Margaret Caswell “Peggy” Ellis Brian left this earth on September 4, 2020, in Houston, Texas, surrounded by her devoted daughters.
Peggy was born in Brevard, North Carolina on September 17, 1925. She grew up in picturesque Rayville, Louisiana with her older siblings, brother Carey, and sister Innes. Her parents, Judge Carey J. Ellis (Louisiana’s Fifth Judicial District) and Innes Morris Ellis, were active in civic, arts, and educational endeavors. Peggy lost her mother to cancer at the age of 10. Her father remarried, and her step-mother, Margaret Fenet Ellis, shepherded her through her teenage years and beyond. She may have grown up in a small town, but her heart and her mind were open to the world from an early age.
When the U.S. entered WWII, Peggy was anxious to do her part for the war effort. She wanted to join the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), but at 15 years old, she was too young. By the time she turned 18, they were not accepting additional volunteers. Undaunted, Peggy dropped out of Tulane University and went to Sacramento, California, where she trained to be an instrument panel mechanic for airplanes and got her pilot's license. Then she headed to Hawaii, where she worked as an instrument panel mechanic at Hickham Field in Honolulu until the end of the war. She also volunteered at the USO, including at dances for servicemen. Friends from the time would describe her as someone who could “dance your socks off.” In her off-duty time, she and her friends took hula lessons.
After the War, Peggy returned to the US. She spent her post-war recovery at the University of Miami, where she was a proud member of the Synchronized Swimming Club, and at the University of North Carolina. She eventually completed her bachelor's degree at LSU, where she was one of the Purple Jackets. Her college sorority affiliation was with Alpha Omicron Pi. In 1949, Peggy joined a group with the Experiment in International Living and traveled to Czechoslovakia. She and her group of young Americans worked with Czech host families doing railroad reconstruction work behind Communist lines. Their first-hand experience of life in war-torn Europe marked them all, and they remained close throughout their lives. Years later, Peggy led an Experiment group to Spain.
A child of the Depression, Peggy was marked by a sensitivity to waste, and by a sensitivity to people in need. Her generosity of spirit and self never wavered. She made her way to New York City in late 1949. There she earned her Master's Degree at the prestigious Columbia School of Social Work. Peggy fell in love with The Big Apple and remained there for a decade. She worked in Harlem helping single mothers and at-risk teens, and did pioneering work with heroin addicts, who until that time were deemed lost causes.
She filled her spare time soaking up life in the city that never sleeps in the heyday of the 1950s. She caught every play she could, and frequented museums and concert halls. She taught ballroom dancing classes at Arthur Murray, and began working with clay. She loved doing ceramics, throwing pots on a wheel, and sculpting. A potter's wheel and kiln were part of her household for many years. Peggy was an enthusiastic and talented artist.
The only thing that could lure Peggy away from New York turned out to be Harry Brian. They were introduced by Peggy's childhood friend, Richard “Jit” Morris, and courted for nearly 10 years. Harry won her heart and convinced her to marry him and move back to Louisiana. They married June 24, 1960, in Rayville.
They established themselves in Alexandria, Louisiana and designed a fabulous mid-century modern home in the Garden District. Based loosely on a New Orleans shotgun house, their house was just the right fit for the long, narrow lot they had purchased in Alexandria's Garden District. It was filled with light, open to nature, and had excellent acoustics. It was also full of art and music, much of it produced by its occupants. Harry was musician, a painter, and did needlework. Peggy was a sculptor and potter, and created in many other media. They raised their two daughters, Phoebe and Mimi, in this loving and enriching home.
Peggy and Harry were a wonderful match. Their love of the arts and education guided their energetic involvement and leadership in many organizations in Central Louisiana over the next 30 years. They were instrumental in the establishment and longevity of the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. Harry played cello, and Peggy, a superb hostess, kept the musicians happy and well-fed. They supported new and established musicians and artists, hosting art shows and visiting musicians in their gracious home.
Peggy's drive to contribute to her community never wavered. She volunteered with social service projects, worked at Pinecrest and Central State Hospital, and taught at Peabody High School (history) and at Louisiana State University – Alexandria (psychology). She worked on the Bi-Racial Committee from its difficult early days, and remained committed to its work despite threats to herself and her family. She helped bring the Collaborative Divorce model to Louisiana in her later years. She believed deeply in the importance of equal opportunity and equal protection under the law, principles she learned early in life from both her parents.
Energetic and dedicated, Peggy worked throughout her life. She didn’t slow down even after the death of Harry in 1989. She continued to work as a Social Worker with the Family Counseling Agency until she retired at the age of 80. Her therapeutic work counseling individuals, families, and, especially near to her heart, court-ordered Men's Anger Control Groups was appreciated by many, and was a great source of fulfillment for her. She translated her own struggles with depression into a dedication to help others. Mental health was her career and her calling.
Known for her kindness, infectious smile and sparkling eyes, Peggy never met a stranger. There was never a party she didn't like, and she always had the most fun! She loved to throw parties, and as an accomplished hostess and cook, was always trying new and unusual recipes and techniques. She loved to dance and she and Harry were wonderful dancers.
An exceptional lifelong swimmer, she spent many hours in the water at the Ellis family camp on Lake St. John in northeast Louisiana teaching several generations of family and friends how to water ski. She kept up her regular lap swimming into her 90s.
Peggy had an undying sense of curiosity, never shied away from adventure, and was always ready to travel. She never lost her love of NYC, would always light up at the mention of it, and would jump at a chance to visit. She loved the arts and music.
She delighted in her role as grandmother, saying “If anyone had told me being a grandmother would be so much fun, I would've done that first!” Her deep love of family and tradition kept her close to friends and family near and far her whole life.
Peggy was ever the optimist. She believed in possibility, and that, given the opportunity, people will do the right thing. She was inclusive and understanding. She was a notorious encourager of people to follow their dreams - people she knew well, and any and all who came into her path. There was no problem too big, and none that couldn’t benefit from talking it out.
Her strong commitment to giving back to the world will live on: her final act of generosity was to donate her brain to Alzheimer's research at Dr. Huda Zoghbi’s Lab at Baylor College of Medicine – a part of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Institute in Houston.
She leaves behind her daughters, Phoebe and her husband Bobby Tudor, Mimi and her husband Harold Vance, and five grandchildren, Caroline (fiance Corey Kelly), Margaret, and Harry Tudor, and Ellis and Molly Vance. She was preceded in death by her husband, Harry Meryl Brian, her brother Carey J. Ellis, Jr., and her sister Innes Ellis Green. She was the much-loved matriarch to four generations of nieces and nephews.
Her family wishes to express their deepest thanks to so many who helped make her final years especially beautiful: Her wonderful doctor and nephew, Greg Brian, and her caretakers with Family Tree Care - Audrey Winders, Dafra Sanon, Tyreesha Victor, Brittny White, Taiwo Agbomire, Hannah Parrish, and Hurai Kalgbo.
Deepest thanks also to Tina Bomar, Kahle Naves, Monica Santos, Trey Gillen, Sara Fuhrer, the late Pate Gremillion, Dr. Gary Dewitt, Christine Head, Dr. Stuart Head, and so many family members and friends.
She will be cremated and interred next to her beloved Harry in Greenwood Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana.
A memorial celebration will be held at a later date in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Memorial contributions can be made to:
The Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute
In Peggy’s Honor at this link:
P.O. Box 300630
Houston, TX 7230-0630
The Piatigorsky Foundation
14 Penn Plaza, Suite 1800
New York, NY 10122-1800
Rapides Symphony Orchestra – Harry Brian Cello Chair
1101 Fourth Street
Alexandria, LA 71301
Attendance is limited to a maximum of 50 people, spread over 45 min intervals. Family and friends planning to attend are kindly requested to RSVP to reserve their time slot, and limit their visit to only 45 minutes, so that all that wish to pay respects may do so. Please account for all persons in your party including yourself and children that will be coming.