disagreements. I'd fight with the Democratic Town Committee, but we'd fight behind closed doors. We didn't bring it out in the open.
"Most of my journey was pleasant."
In 1989, The Day praised Mrs. Waller when she gave up a trip to the National Conference of Mayors annual convention in California so the $2,000 it would have cost could be used instead for jackets and rings for the New London High boys' basketball team, winners of the Class M state championship. "I knew we didn't have money to throw away."
"Being mayor was ceremonial. That's about what I was accustomed to. I still wanted the full mayorship to happen."
Advice, admonition, admiration
Adults she admonished. Adolescents she advised. On Thursday, she also expressed admiration for those she felt had made a difference.
Her late husband, William DeHomer Waller, was a lifelong educator and dean of then-Mohegan Community College, now incorporated into Three Rivers Community College. Her name has been linked with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund awards ever since the couple gave the first seed money, not long after the death of Dr. King. The Day gives an annual scholarship in William Waller's name.
"I give recognition to the big institutions in this area that gave the money," she said, citing former banks and other businesses.
She expected the best from young people: "Get on the upward path and not down to failure. I wish each of you a successful career." But she had words for parents: "Parents in the city have to wake up, take their responsibility, and leave the drugs out of your house and that will help all of us."
A longtime member of Shiloh Baptist Church, where she was affectionately known as "Mother Waller," she believed in the power of churches to change behavior.
"I think the ministers can do more of drawing our young kids back to church, back to afternoon games or something to keep them out of the drug houses.
"I'm inspired that it can happen, it must happen if everybody is working together to save our kids. If we save our kids, we save our city. If we don't save our kids, the churches will have let us down."
She said she told all that to her pastor, Bishop Benjamin Watts. "I let him come in, we just closed the door, and we talked."
She paused to consider how much she had said in an hour. "It's coming right off the top of my head."
"I'm happy. Peace and mercy is all I ask.
"I have my favorite Bible verse but Reverend Watts says he can't find it in the Bible. 'Mother Waller, you must have made them up.'"
She was done.
"That's my thoughts. Arrange it right and fix it."
Interview over, she went to sleep.