Without Marian Ullman, chances are we wouldn't consider taking a boat trip out to the Boston Harbor Islands.
Without her, the Back Bay most certaintly wouldn't have it's Friends and Neighbors Groups through the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. The Garden Club of the Back Bay would not exist as it is today.
"She was a visionary," said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association -- which Ullman helped found in 1973. "She understood what the possibilities were. She was ahead of her time."
Sue Prindle, a civic activist and member of the Garden Club of the Back Bay, remembers Ullman as “a supremely spunky lady.”
Anne Kneisel, a friend and fellow member of the “Merry Matrons” luncheon group, describes her as “indefatigable.”
There’s no place like home
Although known as an exotic woman and world traveler, Ullman’s chief concern was for her native Boston, as evidenced by her involvement in the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, a charter member of the Garden Club, and conservation efforts in the Boston Harbor.
In a time where woman were not necessarily encouraged to be involved in civil engagements, Ullman had a dream to make the harbor clean enough so her children could swim in it, and began organizing the first boat trips out to the islands, Li said.
"You take it for granted now, but back then nobody would go," Li said. Where there was a landfill, she saw potential.
"It was because of visionaries like Marian Ullman who make the harbor clean enough where people want to live and work there," she said.
Before Ullman’s advocacy, hardly anyone seemed to care about the harbor islands, Kneisel said. She was, in Prindel’s words, “a fighter.”
“She always said exactly what she thought,” Prindle said. Ullman’s presence invariably “resulted in interesting and lively board meetings.”
As a strong organizer, she was never shy about asking people to pitch in on her projects, and also “never held grudges against those who disagreed with her,” Prindle said. This winning blend self-assurance in her goals and the ability to marshal people to action is perhaps the secret of Ullman’s leadership, and the lasting impact she had.
A world traveler
With all her contributions to Boston and Back Bay, Ullman also loved to travel. She was especially enamored of India, and visited the country several times. In 1961 she married writer and mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman. Not only did she accompany her husband to Nepal -- where he chronicled the first American conquest of Mount Everest -- but she was known to host the famed adventurers several times in her Marlborough Street home.
Friend Anne Swanson remembers the first time she was over there for dinner, and was surprised at all the climbing equipment in her apartment. Then, in the middle of cooking a chicken dinner, Ullman got a phone call.
"She said, 'Oh, it's my sherpa,'" Swanson said. "That kind of exemplified her exotiness."
In fact, when she died in December, her daughter Hollis Young said Ullman's sherpa tracked her down, and sent her a letter describing the impact her mother had on his life.
"It made me cry," Young said.
Even as she aged, she never lost her spirit.
Kneisel recalls a trip they took together to France.
“She was well into her 80’s, and invited me to go because she didn’t want to go by herself,” Kneisel said. To her surprise, “Marian was ahead of everybody, running over the hill and dale. She had far more energy than much younger members of the tour group.”
Her impact lives on
Well into her 50's, she was also pushing to make sure Back Bay retained much of it's character. As other urban places, including parts of Boston, become more and more built up, squalid, and impersonal, Back Bay retains it's historical charm, and of that is owed to Ullman.
“It’s amazing how Back Bay doesn’t feel like a city in the negative sense,” Kneisel said. “People wave at each other here."
She was a strong advocate of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay's architectural commission, which remains a strong organization. But it is the Friends and Neighbor’s groups -- every bit as important to Back Bay’s character and charm as the absence of skyscrapers -- that best illustrates Mrs. Ullman’s civic consciousness and her legacy.
“More and more people were moving into the Back Bay,” Kneisel said. With all these “newcomers,” Ullman worried that Back Bay’s indigenous charm would fade away.
But instead of building fences in the hope of conserving old ways, Ullman enthusiastically welcomed them, and helped them meet one another.“With so many new people, people just didn’t know each other,” Kneisel said. “The Friends and Neighbors program was a way for people to meet each other, to get to know each other as a community.”
Ullman’s impressive life of travel to exotic places suggests, perhaps, that in Back Bay she recognized something truly unique; an irreplaceable charm which, in all her time abroad, she hadn’t found anywhere else. Rather than excluding newcomers from the spirit of Back Bay’s community, Ullman brought that spirit to the newcomers. It is because of her leadership that the denizens of Back Bay - native and newcomer alike - can enjoy a healthy civic life full of education, involvement, and leisure, together in a fellowship as friends and as neighbors.
A memorial service will be held at Trinity Church, on Saturday at 11 am.