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Reston Loses a Pioneer

Former resident, bioethics scholar and a founding member of Reston Black Focus, Marian Gray Secundy, died in December.

Reston lost one of its pioneers when former resident Marian Gray Secundy died of a heart attack Dec. 17. Secundy, 64, a Howard University professor emeritus and founding member of Reston Black Focus, died at her daughter's home in New York City.

"Marian loved Reston, she thought it was a great place to raise a family," said her brother, William H. Gray III, a former United States representative from Pennsylvania and the president of the United Negro College Fund. "She was one of the first people to move out of the city back in the late 1960s. She just loved it."

Secundy was one of the first neighbors Catherine Hudgins met when she moved into Reston. Hudgins, who is now the Hunter Mill District supervisor, considered Secundy a close friend and she said she was a strong community advocate for Reston during its early years. "She really made a contribution to Reston," Hudgins said. "She brought lots of people together, of all races, who were not used to living in a diverse community. She truly lived the expectations and ideals that Reston was founded upon."

Secundy, who lived in Reston for 12 years, moved to the then new planned community in 1967, at a time when racism and segregation were alive and well in Virginia. "I just remember, that back in those days it was very beautiful but, it was also so far out in the boonies," said Robert Secundy, her former husband. "It was so far out, I brought my cousin with us, just in case we got lonely."

But by all accounts, Secundy was never lonely. She always surrounded herself with family and friends, her former husband of 16 years said. "You have to remember that when we moved there, it was a very different time. With Reston Black Focus, Marian helped create a built-in system that helped identify persons of color as they moved into the still largely segregated Northern Virginia suburbs," Robert Secundy said. "Without Reston Black Focus, there would not be the solid black community that exists today."

One of those friends and neighbors was Restonian Priscilla Ames. Like Secundy, Ames was one of the early black pioneers in Reston. During the early years, Lake Anne Plaza was a center of activity and community, Ames said. "The plaza was a hub," she said. "We all met there. That was where the action was."

"We were all young when we came here," Ames said. "Reston had this reputation for being an especially open place. Mr. Simon [Robert Simon, the founder of Reston] and the other pioneers talked about inclusiveness. We hoped it would live up to those ideals, and clearly it has thanks to people like Marian."

As one of the founding members of Reston Black Focus, Secundy, her friends and family say, helped Simon's dream become a reality. It was formed to gain a greater cultural perspective for blacks and whites. "We were making sure that diversity was appreciated in Reston," Dotti West, a fellow pioneer, said. "It was such a wonderful idea and with the help and determination of Marian, it became a reality. We were all so young, disciples of Dr. King, and we had the energy to make our dreams come true."

Susan Secundy Barragan, Secundy's daughter, said her mom was always extremely proud of her involvement in the genesis of Reston Black Focus. "It's not a coincidence," said Barragan, "that the African-American community in Reston, and the entire community in general, is still very strong and diverse. They knew Reston was a new place and an integrated place something that could not be said about all places in the area. They knew they were pioneers."

AN ACTIVIST IN EVERY sense of the word, Secundy was a Louisiana-native and a daughter of a Philadelphia preacher. As pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, Secundy's late father, William H. Gray Jr., was a well-known and respected pastor in the community where she grew up. After high school, Secundy enrolled in Vassar College. Secundy then went on to Bryn Mawr College for graduate school. Shortly after receiving her master's degree in social work at the small Pennsylvania liberal arts school, Secundy, who also held a Ph.D. in medical humanities and bioethics from the Union Graduate Institute, went to work for the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Three years later, in 1965, Secundy and her new husband, Robert, moved to Washington, D.C. In D.C., Secundy served as the director of the Metropolitan Washington Housing Program. Two years later, the Secundy family, including infant daughter, Susan, moved to the new and relatively uncharted suburb of Reston. Her mother, Hazel Yates Gray, still lives in Reston. Her brother also lives in Reston.

From 1971 until her retirement in 1990, Secundy taught bioethics at Howard's Medical School. She was also director of the program in clinical ethics in the school's Department of Community Health and Family Practice. "I think without a doubt she was most proud of her teaching career at Howard University," her brother said.

With a background in race relations and medical humanities, Secundy was a natural choice, in 1999, to head the new National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University, a post she held until 2002 when she returned to Howard University in the fall of last year. The bioethics center at Tuskegee, the first of its kind at a historically black college, was founded after former Pres. Bill Clinton's historic apology for the United State's 40-year study of nearly 400 black men in Macon, Ala., who were diagnosed with syphilis. As the center's first director, Secundy was charged, among other things, with restoring blacks', especially those in poor rural districts like Macon, trust in the health-care system. Before her death, Secundy said her work at Tuskegee was one her biggest challenges and most rewarding experiences. "The goal of the center is to reverse and transform that negative legacy," she told a Bryn Mawr online forum last year. "By working on local, regional, national and international levels to incorporate ethical and human values in science, technology and health as they impact people of color."

WEST, WHO STILL lives in Reston, said Secundy had a knack for making people feel welcome and appreciated. "She was the town welcome wagon," she said. "She was tremendously inclusive, she made sure you were a part of the group. When I moved into Forest Edge, she was there at my door to make sure we felt welcome."

Priscilla Ames, of Reston, said Secundy was a "good — no fantastic — listener." Her friend, she said, had an unusually keen insight into any person she met, be it personally or professionally. "It was the social worker in her, I guess," Ames said. "She nurtured her friends. She had a way of collecting friends in such a way that everyone thought she was their best friend. And you know what? They were."

West said her friend was like a camp director, always orchestrating outings or organizing bridge games. Every summer, she would set up camp on Martha's Vineyard.

"The Vineyard embodied all the things she cared deeply about," said Barragan. "It was an integrated vacation spot where she could be comfortable and relaxed. She loved it and she could be herself."

H. Patrick Swygert, a Philadelphia-native himself and current president of Howard University, has known the Gray family for 40 years. He has known Secundy as a university trustee and colleague, but he says he will always remember her as a friend. "Marian treasured her friendships," the president said, echoing Ames' thoughts.

Like Ames, Swygert said Secundy was renown for her ability to listen, but, he added, she was equally known for her ability to offer advice and counsel. "Marian was not one to tell you what you wanted to hear, she was one to tell you want you absolutely needed to hear," the Howard University president said. "That was the way she demonstrated her friendship, she got right to the truth of everything. Her words were not meant to hurt, but to help and uplift."

Secundy's penchant for being direct was not limited to her friends. "Mom always expressed herself, no matter what the situation," Barragan said, laughing. "There was no gray. You always knew where mom stood."

"More than anything, she loved her kids and she absolutely adored her [three] grandchildren," said her daughter. "Everyday of her life, she was an advocate for us — she was like our own personal cheerleaders."

Though she was on the road nearly every week of the year, her friends said she was never more than a postcard or a phone call away. Despite suffering a stroke nearly 18 months ago and her all-too-frequent battles with narcolepsy, Secundy never showed signs of slowing down. "She was always on the go, so it hasn't really hit yet, that she is gone," she said. "We expect her to walk through those doors any day. With her narcoleptic self, she would fall asleep and wake up and join the conversation without skipping a beat."

Ames agreed, saying that her friends and family always knew exactly where the water comes from. "It sounds cliché, but it is true," Ames said, "Marian took advantage of every second of everyday."