Obituary: Mary Ellen Brigante

Poet, nature lover, nurturer, psychologist, lifelong learner

Mary Ellen Brigante, a 61-year resident of Claremont, died peacefully August 19 at the age of 94.

Mary Ellen was born on April 18, 1929, in Castile, in upstate New York. The daughter of Arthur and Olive Parks Chasey, she had a very much loved older sister Elizabeth and brother Robert.  She grew up helping her father in planting and harvesting, driving the farm equipment, milking cows, and playing with the kittens and the farm dog, Jigs. Her mother ran a one room schoolhouse, driving her own horse and buggy to the school, until her marriage. Together with attending school, she loved these childhood years. After being active in high school, where the eight member senior class participated in every team and club, she received scholarships and recognitions, going on to State University of New York at Buffalo to become a classics major.

She met Tom Brigante in an early class at SUNY. He always described the first time he saw her with delight. “I was thunderstruck!” he would say. “I asked myself who is that?” She again distinguished herself in college, graduating with honors and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. After Tom returned from military service, they married in Castile, New York on August 29, 1951. His graduate and post graduate work at Boston University and Harvard pulled them to Boston for the next five years. There she served as a children’s librarian at Boston Public Library. “This city was a wonderful place to be young and in love,” her family shared. They spent many of their evenings and weekends in the city’s many jazz clubs and parks, and listened to outdoor concerts at Hatch Memorial Shell on warm summer evenings.

Entry into family life occurred when their daughter Beth was born in 1956. Soon carrying a baby buggy up five flights of stairs in a city apartment convinced them to move to a small home in nearby North Easton, and their second child David was born in neighboring Brockton in 1958.  “From early on, they both have always known that their mother believed in them unendingly and was an ardent supporter of their efforts and plans,” her family added. “Mary Ellen also became a treasured sounding board for their friends, especially during their teenage and young adult years.”

In 1962 Dr. Brigante accepted a job as director of the Claremont Colleges Counseling Center and the family moved across the country. Once in Claremont, they lived in three beautiful old houses before buying their own near the Village. Though she missed her East Coast home, she became an avid Californian of the 1960s, embracing the open and accepting philosophy of the times and famously sticking large, bright flower decals all over her little Sunbeam Alpine convertible, her first beloved English sports car.

With her children in their upper elementary years, she returned to school, attending Claremont Graduate School (later Claremont Graduate University) and swiftly attaining pupil personnel services certification, marriage, family and child counselor and psychologist licensures, and her Ph.D. in education.

She was an ardent supporter of girls believing in themselves and what they could achieve, and women striving for and attaining professional roles. She worked as a psychologist for 20 years at David and Margaret Youth and Family Services, seeing primarily foster girls and helping them to prepare for living independently and successfully making their way in the world. Later in her career, in addition to her marriage and family counseling clinical practice, she delighted in the opportunity to work with Scripps College on its career counseling program for women returning to college. Her daughter Beth said she always felt so fortunate to have her mother’s steadfast companionship and enduring support for all her efforts.

“As time passed, she was a truly welcoming mother-in-law for her daughter-in-law Davia and her son-in-law, Ken,” her family continued. “Davia remembers that whenever she and Dave came to Claremont to visit, Mary Ellen would talk with her about their shared love of reading and Davia always left with an armload of books to keep from Mary Ellen’s endless library. She enjoyed Mary Ellen’s poetry and always felt that Mary Ellen used her talent to provide comfort and inspire those around her. Ken and Mary Ellen both loved movies, especially those about family life in the country, and they loved to tease each other about who had watched certain movies the most times.  Mary Ellen loved her deliberate engineer son-in-law to help her with her projects, and Ken was the only one who would be accepted for certain tasks and expeditions.”

Outside of her work and her family, she had many passions. She was an ardent lover of animals, and they surrounded her throughout her life. “Moxie, a Maltipoo, lived up to her name, and was Mary Ellen’s great friend in her later years,” her family said.

She loved Shakespeare, and the poet Mary Oliver, and wrote hundreds of her own poems. “In her 60s and 70s, she treasured the people in her poetry class and together they created collections of open hearted, thoughtful, and inspiring work,” her family continued.

She loved many sports and threw herself into them fully, from her high school basketball team to tennis with friends, to skiing at Mammoth and Brian Head on family holidays, to playing golf with her husband, to exploring the redwood forests of California and Bryce Canyon in Utah. She never missed a game in any sport her son played. She loved to learn and was fascinated by the mysteries of Latin and Greek and knew a tremendous amount about the facts and strategies of the Civil War, and world wars I and II. “With mom’s Beethoven, dad’s jazz, and our rock, the house was always filled with music,” Dave and Beth recalled. “Finally, she loved hats, and wore them with her own jaunty tilt.”

She was preceded in death by her husband of 61 years, Thomas Brigante, in 2012.

She is survived by her daughter Beth and son-in-law Ken Higbee of Claremont, and son David and daughter-in-law Davia Brigante of Yamhill, Oregon.

Friends and loved ones are invited to join the family for a celebration of life at 9 a.m. Sunday, September 17 at California Botanic Garden’s Cultivar Garden.


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