Caring, generous and a "ball of fire" all describe Lucie C. McKinney, 80, who died Saturday from complications of cancer, according to those who knew the Westport philanthropist, widow of former U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney and mother of state Sen. John McKinney.
Lucie McKinney fought the stigma of AIDS after her husband, a Republican who represented the 4th Congressional District for 16 years, died from the disease in 1987. In his name, she established a foundation to help people with HIV and battled opposition to her plan to open a Fairfield group home for homeless people with AIDS.
"Lucie really is a ball of fire, she's a force of nature and she'd set her mind to something and she'd get it done," said Fairfield Probate Judge Daniel Caruso, a longtime family friend; and the struggle to open the group residence for people with AIDS -- at a time when the illness was misunderstood and widely feared -- was one of those examples.
The fight over plans to open the Stewart B. McKinney Foundation house on Oldfield Road in Fairfield began in 1988, and didn't end until an injunction against the Town Plan and Zoning Commission was issued in 1991. There were often contentious meetings on the plan with neighbors, and the late Jacquelyn C. Durrell, then the first selectman
The foundation continues today providing funds to care for people with HIV who are homeless or at risk for homelessness.
"After Stewart died, she took up various causes that others avoided," Caruso said, "and that's a credit to her. And she was always supported by her kids, which made all the difference to them, and to her."
The Rev. William Sangiovanni, president of Notre Dame High School in Fairfield, a friend of the McKinney family for more than 50 years, recalled many gatherings at their home then on Congress Street in Fairfield.
"I was down in Washington when (Stewart) was dying," Sangiovanni said. "One of the things that always amazed me was her determination to try and do something about AIDS. It was very courageous, especially at that time. I admired her for going forth with that."
While her husband served in Congress in Washington, D.C., Sangiovanni said Lucie had to take care of everything back home in Fairfield -- including the couple's five children. "She did a heck of a job, she has five beautiful children," he said.
One of them, state Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, is vying for this year's Republican nomination for governor.
Caruso noted that while Lucie McKinney did make large donations to social and community causes, she was equally, if not more, generous to individuals.
One of those large community donations was $500,000 to the Westport Weston Family Y for its new headquarters now under construction. Years earlier, her grandfather, F.T. Bedford, arranged for the Bedford Trust Fund to pay half of the purchase price for the Mahackeno property, the site of the new Y, and her great-grandfather, Edward T. Bedford, had built the building in downtown Westport that the Y will vacate later this year.
"She has been an advocate for the new Y, she has been advocate for us doing what we can and for bringing the facility up to par for our staff," said Robert Reeves, chief executive office at the Westport Weston Family Y. "She came to everything she could," he said, including the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Y and the ceremonial signing of the steel beam last year.
"She continued to be not just an advocate, but a presence, cheering us on," Reeves said. "She was a wonderful, caring person who thought the world of us, and we thought the world of her."
A Westport resident at the time of her death, First Selectman James Marpe said Lucie McKinney was a valued citizen of the community, and saluted her role as an activist for people with AIDS
"She was also a strong proponent of protecting the environment as well as a major supporter of her church," Marpe said in a statement. "As a member of the Bedford family, Lucie McKinney continued a 100-year tradition of the Bedford family providing major support to the Westport Woman's Club, the Family Y and Norwalk Hospital. On behalf of the town of Westport, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family."
And while Lucie McKinney came from wealth, Sangiovanni said she was never pretentious and never phony.
"She was one of the most incredible characters I've ever met in my life," he said. "She always told it like it was; she never minced words. I loved it because you always knew where you stood with Lucie; she was very loyal to her friends and devoted to her family."
Though not a big lover of the political scene, Sangiovanni said, "she did what she had to do, but as the years went by, she got a bit more involved." Once the Stewart B. McKinney Foundation was established, she continued her commitment to its mission over the decades, he said. "She was a very incredible person and coming from her background, she didn't have to do any of that."
She and her husband Stewart were the parents of five children, Stewart B. McKinney Jr., Lucie B. McKinney, Jean C. McKinney, Elizabeth (Libby) M. Tritschler and John P. McKinney, and 12 grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned at 4 p.m. May 20 at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, 4670 Congress St. in Fairfield. Burial will be private.