Al Young title

MAE OLA VARNER (December 7, 1920 — June 15, 2011) In Memoriam


Al Young’s beloved Aunt Mae
December 7, 1920-June 15, 2011

Photos: Al Young

At Detroit’s Westlawn Cememtery, Rosie Woods, a neighbor and friend of Mae Varner, waves her slow goodbye.

Aunt Mae of the 1970s, the 1960s, and early 1950

Celebrating her 85th birthday | Detroit, December 2006

Photos courtesy Al Young Archives
My love said take
All my books,
You can take all my clothes,
My hats, my shoes, my gloves,
You can have my watchband,
Take my sifters …

–Excerpted from “Romantic” by Dara Wier
(click here to enjoy the whole poem)


December 7, 1920 – June 15,  2011

In loving memory


Ninety minutes into June 15, 2011, Mae Ola Varner drew her last breath at the Southfield Michigan home of Philip and Patricia Varner, her beloved nephew and niece by marriage.

Top L-R Harold Varner, Patricia Varner, Camari E. Frame | Bottom L-R Karon Jackson (Mae Varner’s god-daughter), children, friend, and husband Robert Jackson

At her request, no elaborate service was held. On the rainy morning of Tuesday, June 21st, her casket was lifted and eased inside the mausoleum wall housing the twin crypt, where her remains rest next to those of her late husband Peter at Detroit’s Westlawn Cemetery.

Christened Maeola Campbell on December 7, 1920 in Pachuta, Mississippi, she was the fourth of six daughters and the seventh of nine children born to Jordan and Lillian Campbell, dedicated, well- respected farmers.

Forever versatile, focused and curious about the world beyond her tiny village in Clarke County Mississippi, she distinguished herself early as a high school basketball champion and as an outstanding, all- around student. Mae Campbell won 4-H Club prizes for horticulture, animal husbandry, needlepoint and quilting. Upon graduation, her office skills landed her a job away from the family farm.

Right up to her last days, she read continuously, kept up with film, pop culture and politics. Fats Waller and Billie Holiday, revered by others, never impressed her. But she thought Duke Ellington the greatest composer and musician who ever lived. Denzel Washington was her screen actor, and she was a passionate, feisty supporter of President Barack Obama.

In the 1940s, she emigrated to Michigan, settling in Detroit, where she worked for many years as a supervising seamstress for a drapery company.  In later life she worked as a certified nutritionist who traveled to low-income communities throughout Wayne County to explain and demonstrate the health benefits of maintaining a balanced diet.

In Detroit she met and fell in love with James Prince (Pete) Varner, a service employee of the Michigan Central Railroad. For more than 40 years, their marriage flourished and prospered. Following his death in 1991, she never again considered marriage.

Long a member of Bethel A.M.E. Church, she continued to devote herself to charitable activities, much of it church- and community-related. Long concerned about Africa and its future, she donated generously to World Vision, among other organizations. She championed the poor and needy, fighting for working people and fighting against social injustice, world hunger, homelessness, and ignorance.

Mae Varner was a genuine patriot, the sister of two brothers who had served and fought in World War Two, then found themselves Jim Crowed at home. She responded ardently to the appeals of veterans groups like Paralyzed Veterans of America. To the very end, she devoted herself to the loving memory of her husband Pete.

Mae Varner is survived by her only son Jesse Earl Campbell, his wife Mary, three grandchildren: Tiya, Lance and Kobie; two step-children: James Varner, Jr., Margene Willis of Plano, Texas, and one goddaughter: Karon Jackson. She leaves behind a host of nieces and grand-nieces, nephews and grand-nephews, and generations of cousins. She also leaves behind the fellow Bethel A.M.E. parishioners she adored and their pastor the Rev. Alfred Johnson, her Lunch Bunch sisters, her condo co-op neighbors at Cherboneau Place, Detroit, and countless admirers and well-wishers.


Tribute forthcoming

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2 Responses to “MAE OLA VARNER (December 7, 1920 — June 15, 2011) In Memoriam”

  1. Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) Says:

    What a stunning, interesting-looking woman! I’m eager to hear more about her life. She sure had not only quite the fashion sense but also multi-faceted wisdom.

    I’m sorry about your loss of this vital being.

  2. Al Says:

    Bless you, Lisa.

    Of course there were many Aunt Maes, but my Aunt Mae was a singular jewel: lucid, iridescent, lovely and tough.

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