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WEB SPECIAL: Muriel Camarra remembered as public warrior

February 24, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Dr. Mirella “Muriel” Emley Camarra, an outspoken public watchdog and advocate for the common man – instrumental in reviving the North Kingstown Taxpayers Organization in the mid-1990s – died Monday at her home on Narrow Lane.

She had a profound health issue – a hole in her heart – and, three years ago, frankly told a reporter she didn’t expect to live long.

Nonetheless, Dr. Camarra, 84, declared she had no plans to slow down.
“She passed away exactly as she wanted to – whiz, bang, boom,” observed her friend School Committee member Bill Mudge. “Rescue was there during the day; she refused to go to the hospital. She knew it was time.”

Universally known as a strong woman, Muriel’s was a steeliness born of profound tragedy.

Born Dec. 5, 1926 in New York City, her father, a minister, died when she was two years old. Her mother remarried and her new husband did not want to raise another man’s children. Mirella and her sister, Eva, were sent to an orphanage.

“It was the most painful part of her life,” says her daughter Daniela Camarra, “but it gave her strength. She was a rock for her sister.”

Cecelia List, another daughter, adds the little girls were “abandoned while their mother and stepfather went to Sicily, leaving them behind. They couldn’t have kids so they came back and got them and returned to Sicily.”

The heartbreaking episode, she says, “was the experience that made my mother who she was.”

She was, notes Daniela, a “cut to the chase” kind of mom. “She loved us with a passion.

She did everything with a passion bigger than life.”

Life growing up in Sicily was fascinating with such prominent visitors as author Pearl S. Buck, playwright Clare Luce Booth and Pope John XXIII. During World War II, Mirella met Navy Lt. Commander Louis Camarra, on assignment in Italy; they married and returned to the U.S. where she became an extraordinary scholar.

Muriel, as she was known to all, graduated from Wellesley College, the prestigious Ivy League liberal arts school, with a bachelor’s in history. She earned a master’s degree in Latin American History and a master’s in psychology from Assumption College; her PhD in philosophy was from the University of Palermo in Philosophy. She accomplished all this and received numerous awards while raising seven children.

She taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester State College, Assumption College and the Worcester Art Museum.

Yet, adversity challenged her constantly. She lost her eldest son at 12, the day before her birthday. She lost her brother, her parents and then, at age 48, she was diagnosed with breast cancer – news she bore stoically.

“I had no idea,” says Daniela. “We were never brought and told. I found out when I grew up what it was. She had a radical mastectomy and it ravaged her body. The radiation was imperfect and caused a lot of damage. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. The cancer episode changed her body but she never once complained.”

Dr. Camarra was a woman of the world who spoke five languages and had studied Greek and Latin. Her husband Louis’s work in international marketing enabled them to travel and explore. They lived in Palermo, Italy; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Zurich, Switzerland and in Back Bay, Boston. During the Nixon administration, they visited Cuba with Henry Kissinger. They were often passengers on the Andrea Doria.

The Camarras settled in North Kingstown 12 years ago to be near family matters when Louis’s health began to decline.

On Tuesday, as news of her passing spread through town, admirers and even former adversaries remembered her many contributions.

Jim McGwin, president of the NKTO, said, “She was a force of nature. I would have loved to have worked with her in her 30s; you couldn’t keep up with her in her 80s. [At the time of her death, Muriel was chairman of the board]. She had tremendous experience with school systems. The last bond issue was for $22 million. She spent a month-and-a-half poring through hundreds of documents, putting together a 17-page Plan B – what schools needed, how they could be configured.

“She brought a lot of wit; she could be very blunt but it was hard to get mad at her. Just last month she was at a forum, asking questions. She understood education and finances. At the end of the day, she was doing it because she believed in it, not for any self-promotion. It was the right thing to do.”

Muriel Camarra cut her teeth on school finances as vice chair of administration and finance for 15 Massachusetts community colleges at a time when the state was bleeding red ink and losing jobs at a record rate. Dr. Camarra went over the books and required school presidents to justify their budgets. If they couldn’t, she whittled. She was named Woman of the Year in Massachusetts in 1979.

When Muriel came to North Kingstown, she found a kindred spirit in Marguerite Neubert, former town council president and longtime taxpayer activist.

Carla Neubert Benoist, Marguerite’s daughter, said, “Mom thought very highly of her. She was very educated, not afraid to stand up to people and my mother appreciated that. She provided her with some background material when she started the taxpayers’ organization and she and Dad did some research for her.”

School committeewoman and retired teacher Melvoid Benson recalls Muriel warmly. “I was often in her home. It was beautiful and you were always welcome. Muriel and her husband were an ideal couple.”

Benson adds, “I admired her knowledge: I would put her up there with Marguerite and Violet Daniel. They were in a special class. Muriel was there to give advice and counsel. It’s sad that much of it fell on deaf ears. Although she might have seemed antagonistic, she cared for people.”
Fellow committeeman Bill Mudge says he’d been offering personal support to Muriel. “For the last several years I’ve taken her to doctors’ appointments. Last Monday we spent about an hour together. She was in the hospital for a week four months ago; she knew she was on thin ice. She was in fragile condition but feisty, too. You run across people in life who can speak articulately and hold your attention. She could do a job on people and they didn’t even know it; she made it a jovial thing.

She was an advocate for cost-effective education, really dogged in making sure we were implementing the right things.”

Even as Louis was overtaken by dementia (he died a year-and-a-half ago), he and Muriel remained a team. She couldn’t drive and he couldn’t remember but together they delivered Meals on Wheels. They set out, Louis at the wheel and Muriel navigating.

Muriel Camarra is survived by four daughters and a son: JoAnn Ball of Camden, Maine; Cecelia List of Suffern, NY; Daniela Cammara of Davis, Calif.; Marianne Bump of Sterling, Mass.; and Richard Camarra of West Falmouth, Mass. She had 10 grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. She was the mother of the late Peter Camarra and Pamela Camarra. She is also survived by a sister, Eva Doran of Narragansett and numerous siblings in Sicily.

A Mass of Christian Burial will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church. There are no calling hours. In spring, there will be a celebration of her life where everyone will be invited to share their favorite recollections.

Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

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