Mary Zervigon, tireless civic activist and fixture at City Hall for decades, dies at 83

By John Pope

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

August 28, 2022

Mary Keller Zervigon, who held posts in two mayoral administrations and spent countless hours serving on civic boards working to improve the city, died Saturday at her New Orleans home of complications of epilepsy, her son Luis Zervigon said. She was 83.

“She did so much good work that even her children didn’t know everything she did,” he said. “She was out there, doing what she thought was right because she thought it was the right thing to do.”

Civic activism was in her DNA. Her grandfather A.B. Freeman, who led the Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Co., was a civic leader and philanthropist. Her mother, Rosa Freeman Keller, was an outspoken advocate of racial justice whose accomplishments included desegregating New Orleans’ public libraries.

“What else was I to do?” Zervigon said in an interview with The Uptown Messenger. “It was the way we grew up.”

At her death, Zervigon was president of the Board of Liquidation, City Debt, and a member of Xavier University’s Board of Trustees, the governing boards of New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, the Jesuit Social Research Institute and the School Leadership Center. She also served on the Public Affairs Research Council’s research committee.

For much of her life, Zervigon worked full-time. When Moon Landrieu was mayor, Zervigon was his executive assistant, then director of the city’s Transportation Department. In Sidney Barthelemy’s administration, she was the city’s lobbyist in Baton Rouge. From 1988 to 1992, Zervigon was chairwoman of the Louisiana Tax Commission.

“Mary was a great lobbyist because she could cut right to the chase about what she had to say,” said Madalyn Schenk, a longtime friend.

She was a trustee of one family foundation and the president of another. Although Zervigon’s work with those charities was public, she also gave generously — and anonymously — to many other causes and organizations, friends said.

“She was very humble,” Schenk said. “She never dictated to people how to solve their problems. She had them come explain their problems to her, she gave them the money and stepped out of the way.”

Zervigon may have been humble, but she was hardly a doormat, said Sybil Morial, who worked with her on the science and math high school board.

“She spoke her mind,” Morial said. “She had a lot of qualities her mother had. … I had great admiration for her because she was so frank.”

A lifelong New Orleanian, Zervigon graduated from the Isidore Newman School. She did not finish college until after she married Luis Mario Zervigon, had five children, and got divorced. Then she enrolled at Loyola University, where she earned undergraduate and law degrees.

In 1973, Zervigon was a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention. Other civic activities in her résumé included memberships on the Sewerage & Water Board, the Human Relations Commission and the boards of the Bureau of Governmental Research, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, the Metropolitan Area Committee, Loyola University and the Girl Scouts of Louisiana. She also led a Girl Scout troop.

In recognition of her service, Zervigon received the Alexis de Tocqueville Award, the highest honor from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, and the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women.

Survivors include three sons, Andrés Zervigon of New York City and Carlos and Luis Zervigon, both of New Orleans; two daughters, Alicia Zervigon of New Orleans and Rosa Landry of Abita Springs; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A memorial will be held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 10 at Felicity Church, 1220 Felicity St. A reception will begin at 9 a.m.

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