The True Believer
By the 1980s, a casual observer might have mistaken Marilyn Morheuser for a picture-perfect grandmother. Short and stout, with graying hair, thick glasses, and sensible shoes, she loved her books and her cats, nurtured a wide windowsill’s worth of luxuriant plants, and spun out her Christmas shopping into an elaborate, months-long project. True, she would have made an irreverent kind of grandma—the kind who chainsmoked, rooted for a sharp-elbowed basketball team, and liked her martinis extra dry, the kind with a hearty appetite for good food, vividly colored scarves, and intense friendships—but irreverent grandmas are their own sort of cliché. Yet it would have been a mistake to see Marilyn Morheuser in such familiar and reassuring terms, for at the core of her personality lay something more complicated: a drive to commit wholly, deeply, irrevocably to a cause larger than self. Three years after the Robin- son case ended, the unfinished fight for school-finance reform in New Jersey became the last of the three great causes to which Morheuser dedicated her life, and she pursued it with a tenacity that bordered on obsession. She was a childless white lawyer in late middle age, but the black and Hispanic schoolchildren of the inner city became her children, and she defended what she saw as their interests with a fierceness that was part maternal passion, part crusading hunger for justice.
Marilyn Jeanne Morheuser was born in St. Louis on May 31, 1924, the second of three children of Marie Werthe, a former bank teller, and Martin Morheuser, an insurance agent of German descent. In August 1928,