By Joe Finn, MHSA President & Executive Director
Sometime in the early 1990s, while I was still at Father Bill’s Place in Quincy, I had the somewhat dubious honor of meeting Marylou Sudders. She was then the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health (DMH). I had come to see her, quite upset with the characterization of some earmarking of the DMH budget I had succeeded in obtaining for the benefit of housing we were working on in Quincy. Right at the beginning of my own tirade of protest, she sort of, kind of, told me to sit down and shut up. No, scratch that – she literally told me, “Sit down and shut up!” She then had the DMH budget analyst walk me through the budget and show me the error of my ways. As shocked as I was, she then spoke about something else. She said as long as she was Commissioner, if I could secure additional funding for projects serving people with mental illness who were experiencing homelessness, she would fund them, but please do not earmark them. During her time as DMH Commissioner, she never once broke that promise. Some 30 years later I can say that this is who Marylou is. . . she always keeps her word.
This was clearly her character. No matter who I encountered in public life, I found this was a shared perception of her character. She was a person of honor. Her “word was as good as gold,” as the saying goes. But she was also a caring and compassionate leader. This was not the milquetoast approach of those constantly taking stands that never lead to accomplishment of any kind. No, hers was directed compassion. While too many “leaders” are afraid to act for fear of approbation or misunderstanding, she always maintained a strict bias toward action. She got stuff done.
Her work and her support led to some of the greatest innovations ever to address homelessness. Her accomplishments included discharge planning, the Special Initiative for the Mentally Ill, the expansion of Medicaid tenant services for supportive housing, DMH Safe Havens, and low-threshold permanent supportive housing through the Department of Public Health. This of course does not begin to get at the significant changes she made throughout all the systems of care for people with mental illness and those with substance use disorders, nor her incredible work to make certain homeless shelters could be depopulated during the COVID crisis. Perfect? Not by a long shot, but wholly committed to action towards justice and integration of care for everyone.
We live in a time when too often leaders in public life measure their success by the peripheral dynamic of their own career track. Marylou is not one of them. Ultimately, despite yelling occasionally, she never loses sight of the person and the just care they deserve. Because of that and that alone, many will miss her. Best wishes, Marylou, as you begin this next phase of your life.