Elizabeth Conti Bellavance

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Elizabeth C. Bellavance, an educator, social activist, and patron of the academic and arts communities who was also an outspoken advocate for the Eastern Shore's Hispanic community, died July 24 of cancer at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va. She was 77.

"Liz was an extraordinary, extraordinary woman. I used to call her the Grand Dame of the Eastern Shore," said Kim Propeack, a lawyer who is the political and communications director for Casa de Maryland.

"She was attached to the plight of undocumented immigrants. She was incredibly engaged with this issue," said Ms. Propeack. "The Shore has lost someone very, very special."

The daughter of Dr. Eugene A. Conti, an obstetrician, and Genevieve Keally Conti, a homemaker, the former Elizabeth Conti was born and raised in Pittsburgh.

After graduating from Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Pittsburgh, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1958 from Middlebury College and a master's degree in English literature in 1963 from Duquesne University.

While a student at Duquesne, she met her future husband, Thomas E. Bellavance, an academician, whom she married in 1964.

During the 1970s, as her husband pursued his academic career and the couple raised their family, Elizabeth Bellavance taught English as a second language at Michigan State and Framingham State universities.

In 1980, when her husband was appointed the sixth president of Salisbury University, Mrs. Bellavance spent the next two decades promoting its development.

"She was a strong advocate for academic excellence, a dedicated supporter of the arts and a fundraiser for various university initiatives," according to a Salisbury University profile of Mrs. Bellavance. "She regularly attended campus lectures, exhibits and performances despite a busy schedule."

She was a founder of WSCL, the university's public radio station, and was a patron of the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra, theater and dance, and the Bellavance Honors Program named for her husband, who died in 1996.

Mrs. Bellavance was a consulting editor for Houghton Mifflin Co. and for Salisbury University's Literature/Film Quarterly journal. She also worked as a counselor in career services at Salisbury University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

A devout Roman Catholic throughout her life, Mrs. Bellavance worked tirelessly for the church and social justice.

As a member of the Maryland Catholic Conference Social Concerns Committee, she was the Hispanic representative for the Eastern Shore. When she was in her 60s, Mrs. Bellavance studied Spanish in order to be able to communicate and work directly with Hispanic workers.

She had worked with CASA de Maryland for 15 years. She stopped about a year ago when she began to suffer health issues.

Mrs. Bellavance supported the Maryland DREAM Act, which allows some students brought to the U.S. illegally as children to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

"She was an impassioned advocate for the Maryland Dream Act and served on the steering committee for Salisbury University's Bienvenidos a Delmarva, a network of over 70 service-providing organizations designed to help immigrants on the Delmarva Peninsula," according to the Salisbury University profile.

"She took the social justice commitment of the Catholic Church very seriously," said Ms. Propeack. "In 2009, when we lost access to drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants ... Liz took their documents and helped process them. If she had to, she'd challenge the DMV."

Ms. Propeack said that Mrs. Bellavance was fearless when it came to speaking with business owners about undocumented immigrants.

"She understood that they were a part of and were building the Eastern Shore economy, so she had no trouble hassling business owners or vegetable stand owners alongside the road, that their employees had rights, and that it was important that they get their licenses," she said.

Mrs. Bellavance was the only representative from the Eastern Shore to serve as a member of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs when Gov. Martin O'Malley elevated the commission in 2008 to executive level.

"Immigrant rights were just a portion of her life," said Ms. Propeack. "You just hope and pray that you'll be the type of person she is when you get to be her age."

She was a founding board member of Coastal Hospice Inc. in Salisbury and was well-known throughout Salisbury for serving with multiple community organizations that ranged from the public library to public-access television.

A modest person who easily connected with people whether they were college students, migrant workers or senior citizens, Mrs. Bellavance preferred to remain in the background. In recognition of her volunteer work, she was presented the governor's Unsung Hero Award.

"In quiet, private ways she could reach out to the suffering and vulnerable," said the university profile. "Those who knew her remember her sense of humor, her strength, her imagination and her moral passion."

"She collected people and was a good friend to all," said a daughter, Sarah Bellavance Rasich of Richmond, Va. "She liked to swim and read and was always intellectually stimulating."

Mrs. Bellavance, who lived in Salisbury and Richmond, was a communicant of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, 9505 Gayton Road, in Richmond, where a memorial Mass will be offered at 1 p.m. Aug. 9.

In addition to Ms. Rasich, Mrs. Bellavance is survived by a son, Eugene T. Bellavance of Johnstown, Colo.; two other daughters, Emily Catherine Bellavance of Baltimore and Genevieve Bellavance of Philadelphia; two brothers, Eugene A. Conti of Raleigh, N.C., and John Gregory Conti of Perugia, Italy; three sisters, Christine Conti Swift of Bethesda, Jane Conti Hogan of Houston and Catherine Conti Kilkeary of Ninety Six, S.C.; and five grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com