DETROIT – Eleanor Josaitis, who co-founded the social services organization Focus: HOPE in the wake of Detroit's 1967 riots and worked to fight racism, poverty and injustice, died Tuesday. She was 79.
Josaitis died at Angela Hospice in Livonia with family members by her side, her son Mark Josaitis said. She was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer last year and had undergone chemotherapy, and had also broken her hip during a fall.
"Eleanor was a stalwart of community activism," Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said in a statement. "She has touched the lives of countless Detroiters and built a legacy of hope and help that will last for generations."
Josaitis and the Rev. William Cunningham founded Focus: HOPE in 1968 after the riots that widened the rift between Detroit's black and white residents. The civil and human rights organization offers job training, as well as food programs for the poor and elderly. Cunningham died in 1997.
"She really believed in human dignity and helping people develop skills to be proud of," Mark Josaitis told The Associated Press.
Josaitis became a civil rights activist after watching a televised report on violence against civil rights marchers in Alabama in 1963, according to Focus: HOPE. She served as CEO of the group for nine years after Cunningham's death, and later remained active in its work.
"There's no greater way to eliminate racism and poverty than to see that people have education, skills, jobs and opportunities in life," she said.
As the operations manager of Focus: HOPE in the 1970s, she wasn't deterred when the group's offices were firebombed and helped the organization recover after a tornado caused $18 million in damages to the group's campus.
"For 40 years, her courage and commitment to intelligent and practical leadership has informed and inspired us," Focus: HOPE's chief executive William F. Jones Jr. said in a statement. "Her loss is immeasurable, but we are firmly committed and well positioned to make her work continue."
Following her death, tributes poured in from lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, as well as state and local officials who remembered her as a champion of Detroit. U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan described her as remarkable.
"Josaitis was an inspiration to us all and her ever present passion will be missed on the Detroit landscape," Dingell said in a statement. "Eleanor was about changing the world one person at a time."
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said she was a "tireless and devoted leader" who served the entire state.
"Her compassion and resolve live on through the work of Focus: HOPE and the countless men, women and children whose lives were forever changed for the better because of her," Snyder said in statement.
A funeral mass will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.
Visitation will be held from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at the Church of the Madonna in Detroit. A scripture service is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the church.
Survivors include Josaitis' husband of 55 years, Donald; children Mark, Michael, Thomas, Janet Denk and Mary Lendzion; seven grandchildren; sisters Margaret Krueger and Janet Lang; and brother Louis Reed.
Memorial contributions may be made to the "Eleanor Josaitis Fund for Focus: HOPE."
Focus: HOPE, http://www.focushope.edu