Two white ladies, both remembered as “angels” in Portland’s Black community were, improbably, both named Collins—though unrelated.
Mary Laffey Collins (1872–1972), was raised on her family’s farm in Catlin, Washington (today East Kelso), and attended business college in Oakland, California. Spirited and independent as a young woman, she was wooed by a young man from Pennsylvania, but was not easily persuaded to marry. Everell Stanton Collins, who was making a fortune in the forests of Cowlitz County, persisted, and the two were finally wed in 1899, the year she was 27 and he 33.
Their three children were born in Ostrander, Washington, headquarters for the company Collins had built, Ostrander Railway and Timber. Mary’s civic work began there when she organized, in 1910, the second Camp Fire group in the nation. The Camp Fire lodge, at Camp Singing Wind, in Toledo, Washington, is named after her.
In 1918, after having purchased forests in California and Oregon, E. S. Collins moved his family to Portland, where his wife dedicated herself to Goodwill Industries, Willamette University and Camp Fire.
For the downtown YWCA, then located at SW Taylor and Broadway, Mary Collins served on the Board of Directors and chaired the Committee of Color. She made a gift, originally anonymous, of $12,000 to replace the portable structure that served as the Williams Avenue branch with a permanent building.
Widowed at the age of 68, Mary Collins continued her philanthropic work. She founded the Collins Foundation in 1947 and served as a director. In 1961, she was honored by the Conference of Christians and Jews with their Brotherhood Award for her outstanding leadership in promoting goodwill and understanding in the community. When she died, in 1972, she was 100 years old.
Miss Collins, as Evelyn Collins (1913–2000) was always known in Eliot, was raised on her family’s farm in Milton Freewater, Oregon. After working briefly as a missionary in Washington, D.C. youth camps, she moved to Portland, where she earned a teaching degree at Cascade Christian College (defunct since 1969, and not to be confused with Cascade College, the Portland branch of Oklahoma Christian University).
She taught briefly at a school near Salem and served as pastor of the Hoyt Street Methodist Church before finding her true vocation in affordable Christian daycare to help working mothers.
Together with her own mother, Miss Collins started a daycare center on Rodney Avenue, and within two years it outgrew its space. In 1956, she purchased the old Hibernian Hall at 128 NE Russell (today the Wonder Ballroom) and re-opened the daycare there the following year.
When her mother died, in 1970, Miss Collins gave the center a new name—the Grace Collins Memorial Daycare—and continued the ministry on her own, working 13-hour days with latchkey kids, meanwhile raising the money to keep the program going.
She received numerous community service awards over the years, including KOIN-TV’s Jefferson Award, and the Humanitarian Award from Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Miss Collins is widely remembered by people of all ages in Eliot—by the parents who were able to work, knowing their children were in safe hands, by kids who attended the daycare and by teenagers whom she encouraged to use the building’s gymnasium—Bible stories and snacks included.
“She cared about some kids that others threw away,” says Ralph Davis, who remembers with gratitude the basketball court and Bible study she provided. “Being a white person, it was unheard of what she did in the Black community.”
Ralph’s wife, the former LaVerne Hudson, managed the daycare during the last years before Miss Collins death in 2000. LaVerne, like many of the other “Collins kids,” sometimes gets a catch in her voice when speaking about Miss Collins. “She was an angel in our midst,” LaVerne says, and she looks away.