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Anna Lou Melson Dehavenon ’48

A picture of Anna Lou Melson Dehavenon

Anna Lou Melson Dehavenon ’48, February 28, 2012, in Greenport, New York. A national authority on poverty, hunger, and homelessness, Anna Lou was born in Bellingham, Washington, and demonstrated a gift for piano early in life. After studying at Reed for two years, she transferred to the school of music at DePaul University, where she worked with Sergei Turnovsky. In Chicago, she met William Kapell, a brilliant pianist; they married in 1948. His career became her focus, along with raising their two children, and she was devastated when William was killed in a plane crash in 1953. (For the remainder of her life, she was attentive to his memory, publishing new recordings and even his diaries.) The loss was tremendous both emotionally and financially; William’s friends came to her aid, providing stability for her and the children. Without this generosity, she noted later, she and her children might have been homeless. In 1955, she married Gaston de Havenon, who had a perfume manufacturing business in New York. They had two children, and she also became mother to two sons from his previous marriage. “I told myself, here I am, a woman who supposedly has everything: a comfortable home, wonderful children, a difficult but interesting husband, but still I was bored,” she said in an interview. Seeking an intellectual challenge, she enrolled at Columbia University at the age of 40, where she earned successive degrees in anthropology with honors.

It was in a physics class, she said, that she learned the scientific method, which “opened up a whole new way of looking at the world, a whole new way of getting at the truth.” While conducting research for her dissertation, she became critically aware of the plight of homeless families in New York City. She developed a systematic and comprehensive method of documenting families in poverty—research that became the basis of annual reports documenting hunger and homelessness. In 1973, she cofounded the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee, a coalition of religious voluntary agencies that did welfare advocacy, and the New York Coalition Against Hunger. She looked at New York, she said, “as a vision of the future of our wider country if we don’t address housing, income, and health care issues.” In a yearlong survey done for the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee in 1985, she documented the worsening of hunger conditions in New York City. The report created a sensation and led to stories in the New York Times, the Daily News, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New Yorker. From her data on the number of children forced to sleep on chairs in offices came a court order that homeless families be offered decent emergency shelter nightly. Anna Lou was project director for the Action Research Project on Hunger, Homelessness, and Family Health. She was an adjunct professor of anthropology in community medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, visiting assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, research associate in the department of anthropology at City College (CUNY), and visiting professor of anthropology at the Center for the Study of the Administration of Relief in New Delhi, India. She cofounded the Task Force on Poverty and Homelessness of the American Anthropological Association and was a project director for United Neighborhood Houses. Among many honors, she received the first Reverend Jenny Clark Award of the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Council, the Josephine Shaw Lowell Award of the Community Service Society, and the Foster-Scholz Distinguished Service Award. Reed’s graduating class of 1994 also selected her to speak at commencement. “If you directly observe and speak to people, you begin to know what their experiences really are,” she said in her address. “The class and racial segregation in our culture separates most of us from the experiences of poor people. I would like many more of us to contemplate what it is like to sleep three or more to a bedroom or on the floor and what it would be like to raise one’s own children in these circumstances, in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced nation.” Survivors include two sons, two daughters, one stepson, 10 grandchildren, and her sister, Posie Melson Conklin ’51. Notifying the college of her death, Ernie Bonyhadi ’48 wrote, “Anna Lou was a beautiful human being, a dear friend to us and to many more.”

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2012

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