Furious and afraid, Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young met for lunch one day in 1977 at the old Cuba Club in Madison. That lunch between two mothers worried about their mentally ill sons resulted in a national movement that would bring solace, facts and practical assistance to the mentally ill and their families.
Shetler, 92, who loved the printed word and worked as an editor and reporter, was one of a dozen founders in Madison of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill and, in 1979, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, now called the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She died Tuesday, a week after the death of her husband of 67 years, Charles, 91.
The group blossomed into a national advocacy group controlled by parents and relatives of the mentally ill, described as "the voice of reason on mental illness," and operating in more than 1,100 communities.
Shetler and her husband, Charles, moved to Madison in 1966 when he was appointed librarian at the state Historical Society. Their daughter had just graduated college and their son was just beginning classes at UW-Madison.
"(Young and Shetler) were two women grieving over their personal associations with their sons, and they decided to get together, to pull together a meeting of local groups with similar interests in Wisconsin," recalled Shetler's daughter, Jane S. Ross.
The two women were honored among the State Journal's "Ten Who Made a Difference" in 2004 for their contributions to improving the treatment of the mentally ill.
In a letter to the editor in 1993, Shetler explained her group's mission: "We are trying to change, one person at a time, society's attitudes toward mental illness. We are trying to level the playing field to improve job opportunities, access to housing and the chance to live in the community instead of being warehoused in an institution."
Shetler, who worked as an editor for UW Extension, was always interested in words and writing, Ross said. She was a 30-year member of University League Book Critics, which was founded on her front porch.
Survivors include Ross, and a son, Charles.
A memorial service for Harriet and Charles Shetler will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at First Congregational Church, 1609 University Avenue, at the corner of Breese Terrace.