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Mae Ashley Abraham, champion of dignified treatment for the addicted, dies

Mae Ashley Abraham co-founded the Ashley Treatment Center in Harford County in 1983.
Mae Ashley Abraham co-founded the Ashley Treatment Center in Harford County in 1983. (Liz Roll for Max Taylor Photography, Photo by Liz Roll)

Mae Ashley Abraham, a determined visionary who championed a dignified recovery for people addicted to alcohol and drugs, and who co-founded Ashley Treatment, died Friday of an infection at her Havre de Grace home. She was 92.

“Mae understood that people coming here were at the lowest point in their lives,” said David T. Nassef, Ashley Treatment’s interim president. “In our early days, she gave birth to Ashley and ran the place from top to bottom.”

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She and a Roman Catholic priest and lecturer from Baltimore, the Rev. Joseph C. Martin, co-founded the Havre de Grace treatment center in 1983. Since then it has assisted more than 45,000 people.

Born Lora Mae Ashley in rural Warrensville, North Carolina, she was the daughter of the Rev. Arthur Ashley, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Molly Williams, who had 11 children. She was a graduate of Jefferson High School and attended a business college in Tennessee.

While on a school break, she joined an older sister, Mary, to work at Aberdeen’s Mayflower Diner. That summer, she met her future husband, Tommy Abraham, a soldier stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground. He later opened the Town House Restaurant in Aberdeen.

“Mae was always a quiet person who was shy and didn’t really want a spotlight. She was comfortable in her own personality,” said her sister, Camilla “Micki” Ashley Firsow, an Abingdon resident.

“But as a child, she had a spirit that would not quit. She said that I am going to get of out of North Carolina and go to business school," said her sister, who directed a relapse prevention program at Ashley. "She was never content to be just today. She always wanted to know what tomorrow held.”

The sister explained that Mae was a nondrinker until after she married.

"She shared in her recovery story that her first drink was to help her relax and dance better with her husband,” her sister said. “One drink eventually turned into alcoholism, for which she felt deep shame and remorse.”

After becoming intoxicated while at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, she had her last drink Aug. 26, 1964.

“Mae nearly died from detoxing from alcoholic abuse,” said her sister. “She had a very difficult time. Alcoholism was a tremendous stigma for women 55 years ago.”

She joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group and went to the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus to hear then-Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes speak on alcoholism. A family death forced him to cancel, and his substitute was Father Martin, a Hampden native who was a member of the Society of Saint-Sulpice and a teacher at St. Mary’s Seminary.

She later said that, as the daughter of a Baptist minister, she would never have gone to hear a Catholic priest speak.

She heard Father Martin give a “Chalk Talk on Alcohol,” a blackboard lecture that classified alcoholism as a disease, not a moral failing.

“Father Martin removed the stigma and shame from me about my alcoholism and I vowed that never again would I allow anyone or even myself to make me feel ashamed of what happened to me," Mrs. Abraham said in a 2008 Sun interview. “It changed my life forever on.”

She also said, "We faced many trials, failures, and tears but one thing we did not lose was determination.”

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Father Martin and Mrs. Abraham became friends as a result of the initial talk. He later moved into her home as a guest.

“I was 9 years old when he arrived. I used say, ‘I have a mom, a dad and a father,' " said her son, Alexander Thomas Abraham of Havre de Grace. "My father actually invited Father Martin to come and stay. He built his own wing in the house. He used to say, ‘I walk in Mae’s shadow.’ ”

Mrs. Abraham recalled his arrival.

"He’s the man who came to dinner, and he’s still eating," she said in 2008.

He came with a German shepherd, and Mrs. Abraham and the dog did not get along. She sent both dog and priest to canine-training class.

“That got Father Martin driving and out of the house again,” said The Sun’s 2008 article. “Next, her house guest needed a job. Father Martin went to work for the state of Maryland’s new Division of Alcoholism Control. Mae suggested that he also travel the country to give his chalk talks. They started their own production company, Kelly Productions, which offered nearly 40 Father Martin film titles.”

His “Chalk Talk” lecture, filmed by the Navy, was also circulated through the U.S. military and used as addiction training for service personnel.

In 1978, she suggested they open a treatment center.

"You’re going to die, and everything you have done will die with you," she told him.

She met with philanthropists and secured an initial $1 million matching grant, and it took years to raise enough money to open what was initially called Father Martin’s Ashley — named for Mrs. Abraham’s father.

Mrs. Abraham then moved into the work of running what was then a 22-bed facility at Oakington Farm, the former estate of Millard Tydings, a U.S. senator from Maryland. Ashley, which faces the Chesapeake Bay, has expanded into a campus of six buildings with 117 beds. It also has two outpatient locations and serves nearly 450 people daily.

“There would be no Ashley Treatment without Mae Ashley Abraham,” Mr. Nassef said. “It was Mae who recognized the brilliance of Father Martin. She saw in him a message that was bigger than the room where he was speaking.”

Said Ashley official Alex Denstman: “Mae wasn’t a clinician, so it’s not as if she founded any methods or achieved anything from a direct-care standpoint. Women are still underrepresented in our field at the executive level, so for her to found Ashley in 1983, when women were scarce, if at all represented, at the executive level, is a tremendous feat.”

After she retired, Mrs. Abraham served as Father Martin’s caretaker. He died at her home in 2009.

A Mass of the Resurrection will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church, 222 S. Law St. in Aberdeen.

In addition to her son and sister, survivors include two grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.

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