Sue Ward

Sue Ward, the first Director of Maryland's Department of Aging, died June 22. She was 78. (Handout photo)

Sue Fryer Ward, the first secretary of Maryland's Department of Aging and a lifelong advocate for elders' rights, died June 22 of complications from a stroke at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The Upper Marlboro resident was 78.

"Her true love was working on behalf of the elderly," said daughter Beth Ward of Hampden, Mass. "She had a wicked sense of humor and was devoted to her friends."

The youngest of two daughters of Ione Pierce, a worker at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and E. Reeseman Fryer, a former theater director, Sue Elleanore Fryer was born in Albuquerque, N.M., and traveled across the United States and abroad as her father changed duty stations.

During her 10 years as a child in Arizona, Mrs. Ward witnessed how Native Americans treated their elders in the Navajo Nation. She did not like to use "elderly" to describe senior citizens and believed "elders" showed more respect.

"Because someone is older, that does not make them unnecessary, rather it makes them even more necessary, especially to our society. We need their lessons," daughter Lucille Walker of Upper Marlboro recalled her mother often saying.

After attending more than a dozen schools before ninth grade, Mrs. Ward graduated from the former Western High School in Washington, D.C. She then earned a bachelor's degree in government from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

She also studied at American University in Beirut and McGill University in Canada before receiving a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah.

The licensed social worker was hired in 1982 to direct the Department of Aging in Prince George's County. She held the position until 1991 and became the director of the county's Department of Family Services in 1992. Three years later, she became the director of the state's Department of Aging.

The agency, which helps senior citizens access housing, affordable health care and employment, became an executive department in 1998 under Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He appointed Mrs. Ward as the first secretary, a post she held until 2003.

From 2003 to 2011, Mrs. Ward worked as a grass-roots director for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. She wanted to work longer, but health problems forced her to retire at 76.

"She thought she could make a difference for others." Ms. Walker said. "She saw the need. Her spirit was a joy to be around."

In 1959, she married the Rev. Dr. Archibald Ward and settled in Clinton. Dr. Ward, a former research sociologist and director of training in the forensic division at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, died in 2000.

Mrs. Ward knew the difficulties of caring for elders. Her mother developed dementia, and her husband was 23 years older than her. She cared for both as each grew old.

Before entering public service, Mrs. Ward drove a school bus and volunteered with several organizations in order to be at home with her young daughters. Active in Democratic politics, Mrs. Ward unsuccessfully challenged Republican Marjorie Holt in 1978 in Maryland's 4th Congressional District.

"She knew she would never win," Beth Ward said. "It was an uphill battle all the way, but she didn't think elections should go unchallenged."

Although Mrs. Ward lived in a small Maryland town, she pushed her daughters to have an expansive view of the world. To help, she discussed the places she visited, like Iran, Bolivia and Lebanon, and took her daughters to different churches, mosques and synagogues to learn other cultures.

"Most mothers and daughters go to shopping malls," Ms. Walker said, laughing. "Instead of shopping, we worked the polls or went to protest marches."

Besides working with national and state groups on aging, Mrs. Ward served the Hospice of Prince George's County, the Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly, the Older Women's League, the Center on Global Aging at Catholic University, and the Maryland Women's Heritage Center.

Mrs. Ward earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maryland Gerontological Association and a Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Award to Women in Government Service.

Other recognition included a Gladys Noon Spellman Award in 1994, and in 2010, the National Association of Public Workers named her a "Social Work Pioneer."

Mrs. Ward spent her spare time reading, meeting with friends and engaging in political discussions. She often said: "I don't have time for hobbies."

A celebration of her life will be held 4 p.m. Wednesday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Croom, Prince George's County.

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Ward is survived by a sister, Ann Fryer Van Fossen of Montreal; stepdaughter Ann Ward Little and stepson John Ward, both of Williamsburg, Va; and five grandchildren.

mark.puente@baltsun.com