Life Stories

Marie Biggs had a big life

Staff WriterFebruary 17, 2008 

— RALEIGH - Marie Biggs was in her mid-nineties when she moved to a nursing home. Her husband died decades ago. She never had children.

It's conceivable, even probable, that a woman in her situation would languish alone in a room, pining for visitors.

Instead, she held court.

No shapeless housedresses for her. She would rise each morning and slip into a suit, fix her hair, apply dark red lipstick.

"She'd get out of bed and dress to the nines," said Monsignor Michael Shugrue, who met Biggs in 1967. "It was like Queen Elizabeth."

She expected people to come, and they did.

They came from the Catholic Church, where Biggs was celebrated as a stalwart and particularly devout disciple. They came from her days as a hostess at downtown's Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, where politicians, lobbyists and business leaders used to converge. And they came from the state legislature, where Biggs spent years as chief meeter and greeter.

When a December stroke felled her six months before her 100th birthday, Biggs remained a top draw. A dozen priests and two bishops attended her funeral, one of whom recited Mass.

Marie Biggs was not a moneyed donor, but she knew every head of the Catholic Church in North Carolina in the past 100 years. She maintained an extensive prayer list and would ask for supplication for total strangers each morning when she woke. If you asked her to pray for someone, she would do it. Weeks later, she would inquire, by name, about his or her health.

Biggs grew up in rural Wake County in what is now Garner. In an interview recorded by the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Biggs recalled piling into a horse-drawn buggy for the eight-mile journey to Raleigh to what was then the only Catholic church around, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It was an all-day affair, with blankets tucked around chilly legs and bricks hot from the hearth warming toes. It took so long that her family, pious as they were, made the trip only once a month.

Biggs married at 18. In 1927, when Glenwood Avenue was still a dirt road, she and her husband bought their home on White Oak Road in Five Points. She lived there until 2004, when she moved to Mayview Convalescent Center.

Diagnosed with breast cancer as a newlywed, Biggs had both breasts and ovaries removed before her 21st birthday in what was then a typical treatment to make sure the cancer didn't recur. As a result, she could not bear children.

A new chapter

She was in her 50s when her husband died in a car accident on the way to the beach. Biggs, who wasn't in the car, then launched a career at a time when others her age were starting to wind down.

As head receptionist at the legislature, she chit-chatted with legislators as they arrived at work and took schoolchildren on tours. One boy expressed curiosity about keeping the Legislative Building clean, she recalled in a 1974 article in The News & Observer. "Hey lady, how do you get the cobwebs out of the chandeliers?" he asked.

One December morning, when traffic in and out of the building ebbed with the season, Biggs recalled slipping out of work to go to a card store. As she crossed the street with her bag on her way back, a car tooted its horn at her. It was Gov. Jim Holshouser.

"I thought he must think, 'Now, there's a state employee goofing off,' " she said.

Once, when a friend lunched with Biggs at the former Balentines Cafeteria in Cameron Village, the constant flow of visitors spurred one gentleman to assume Biggs must be someone famous he simply did not recognize.

"She knew everyone and everything that was going on," said Shepherd Field, who grew up next door to Biggs.

Her recall was razor-sharp until the end. She remembered who did what with whom and when, what happened before, and what came after.

But she shared those tidbits in measured doses. It wouldn't do for someone in her position to be loose-lipped.

In the long-ago article, she divulged her secret for staying staunchly nonpartisan at work: "You have to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil."

Toward the end of her life, she grew weaker but was still taking visitors until the day before she died. She made some accommodations, greeting them from her bed, which was unusual for her. Underneath the white sheets, however, she still wore her suit.

bonnie.rochman@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4871

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