Remembering Jane McAfee, a Servant-Leader

Jane McAfee and Bentley

Register Star, December 6, 2020 article.

Martha (Jane) McAfee was a social justice warrior before they even had a name for it. Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1926 to a Presbyterian minister and two-war Army chaplain and a socially conscious mother, she, her twin sister, Margaret (Jean,) and two older siblings, were destined to be servant leaders. 

Jane followed a winding path through a bachelor’s degree in physical education from College of Wooster in Ohio in 1949, director of camps and recreation at the YWCA in York, Pennsylvania, the national YWCA staff in New York City, a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1963, to the Washington Mall, where she heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech, a cherished memory. Jane traveled to YWCAs around the world, and, in a YWCA organizational refit, landed in Rockford, where she accepted the mantle of executive director of the YWCA in 1971. 

It was a tumultuous time, smack in the middle of social upheaval marked by the triad of the women’s empowerment movement known as feminism, the anti-war movement, and the early post-civil rights era where racism, still raging today, seemed insurmountable. Though barely 5 feet tall, Jane was a giant of purposeful activism. She was a great coalition builder, believing that many hands made tasks light. In accomplishing the goals of the YWCA, Jane co-opted the talents of other organizations to work toward common outcomes. To construct a racism summit, she worked with 18 other organizations. She also championed ending domestic abuse, hiring of developmentally challenged workers, and the Special Olympics. Jane was a board member of the United Way, an officer in the Quota Club, active at First Presbyterian Church (now SecondFirst) and was a fervent devotee of home rule. Jane was recognized as a “frequent flyer” for her many letters to the editor at Rockford newspapers.

Jane McAfee was the seventh winner of the National Organization for Women Feminist of the Year Award – Rockford Chapter.  She recognized that many second-wave feminists’ goals were often misunderstood by conflations with bra-burning and unisex bathrooms. She said, “Feminism means that you are working toward better quality of life for women and understanding between sexes. The YWCA’s goal is the recognition of her full potential and learn life skills. I would like to see that for all women.” 

After retirement from the YWCA in 1983, Jane joined the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford. She was famously energetic in her support of voter registration and good government. Jane served as president from 1999-2002, attending every committee meeting and public forum. Jane mentored many novice League members to embrace activism, use their varied talents for good, and to become servant leaders in their own right.

Though Jane had no children, she raised many who are devoted to her. She had a deep, enduring friendship with her housemate, Phyllis (Phyl) Nelson, who passed away in 1998. Her white bison frise, Bentley, was the mischievous star of her answering machine, “Jane and Bentley cannot come to the phone right now…”

Jane McAfee left Rockford in 2013, when she moved to be closer to most of her family living in the Fort Collins-Estes Park, Colorado, area. She remained close to her Rockford friends, happily hosting their visits.

Jane McAfee passed away at the age of 94 on Nov. 19. Everywhere Jane went, she gave everything she had to make life better for others. Rockford is better for having had her as a leader. The League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford is bereft at our loss as we hope to emulate her energy in her mission for social justice.

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