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Obituary: Margaret Hope Bacon ’43

On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, Margaret Borchardt Bacon, 89, the prominent Quaker historian, died at her home in Crosslands, the retirement community near Kennett Square in Philadelphia.

Born Margaret Hope Borchardt, she was known as Margaret Hope Bacon. From 1959 through 2007, Mrs. Bacon published more than a dozen works, several of them about leading lights of the Religious Society of Friends.

In a 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer interview, Cynthia Little, a historian and director of interpretive programming at the Atwater Kent Museum, said Mrs. Bacon "has a knack for picking people whose life stories have resonance for us today." "She is drawn to people who are so impassioned about the causes they believe in that even though they faced problems that often seemed intractable, they nevertheless took a stand and just didn't back down. Sometimes we need to go back to the past to get our own spines stiffened."

A list of Mrs. Bacon's works, from the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, shows that though several were published by Quaker imprints, major publishers were interested in what she had to say. In 1974, Thomas Y. Crowell Co. published I Speak for My Slave Sister: The Life of Abby Kelley Foster. In 1987, the University of Pennsylvania Press published Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury. In 2000, the State University of New York Press published Abby Hopper Gibbons: Prison Reformer and Social Activist.

The Inquirer interviewer noted that above her work desk at Crosslands was "a portrait of Lucretia Mott, whom Bacon calls 'my muse.'" The Quaker antislavery and women's rights crusader was the subject of her popular 1980 biography, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott. "Her interest in Mott led her to Fair Hill, the cemetery where Mott is interred. Located in the so-called Badlands section of North Philadelphia, the old Quaker burial ground had become 'a source of blight,' in Bacon's words. In the early '90s, she and her husband helped form a committee that has rescued the cemetery from neglect."

Mrs. Bacon did not easily become a Quaker. "Like a lot of people," she told the 2008 interviewer for Quaker Books, "I thought I wasn't really good enough to be a Quaker. After we had our children they complained that they wanted to be something, so we decided to send them to Quaker Sunday school and we joined a meeting."

Born in New York City, Mrs. Bacon attended the City and Country School in the West Village and earned a bachelor's degree at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1943. Swarthmore awarded her an honorary doctorate in the 1980s. A daughter, Betsy Caesar, said that while raising three children, Mrs. Bacon wrote freelance articles for national magazines such as Parents and Good Housekeeping, as well as an Evening Bulletin weekly piece titled "Child's Weekend." Mrs. Bacon told the Quaker Books interviewer: "I've published a good amount of short fiction. I really wanted to be a novelist. I only have two published novels, but I wrote a lot of novels that didn't quite make it." She didn't feel qualified to dip into Quaker biographical writing, but, she said, "nobody else was doing it, and I got plenty of help from historians, learning how to do historical research."

Her principal office job was also in the Quaker vein - assistant director of information services for the American Friends Service Committee from 1962, the year she turned 41, until she retired in 1984.

Caesar said her mother had been a longtime vice president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and a cofounder of Women's Way and, with her husband, Allen, had established the Delaware County Fair Housing Council.

In 1978, Mrs. Bacon was among 26 folks honored by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. She was a T. Wistar Brown Fellow in Quaker studies at Haverford College and a Friend in Residence at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England, her daughter said. In her Inquirer interview, Mrs. Bacon explained, "I've always been interested in what motivates some people to do good works. There's a spirit running through humanity that keeps producing people who have the urge to make life better for their fellow human beings. They don't always win, but I think it's wonderful that that spirit keeps popping up."

Besides her husband of 68 years, S. Allen Bacon '43, and Caesar, Mrs. Bacon is survived by son Peter, her Antioch alum daughter Peggy, four grandchildren, four step-grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and 11 step-great-grandchildren. Memorial meetings were set for 11 a.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry Streets, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at Crosslands.