Margaret Hollister, who was instrumental in establishing the Friends of Southeast Library and was a lifelong advocate for reading and literacy, died January 3 at an assisted living facility in Vermont She was 102.
Margaret grew up in Peking, China, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and spent most of her life on Capitol Hill in a house on 9th Street, SE, that she and friends built mostly from scrap lumber.
Her time in China (1917 to 1940) was a turbulent period that included rampant poverty and starvation, fears of “foreign devils,” the rise of communism, and the Japanese invasion. She was fluent in Chinese and throughout her life was influenced by the culture of her childhood. In 2010, after taking a writing course at George Washington University, Margaret published Inheriting China, a memoir about her exotic upbringing and her subsequent life in the United States. With searing honesty she told of her struggles to maintain her faith as she saw people huddled against the mission walls trying to keep warm in the bitter Chinese winter. “If we were in China to improve the lives of the Chinese people,” she wrote, “something was going seriously wrong.” With similar candor, she wrote of her unhappy marriage, her divorce, the death of an autistic son and her own psychological problems.
As a missionary child, Margaret obtained a scholarship to Wellesley from alumna Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, making a seven-day trek aboard the Trans-Siberian Express and continuing across Canada to New England. With little money, she worked as a waitress at the elite school, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.
Margaret later got a master’s degree in Social Work from Catholic University and worked in public health for 38 years in the D.C. government. At the age of 60, she learned to play the cello and joined the McLean Symphony Orchestra.
She was active in mentoring and reading to young children in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and helped re-establish the defunct friends’ group at the Southeast Library, becoming its president in the 1970s. She was a strong advocate for increased funding for the city’s libraries. A special cause was updating and maintaining the restrooms at Southeast, which she contended were in such terrible shape that parents were reluctant to bring their children to story hour. Margaret was in her eighties when she continued her crusade, getting on a bus and traveling to branch libraries in Anacostia, Chevy Chase, Palisades or wherever the monthly library board was scheduled. She became known as the “bathroom lady” and finally won her fight when Southeast was remodeled in 2007.
In 2004 she took her grandchildren to China to show them where she had grwn up, or as she said, “closing the circle.”
A memorial service for Margaret Hollister is scheduled at the Hill Center at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 17.