She was considered the glue of Pierce County’s Croatian community. She helped the Town of Ruston reclaim its only school. And at one time, she was believed to be among the longest consecutively elected officials in Washington.
“Mom was a trailblazer who tolerated no resistance from anyone based on her gender,” her oldest son, Stephen Joyce, said Thursday. “She wasn’t a feminist out there burning a bra, she just knew her dignity as a person.”
Born in San Francisco in 1929, Mary Krilich was the oldest of six children to Croatian immigrants. At age two, she moved to Ruston, where her father and his brothers opened a grocery, the Krilich Brothers Market. When the family expanded to North Tacoma by opening the Highway Market, Mary and her younger siblings grew up in a residential space above the grocery.
At age five, she became the first in her family to learn English. She later used the skill to translate PTA meetings for her mother and to help Croatian boarders at the family’s home who worked at the nearby Asarco smelter, family members said.
By 10, Mary was driving the grocery’s delivery truck and by 12, she was keeping its books.
“She was very no-nonsense,” said her daughter, MaryAnn Clabaugh. “Because her parents spoke little to no English, as soon as she was able to speak, she was running things.”
Mary Krilich attended Sherman Elementary, Mason Middle School and Stadium High before graduating in 1948 from the College of Puget Sound. A double major in accounting and finance, Mary was the only woman in a class of 51 business school students that year, Stephen Joyce said.
In 1956, she met Burt Joyce, a Connecticut dairy farmer-turned-Army soldier stationed at Ft. Lewis, at a dance hall called the Mirror Room in downtown Tacoma.
“She was sitting alone at a table,” Burt Joyce recalled Friday. “And I looked at her, and I said to myself that’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
It took him three proposals, but about six months later, the couple were married. They initially started a family in Connecticut, before soon returning to Ruston to eventually raise six children.
While her husband climbed the ranks of the Tacoma Police Department, ultimately attaining a captain’s position, Mary Joyce become a champion of community.
She helped run dinners and other social events as a board director for the Croatian Fraternal Union, served as an active member of the Catholic Daughters of America, and became the first and only woman elected to the Calvary Cemetery Board.
She became a trusted neighborhood ambassador who baked homemade soups and breads to help family and friends celebrate and grieve. She welcomed acquaintances and strangers to the dinner table – widowed librarians, homeless drifters, Croatian sailors — and presided over hours-long political discussions, family members said.
“There was never less than 12 people at our dinner table,” Clabaugh said.
Mary Joyce first won election to the Ruston Town Council in 1969, serving consecutively until 2007. During her tenure, she championed small town ideals and pushed to ensure small communities weren’t overshadowed by bigger municipalities.
“Mary K. inspired me to be the elected official I am today,” longtime Fircrest Mayor David Viafore said Thursday.
“She bridged the gap for small communities to demonstrate that they’re just as important as any big city government. She gave her heart and soul, not only to the Town of Ruston but to Pierce County.”
During the 1980s, Mary Joyce spearheaded a campaign on her town’s behalf to reclaim the old Ruston School. Tacoma Public Schools, which absorbed the Ruston district under a school consolidation law, later shuttered the school’s classrooms and turned it into a teacher training facility.
When Mary Joyce’s cousin, an attorney, told his sister she didn’t have a legal leg to stand on in the fight for the school, Mary Joyce wouldn’t hear it. She led a grassroots letter-writing campaign and dogged the Tacoma School Board. During one meeting, Burt Joyce recalled, his wife told the school board: “Maybe legally I don’t have a leg to stand on. But morally I do.”
“She told them, `This school was built by the people of Ruston and it belongs to them,’” Burt Joyce said.
Her activism paid off, when the Tacoma district relinquished the old brick schoolhouse on North Shirley Street back to Ruston. The town eventually refurbished the building, turning the gymnasium into a multipurpose venue and renaming it the Mary Krilich Joyce Community Center. Among other purposes, the gym now serves as the meeting place for town council meetings.
“Everything my mother said was logical,” Stephen Joyce said. “She wasn’t one for emotional pleas. She always was very reasoned, and she didn’t make a lot of enemies with her politics. Some people didn’t like losing to her on (political) issues. But they always respected her.”
Since taking a fall at her home about four years ago, Mary Joyce’s health has been on the decline, family members said.
She is survived by her husband, her six children and their spouses and 18 grandchildren.
A funeral mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 20 at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 5510 North 44th Street, with a reception will follow. Afterward, the family will hold graveside services at Calvary Cemetery, 5212 70th Street West in Tacoma.