Former resident Constance Foster Griffith, 90, died from progressive supra-nuclear palsy on Sept. 2, 2014, at Good Samaritan Adult Family Home Care in Reno, Nevada with Mendelssohn’s, "Calm Sea and Prosperous Journey” playing in the background. “It was a real appropriate song for her, ” son Tom Griffith said. A simple gathering of her caregivers and sons has already happened, though spontaneous memorial gatherings would be welcomed, he said.
Tall and athletically built with wavy white hair and a warm smile, Constance Griffith was easy to spot in a crowd, and she was often in them. The retired teacher and social and environmental activist volunteered for many events and organizations, including the library, museum, radio, and Hospice of Haines. She was an active member of Lynn Canal Conservation, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and the Haines Presbyterian Church. “Every action Mom ever took in her life to correct the injustices and sufferings everywhere especially of children were guided by her deep faith in God and His message delivered to us through the teachings of Jesus.” Tom Griffith said.
Constance Griffith vacationed in Haines for years and summered several seasons before moving into a log home she helped her son and Haines craftsmen build in 1996. Tom Faverty worked on the place. “I have so many vivid memories of her, from peeling logs in the morning as we arrived, to cooking up halibut head soup in her trailer… to drinking Guiness with us after work on Friday,” Faverty said. She dubbed the smaller place next door she later occupied, “The Granny House,” and finally lived in the Haines Senior Village until illness required moving south in 2006.
Teacher Patty Brown recalled the way she cared for Senior Village neighbors. “I remember Constance saying, ‘I have to go read to the old ladies,’ and she was about 80,” Brown said.
Griffith hosted the KHNS weekly classics show, Allegro Ma Non Troppo alternating weeks with Bob Plucker. “The word eclectic comes to mind,” he said when describing her shows. “Constance loved classical music and had an extremely gracious manner about her on the air, and of course off, as well,” Plucker said. The program may have even saved her life. Griffith was on the air when she passed out from a bad reaction to wild mushrooms and listeners alerted EMTs.
Constance Foster Burden was born on July 24, 1924, in Summerville, South Carolina. Her father, Henry S. Burden was an architect and her mother, Constance (Foster) Burden, taught school. “Growing up in the South was deeply troubling for her. She had a lot of empathy for the blacks and some of her favorite people growing up were black, especially a carpenter who worked for her dad,” son Tom Griffith said.
She attended Charleston College for a year and continued her studies at more progressive Antioch College in Ohio where she met her future husband, Sanford Griffith. He was working in Fairbanks when she joined him there in 1946. “It was 65 below and he met her with a parka and took her straight to the courthouse to marry,” Tom Griffith said. They raised four sons together.
She earned a Master’s in education from UAF, taught at the University Park school, and helped found the Head Start pre-school program in Alaska. “Mom spent a lot of time with Native Alaskans through her work helping get the program off the ground in villages in the 1960s. That experience delighted her,” Tom said.
In 1968 the family moved to Ketchikan, where she taught grade school until her retirement, after which Griffiths earned a law degree from Antioch Law School in Washington D.C. “I think she was their oldest graduate at about 65,” Tom Griffith said. Returning to Ketchikan, she became a guardian ad litem, representing children in the court system. She continued some of this work after moving to Haines.
Son Charles said his mother may have had an infectious laugh, “but she was all business when advocating for the less fortunate, the environment, or for children.”
Griffith was a president of the League of Women Voters in Alaska and a longtime member of the NAACP. She is listed among significant donors on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.
Oct. 25, 2006, was proclaimed Constance Griffith Day by the Haines Borough Assembly in gratitude for her service to Haines. “Constance embraced the community, and gave generously of her spirit, intellect, time, and energy in so many ways,” friend Kathleen Menke said. “She was a great lady.”
She is survived by three sons, Charles, of Nevada; Thomas, of Vermont, and Benjamin, of Ohio; seven grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and brother, Henry Burden, of Maryland. Son Peter preceded her in death.
Donations in her memory may be given to any organization that works for children. Condolences can be sent to Charles Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org