Dame Mary Barraco dies in Virginia Beach at 96

Many of our long-time members may remember Dame Mary Sigillo Barraco.  Mary was an inspiration to all who met her and heard her amazing story.

Traumatic experiences early in life that would normally turn a person toward bitterness and cynicism had just the opposite effect on Mary Barraco.  Mary was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on September 1, 1923.  She moved to her mother’s native country of Belgium when she was seven years old.  Mary was called to her grandfather’s side at the age of fourteen and was given the charge of taking care of her mother, her grandmother and her family in the event of war.

In 1940 the Germans rolled into Belgium.  Mary was sixteen.  Her mother employed several Jewish salesmen.  Mary and her family began sheltering Jewish families once they realized they were disappearing.  Mary’s fight for freedom was just beginning.

When Belgium fell to the Nazis, Mary bravely offered her services to the Belgian Underground and served with the Partisans, the French Marquis, the French Underground and the F.I. Arme Belge (Belgium Army) during the war.  She had no idea how many lives she saved – the Jewish families she hid from the Nazis, the Belgian refugees she sheltered, the prisoners of war she delivered from Nazi headquarters, the downed Allied pilots she rescued.  She bought clocks to be turned into time bombs, sabotaged rail lines and forged passports.  Knowing five languages, she relayed information between Resistance posts. However, her patriotism was not without perils.

In July 1943, Mary was betrayed; the Gestapo took her and her fiancée and fellow partisan, Artur Libre, captive.  Artur was executed and Mary was sentenced to sixteen months in prison.  She was interned in Nazi prison camps in both Belgium and France where she was interrogated and tortured with experiments and severe beatings.   So savage was her torture that until her death she was still burdened with the mental and physical scars of those atrocities.  It was during this time that Mary wrote on her prison wall, “C’est lorsq’on a perdu la liberte’ que l’on en connait le prix” (It’s only after we have lost our freedom we appreciate its value).

Rather than break her spirit, the traumatic experiences reinforced her resolve and her will to survive.  And survive she did!

She was released from prison at Christmas time in 1943; she had served six months of her sentence.   Immediately after her release, she rejoined the Resistance and resumed her activities in defense of freedom.  Following the Normandy Invasion, Mary served as a Liaison Officer between advancing Allied Forces (Canadian) and the Belgian Resistance and was again responsible for saving numerous lives and facilitating military operations until victory was achieved in May 1945.  Mary was recognized as one of America’s foremost advocates of protecting the freedoms enjoyed by all Americans.

So where’s the NCOA connection?  Mary’s support of military and veterans organizations is legendary.  Mary addressed the delegates during NCOA’s 1982 Annual Convention in San Antonio.  Her stirring recollections held the delegates spellbound.  More importantly, the delegates were forced to reassess their personal feelings on the true meaning of patriotism.  It was during that convention that Mary became acquainted with the NCOA Scholarship Fund and the annual scholarship grants.  She immediately pledged all speaking honorariums to the Fund.  Moved by Mary’s story and her generosity, the International Board of Directors established the NCOA Mary S. Barraco Scholarship in her name, an essay on Americanism would be the deciding criteria for the awarding of the scholarship.  The first NCOA Mary S. Barraco Scholarship was awarded in 1983.

Mary educated tens of thousands of children on the importance of freedom and on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  And, wherever she went, whether was a school, hospital, nursing home, military organization or veterans group, she left people with a feeling of hope and inspiration and a deeper appreciation of what freedom really means.  She was an accomplished educator, volunteer and a true American patriot.

On December 6, 2004, in a ceremony at the Embassy of Belgium in Washington, DC, Mary, by order of King Albert I of Belgium, was awarded the Knight in the Order of the Crown.  It is one of Belgium’s highest royal military distinctions.

Mary’s support of military and veterans organizations is legendary.  Mary addressed the delegates during NCOA’s 1982 Annual Convention in San Antonio.  Her stirring recollections held the delegates spellbound.  More importantly, the delegates were forced to reassess their personal feelings on the true meaning of patriotism.  It was during that convention that Mary became acquainted with the NCOA Scholarship Fund and the annual scholarship grants.  She immediately pledged all speaking honorariums to the Fund.  Moved by Mary’s story and her generosity, the International Board of Directors established the NCOA Mary S. Barraco Scholarship in her name, an essay on Americanism would be the deciding criteria for the awarding of the scholarship.  The first NCOA Mary S. Barraco Scholarship was awarded in 1983.

Dame Mary Sigillo Barraco died peacefully in her home on December 6, 2019.

God Speed Mary.  You will be missed.

Obituary