Mary Taylor Previte, 87, a former New Jersey Assemblywoman who spent much of World War II in a Japanese concentration camp, died Saturday, Nov. 16, at Cooper University Hospital in Camden of injuries sustained when she was struck by a car earlier this month.
Ms. Previte, of Haddonfield, was the daughter of missionaries who were living in China when she was born in 1932. Her great-grandfather, British missionary James Hudson Taylor, played a major role in spreading Christianity in China in the 19th century.
On the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, she “awoke to find Japanese soldiers stationed at every gate of our school. They had posted notice on the entrances: ‘Under the control of the Naval Forces of Great Japan,’ ” she wrote in The Inquirer in 1985.
Within the year, Japanese soldiers marched Ms. Previte, her brothers, sister, and grandfather, to a prison camp where everyone was made to wear armbands denoting their nationality. She would remain at Weihsien Concentration Camp until 1945.
While in the camp, she was separated from her parents, food was scarce and poor, and armed guards watched over everything — but in many ways, she remembered her time at Weihsien tenderly. Her faith sustained her, and her teachers maintained as much normalcy as they could. Assemblywoman Previte was even a Girl Guide during her time at Weihsien, challenged by her troop leaders to catch as many rats as she could.
“I’m not saying this was Fun City,” she told the radio program This American Life in 2015. “I’m telling you, we lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.”
Ms. Previte and the 1,400 others imprisoned at Weihsien were liberated on Aug. 17, 1945, by six Americans and a Chinese translator. She said once that she remembered them as “angels, falling from the sky.” She would spend most of the rest of her life tracking down those seven to thank them each personally.
In 2015, she finally found the final rescuer, Wang Cheng-Han, and the next year, she traveled to China to reunite with him.
Ms. Previte moved to Michigan when she was 13; she eventually earned degrees from Greenville College in Illinois, and from what is now Rowan University, after she moved to New Jersey with her husband, Ernest, in the 1950s.
She became a popular English teacher at Camden High, where students dedicated the yearbook to her in her second year on the faculty. When her daughter Alice was born in 1962, Ms. Previte left the workforce for a time.
But she remained active in her community. Mrs. Previte served on the school board in then-rural Voorhees, and, when her family moved to Haddonfield, she was elected to that borough’s school board.
“My mother was capable of doing absolutely anything,” said her daughter, Alice.
Ms. Previte lost her left hand when she got too close to a saw as a teenager. But she still sewed beautifully, rode a bike, played the organ.
When businessman Lewis Katz ran for Camden County freeholder in the early 1970s, he called upon his beloved former Camden High English teacher to run his ultimately successful campaign. A few years later, after turmoil at the Camden County juvenile detention facility, Katz asked Ms. Previte to take over temporarily.
She stayed for 31 years, until her retirement in 2005. Bruce Stout met her during his time as a policy adviser for Gov. Christie Whitman and was immediately impressed.
“She was a tireless advocate for the voiceless, the underrepresented,” said Stout, who went on to teach criminology at the College of New Jersey. “She gave kids hope, and she was willing to take extreme political risk to do the right thing, and I had an abiding respect for her.”
Camden County’s juvenile facility housed young people who were sometimes accused of violent crimes, but she regarded everyone who passed through the facility’s doors as worthy of love and capable of rehabilitation.
In 1998, Mrs. Previte won election to the New Jersey State Assembly, where she served until 2006. She focused her legislative agenda on issues important to families, women and children.
Kevin DeSimone, who worked as a legislative aide for Assemblywoman Previte, said she brought a “uniting personality” to her work as a lawmaker. “She cared about kids in foster care, she cared about sentencing reform, about women in prison. She opened people’s eyes to many of these things.”
After she left the Legislature, Ms. Previte hardly slowed down. She was invited to speak at schools and neighborhood groups about her time in a concentration camp; just a few weeks ago, she spoke at Haddonfield Memorial High School.
She was a connector who relished her community. She organized the children’s games at the Roberts Avenue July 4 celebration, a Haddonfield tradition, and could often be seen around town on her long walks — an hour on weekdays, three hours on the weekend — checking in on people, waving to everyone, perpetually pleasant.
She remained in excellent health until her accident, which occurred on one of her walks.
Ms. Previte is survived by her daughter and brothers John Taylor and Herbert Taylor. Her ex-husband also survives.