Maxine Amelia Thurston-Fischer, who dedicated her life to social work and to the Miami community where she served in leadership roles with the Urban League and, later, as president and CEO of her own company, died Sunday of gall bladder cancer.
She was 74.
Thurston-Fischer caught the attention of T. Willard Fair with her flair for fashion and style when both were in their 20s and he was fresh in his new role as an executive with Miami’s Urban League.
“There are three people in my life that I think can take credit for all of my successes and failures — my mama, my brother and Maxine,” Fair said. “She was an extraordinary human being, to say the least. She had an uncanny ability to get things done.”
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Thurston-Fischer was born in Jacksonville in 1939, and became one of first black students at Indiana University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social welfare in 1960. She continued at Florida State University, where she became the first black student to graduate from the school with a master’s degree in social work four years later, her friend Marilyn Hoder-Salmon said.
“She was very wise in an intuitive, compassionate way, and was forward-thinking on projects that were important issues in our community,” said Hoder-Salmon, a retired English professor at Florida International University.
Hoder-Salmon met Thurston-Fischer a couple of years after she began to work at the Urban League. “I was hired, and at that time the staff was primarily male. It was in the middle of the civil rights movement, and there was a lot of radicalism in Miami at the time, so I kept to myself,” Hoder-Salmon said. “One day, Maxine invited me to go to lunch with her, around 1967, and we went to lunch that day and we started to talk and we talked until dusk.”
The two never stopped talking.
“Maxine became my very best friend for almost 50 years,” she said. “One of my daughters said recently, ‘Maxine commanded a room. When she walked in, it was her room.’ ”
And the doors to Thurston-Fischer’s room expanded outward. She would become an executive vice president with the Urban League of Greater Miami, and was an interim executive director of Miami Bridge, a not-for-profit organization that provides emergency shelter, food and counseling for troubled young people and their families.
The group’s goal, she said in a 1992 Miami Herald story, was to reunite families. “I see more families less equipped to deal with adolescent conduct and adolescent conduct that leads to graver results,” she said.
“I met Maxine when I was young and just getting started in this mission of trying to save all the black people in Miami and the world at large,” said Fair. “She was an extraordinary deputy director for me for 15 years.”
During that time, “one thing she taught me is you can do anything you want to do as long as it is the right thing to be done,” Fair said.
“We climbed some hurdles I thought were impossible. But she always felt we were going to do it — and we got it done. She had an extraordinary intellect, and was one of the smartest people, if not the smartest person, I ever met. She always felt that things could be better only if you made them better.”
She founded her firm, The Thurston Group, in 1986 with little capital, an office in the Design District and business cards. It became a consulting and management firm for research, program evaluation and organizational development for human-service agencies, and it took on projects such as youth violence prevention, youth drug prevention, shelter services and comprehensive child development.
Thurston-Fischer also served on the boards of trustees of Jackson Memorial Hospital, United Way of Miami-Dade and North Shore Medical Center. She was an associate professor at Barry University’s School of Social Work from 1981 to 2008.
At one point she left Miami and became an executive director of a health systems agency in the Houston-Galveston area of Texas, but she returned to the Miami she loved and began a life with her husband, Dr. Kenneth Fischer, whom she married in 2003, nine years after they met professionally.
“She is an example of how a person should be treating people — with kindness, consideration and by being unselfish. That was the most characteristic of Maxine. She made people better,” Fischer said.
Ultimately, she built bridges and that extended to her private life.
When Thurston-Fischer spotted a neglected 1939 house in Miami’s Belle Meade area, she knew she could resurrect it with her eye for style and taste for African heritage art and antiques. She took the home from rundown to ravishing, and it landed a story in the Herald’s Home & Design section in 1991.
“I couldn’t imagine turning over my house to an interior designer,” she said. “A home is so personal. I’ve gotten such satisfaction fixing up this house. And if I could live another life, I’d be an architect.”
In addition to her husband, Thurston-Fischer is survived by her brother Maxwell Thurston and nephew Paul Thurston. A service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church, 1701 NW 66th St., Miami. She will be buried Saturday at Bosque Bello Cemetery in Fernandina Beach.