Remembering Frances Townes, 101, fierce advocate for art and the homeless

Frances Townes, a longtime advocate for those experiencing homelessness, a woman deeply engaged in politics and spirituality, and a Nobel Prize-winner’s wife and companion, among other accomplishments, died Monday at the age of 101, just eight days short of her 102nd birthday.

Up until Christmas time, Townes was in excellent health, but she started to decline in December and died at home of natural causes, which was her wish, said her daughter Holly Townes.

Townes moved to Berkeley with her husband, Charles Townes, in 1967 and made a large impact on the community right from the start. When she turned 100, Berkeley declared Feb. 13, 2016, “Frances Townes Day.” Dozens of people, including the mayor, a city councilman, and a former UC Berkeley chancellor, celebrated her life at a birthday party at First Congregational Church, the church she had attended for more than 45 years.

“She was amazing,” said City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who said the City Council would adjourn its Feb. 13th meeting in Townes’ honor. “She was able to take a strong stand and advocate for poor people but avoid being seen as political as she did it. She could talk to people who might not have thought about such things into thinking about them. She was an incredible person.”

Frances Townes’ 100th birthday celebration. Photo: Roger Jones

Townes was born Frances H. Brown in Berlin, New Hampshire on Feb. 13, 1916, to a wealthy family who lost much of what they had during the Great Depression. That gave Townes an “understanding of how fragile life can be,” said Holly, the youngest of her four daughters. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in Italian and went to New York City and took a job at the International House, a place where students from around the world lived while they attended New York schools.

“She was really proud of that because it was the only time she got paid,” said Holly.

Townes organized outings for the students and it was on a ski trip to northern New York State that she met the man who would be her husband for 74 years. Charles Townes was teaching physics at Columbia University. The couple married a short time later, on May 4, 1941.

The Townes moved frequently in the ensuing years as Charles helped out with the war effort in Florida, advised the U.S. government in varying capacities, and taught at Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The couple had four daughters.

In 1964, Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the maser, a precursor to the laser. That renown meant that the couple traveled around the world and met many heads of state and other dignitaries.

In 1967, they moved to Berkeley so Charles could take a position at UC Berkeley. Frances decided to take some classes and was chagrined to discover that the university did not allow part-time students. That meant that many women, including faculty wives, could not attend school and further their educations. Frances worked with the chancellor to overturn that policy, said her daughter, Holly.

Frances was very interested in art, although she was not an artist herself. When she lived in Cambridge, MA, she organized a program where professors could borrow art from the MIT museum to hang in their offices. She served on the board of the Berkeley Art Museum and was among the first class of docents trained at the Oakland Museum, specializing in ecology.

Frances also became active in the League of Women Voters and was presented with the “Spirit of the League” award in 2010 when she was 95.

When Townes was 70, she grew concerned that there were not enough services for homeless people sleeping on church grounds. She founded the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless to bring Berkeley’s churches and religious leaders together to provide meals, shelter, and other services to homeless people. She grew to know many people who were suffering from homelessness.

“You would walk with her on the streets of Berkeley and she would greet all the people she knew and would give them hugs,” said Holly.

Frances Townes in front of the mural created in her honor by the artist Wesley Wright and Youth Spirit Artworks. Photo: Carla Kessler

The Towneses were also generous. They gave away most of the money Charles earned from the Nobel and the 2005 Templeton Prize. Frances’ 100th birthday celebration also doubled as a fundraiser for Youth Spirit Artworks, an arts and job training program for low-income and homeless youth. The artist Wesley Wright and youth from YSA created the Frances H. Townes Mural and Bench, a mosaic mural, in her honor, on the front wall of Youth Spirit Artworks on Alcatraz Avenue in South Berkeley.

Townes also chronicled her efforts in her 2007 autobiography, Misadventures of a Scientist’s Wife.

Charles Townes died in 2015 at the age of 99. A few years earlier the couple had sold their Berkeley home and moved into an independent living facility in Oakland. That’s where Townes died on Feb. 5.

Townes is survived by her daughters, Linda Rosenwein, (Robert), Ellen Townes-Anderson (Craig), Carla Kessler (Richard), Holly Townes (Gary), and six grandchildren, Nathan, Colin Sylvan, Layla, Sydney and Drake, and two great-grandchildren.

There will be a memorial service for Townes at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley in May or June. The family is still working on the details.

Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.