Pioneer and Advocate for Juvenile Justice
2006 Women's History Month Honoree
Mary Taylor Previte’s extraordinary work and talent as an educator, writer, and public official demonstrate a variety of successful ways in which she has built communities and encouraged the fulfillment of dreams. Born in China in 1932, the daughter of missionary parents, she was imprisoned for three years during World War II in a Japanese concentration camp. Separated from her parents for 5 ½ years and surrounded by guards with bayonets and dogs, she learned survival at the age of nine. Her most vivid childhood memory is the sight of American troops parachuting from the skies to liberate the Weihsien Concentration camp.
The Taylor family moved to the United States when she was thirteen. At age fourteen she lost her left hand when she got too close to a buzz saw. Mary credits her parents with giving her the confidence to triumph. They preached a family motto, “A Taylor never says ‘I can’t’.” They taught her cans and coulds. Handicaps are on the outside, they told her. You have no handicaps on the outside.
She attended Greenville College in Illinois and moved to New Jersey in 1957, becoming a high school teacher in Camden, one of the most depressed areas in the United States. She taught English and journalism to children with challenged urban lives. Many years later, Lewis Katz who had been one of her students, appointed her to be Director of Camden County Youth Center, a pre-trial juvenile detention center. Katz called it “something out of Oliver Twist.” Her first day on the job she found two cans of chemical Mace in her desk drawer, which had been frequently used by her predecessor.
Mary poured hope into her teenagers. She sat knee-to-knee with them, encouraged them to tell their stories through words and artwork. Her leadership transformed the Youth Center into a national model. She was elected as the first woman to serve as President of the New Jersey Juvenile Detention Association. As a member of the National Coalition for Juvenile Justice, she advises the President and Congress on a host of juvenile justice issues. Recently retired as a fourth term New Jersey legislator, Mary has been recognized for her effectiveness and leadership. The New Jersey Conference of Mayors named her Legislator of the Year. She chairs and/or serves on a number of committees dedicated to the special needs of families, women and children.
A writer and lecturer, Mary inspires audiences across America. Her book, Hungry Ghosts, chronicles her story of working with troubled youth. This riveting, hope-filled memoir preaches her commitment to serving the underserved.
Mary T. Previte has for over 30 years been a role model for the troubled and the disadvantaged. Her life demonstrates the power of overcoming challenges.
When it comes to Building Communities and Dreams, Mary provides the bricks and mortar that hold the pieces together. No one could be better at turning dreams into reality…one challenge at a time.