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A legend. A force. A pillar.

That's how those who knew Geraldine "Gerry" Sell describe the Minneapolis community activist and neighborhood advocate, who died on June 12. She was 88.

"My mother was very much the champion of the underdog," said her daughter, Paula Sell.

She was an election judge passionate about voting rights, an environmentalist "before that was even a thing" and a civil rights advocate who pushed to integrate Minneapolis schools, Paula Sell said.

"She loved her neighborhood, and she loved getting out there and meeting people," she added.

Born Geraldine Liss in Milwaukee, Sell was valedictorian of her class at Mercy High School. Talented with numbers — and later able to rattle off statistics to support countless advocacy efforts — she graduated from Marquette University with a major in English and mathematics and taught at elementary and high schools in both Michigan and Wisconsin.

Gerry Sell in 1977
Gerry Sell in 1977

RPA, Star Tribune

In 1958, she married mathematician George Sell. His career later brought them to Minneapolis, where he became a professor at the University of Minnesota and they raised six children.

In 1965, Sell joined with neighbors to found what's now called the Field Regina Northrop Neighborhood Group — an organization she served with passion for decades, as a community representative, education chair, secretary, newsletter editor and eventually "historian for the neighborhood."

In an edition of the group's newsletter celebrating 50 years, neighbors championed her impact, including her groundbreaking efforts to organize and lobby for a state bill to allow community banking in the city. That effort helped bring the city's first neighborhood bank to 48th St. and Chicago Av.

"That was a really big coup for her," said Paula Sell. Before this change, residents would have to travel downtown to go to the bank.

Sell also was a parent leader in the effort to integrate and pair Field and Hale elementary schools, which happened in 1971 — joining students for first through third grades at Hale (which had mostly white students before the change) and at Field (which had a majority of Black students before the schools combined) for fourth through sixth grades.

Sell was both savvy and tireless, friends said. Betty Beier, a longtime friend and fellow parishioner at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis, recalled an "inventive plot" Sell came up with that resulted in higher safety railings on the walkway over Interstate 35W that their kids traversed each day to school at Field.

Sell organized a group of fellow moms to get action.

" 'First of all we're going to call the Highway Department every three hours,' she told them," Beier recalled. "That didn't work. So she said, 'We're going to take baby strollers and walk up the exits and close the exits at 46th Street.'

"She inspired me and so many," Beier said. "She got it in her mind that she was going to make things better for other people, and she always did. She was an amazing woman."

Besides her daughter Paula of Minneapolis, Sell is survived by her children George of Seattle; Mark of St. Paul; Marie of Memphis, Tenn.; Thomas and Eric, both of Minneapolis; her six grandchildren and one great-grandson. Services have been held.