Mary Jane Quisenberry Wirtz
A selected bibliography of materials in the Wirtz Labor Library Collection
Mary Jane Quisenberry Wirtz (1913-2002)was a board member in the 1960s and 1970s of organizations to help the physically and mentally disabled and a well-liked fixture of Washington society. She was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, and raised in Maplewood, Missouri.
She was a Phi Beta Kappa (English major) graduate of Beloit College and attended Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied fashion design. She and Secretary Wirtz, who she met at Beloit, were married in St. Louis in 1936 while he was in his final year at Harvard Law School. Mrs. Wirtz was a trustee of Beloit College. She lived in Iowa and Winnetka, Illinois, before moving to the Washington area.
Mrs. Wirtz, the wife of Kennedy and Johnson administration Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, found her role on the Democratic speaking circuit expand as her sly wit and grace became more apparent. She used this presence as a member of the Executive Committee of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped in the early 1960s and later as chairman of the Board of Director of Project Earning Power, up to that point one of the largest efforts to employ disabled people. In this capacity, she supervised operations of a National Board of Direcotors and three field task forces: one in New York, one in Chicago, and one in Los Angeles.
Mrs. Wirtz was a board member of Operation Mainstream and a founder in the 1960s of the Widening Horizons Program, which offered scores of vocational and cultural programs to D.C. children. In 1967, she was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the original board of Federal City College, which became part of the University of the District of Columbia. With an informal ban on campaign speeches by Cabinet secretaries in place, she joined other wives as proxies on the campaign trail. Mrs. Wirtz was a frequent speaker and companion of Lady Bird Johnson and accompanied the first lady on a 1964 whistle-stop trip. Mrs. Wirtz also made campaign swings for the 1966 and 1968 elections.
Her clothes were as much a trademark as her self-deprecating humor. She began making clothes for herself and her family in the midst of the Depression. By the time she got to Washington, she was being touted in society pages for her sewing skill. In 1963, a Washington Post columnist wrote that her abilities were "a great asset in these days when she has to live on a Cabinet member's meager salary yet attend some of the most elegant parties in the United States of America." Drew Pearson referred to her in a 1963 column as "one of the ten best self-dressed women in the world." One of her most famous pieces -- featured in a picture on the front page of The Washington Post -- was a colorful waistcoat, the "This-Is-Your-Life Vest," that she made for her husband out of swatches of fabric representing segments of his career.
On March 28, 2000 the Labor Library was dedicated in honor of former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz and Mrs. Jane Wirtz to become the Wirtz Labor Library of the United States Department of Labor.
Dedication of the Wirtz Labor Library of the U.S. Dept. of Labor [videorecording]
Biographical information compiled from Mrs. Wirtz's Washington Post obituary [10/16/2002] and the Library's Willard Wirtz files.