A Deeper Look into Our History: Mary Jean Brick


“Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.” Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe, German American Architect (1886-1969), pioneer of modernist architecture

Mary Jean’s own foundation began with parents Herman and Clarebelle Walters. Her father was co-owner of Walters & Hemming Plumbing — a visionary who profited from the growing fad for indoor plumbing in its fledgling days. More important was what her parents modeled at home. When Mary Jean’s sister was born premature, she was so tiny the doctors advised the new parents to leave the newborn at the hospital. They refused, says Mary Jean’s youngest daughter, Becky (Brick) Reed. Although she faced challenges such as repeating kindergarten seven times, she was no less loved than her spark-plug sister, Mary Jean.

“She was looked at as a blessing,” Becky says of her Aunt Hermine.

“She was part of the family,” says Tim Brick, Mary Jean’s middle son and owner of Brick Wheels. Several generations of Bricks (below) stand on the deck MJB’s grandson Peter built at BrickWays Barlow Street CLC home for his Eagle Scout project.

When a young Mary Jean Walters went to St. Teresa’s, a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota, a well-meaning priest and nun set her up on a blind date. The young man was Robert Brick, who at-
tended St. Mary’s, a nearby (then) all-men’s university. For two years, dates were chaperoned by the “Father” or “Sister.” Mary Jean and Bob fell in love, then married, on the condition that they move back to Mary Jean’s hometown of Traverse City, Michigan. Although she married into the surname, it was a perfect fit.

“She was petite, but she walked big,” says son Bob Brick, local ReMax realtor.

Although indomitable Mary Jean was diagnosed with and died from cancer in 2009, her spirit lives on in her five surviving, now-grown, children, many grandchildren, and BrickWays, a foundation and corporation that serves adults with developmental disabilities. “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” David Brinkley

Starting her own family, Mary Jean had her own special-needs child. First-born son John had a difficult birth. He was slow to learn, teased for his differences, and ended up having a nervous breakdown as a young teen. Unable to manage everyday life, he landed in the Traverse City StateHospital where he was medicated, institutionalized, and removed from society and family.

“She hated that John was there,” says Bob, of his mother’s feelings. As the 1970s progressed, many felt the same, and these large facilities housing thousands of people with various disabilities were being closed. Mary Jean traveled all over the Midwest and got a master’s in education, learning and looking for better solutions that would keep her oldest son in the community.

“Mom’s mission was to find a better place for my brother to live,” says Tim. “She wanted it to be like a home.” Mary Jean was unstoppable generating support for her vision. She’d camp in chairs at senators’ offices, waiting for a minute of their time to discuss legislation to make things bet-
ter. She also talked to corporations and foundations, garnering donations of money, materials, time, and commitments.

“‘No’ and ‘can’t’ were not part of her vocabulary,” says Bob.

Thus was the area’s first Community Living Center for adults with developmental disabilities
built in 1978. Today, BrickWays manages five properties for independent living. Mary Jean didn’t stop with just housing. She also saw the need for services, money, good management, and community participation, to keep the momentum going and adapt to the changing times. In 2011, BrickWays became the new official name of the former Grand Traverse Community Living Management Corporation. Tenant Barbara James came up with the name in honor of Mary Jean Brick, who by example and foresight, laid the bricks to carry-on.

Susan Onan