Diane Duke Amussen

January 8, 1931 – May 19, 2023

Diane Duke Amussen of Merced, Calif., passed away on May 19, 2023, after a short illness. She was 92.

She was a third-generation New Yorker, born in New York City to T.W.D. Duke and Dolores Carillo Duke. She spent her childhood in New York City and Long Island; she remained in New York until 1973. 

Throughout her life Ms. Duke Amussen was, in turn and sometimes simultaneously, an editor, community organizer, tenant advocate, nonprofit founder and executive director, and writer. Although she officially retired in 1997, she continued to work into her early 80s.

She graduated from the Brearley School in New York in 1947 at the age of 16, and then attended Swarthmore College, where she met her future husband, Robert Amussen. She left Swarthmore to marry Mr. Amussen in 1949. They had three children, Gretchen, Susan and John; their marriage ended in divorce in 1963. 

Ms. Amussen always worked, starting as a freelance proofreader and then copy editor and editor for increasingly scholarly books. She was an editor of the “Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh” (1958); she was credited for her work as Mrs. Robert Amussen — a slight that rankled her throughout her life. In 1963, she went to work for the Bollingen Foundation, and then as a children’s book editor at Macmillan. 

She had a parallel life as a community activist. She started in the PTA of her children’s school, helping to keep schools open during the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike. When developers sought to demolish her (rent-controlled) building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she organized the tenants in all the affected buildings and negotiated a deal with the developers that saved one of the buildings (The Alamo on East 93rd Street) and guaranteed the elderly residents rent-controlled apartments for the rest of their lives. 

With the negotiations with the developer concluded, she left New York in 1973 for Minneapolis, where she worked briefly as a tenant ombudsman for the developer of Cedar Square West in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis — the high-rise complex best known as Mary Tyler Moore’s home in the later years of that series. After leaving Cedar Square West, she completed her bachelor’s degree and then earned a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Minnesota. She was hired in 1977 as the founding executive director of Emmaus Services for the Aging in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that connected elderly inner-city Washington residents with the services they needed. She also served as president of the Cathedral College of the Laity and canon of Washington Cathedral.

In 1997 she semi-retired to Greenport, Long Island, where she had a regular column for The Suffolk Times and continued to work as a freelance editor; in her late 70s she converted to Judaism. She moved to Merced, Calif., in 2010; there she was a member of Congregation Etz Chaim; she served as president of the League of Women Voters of Merced County as well as a member of the Board of the Friends of the Merced County Library.

From an early age, she was attuned to those who were different from her, and to issues of social justice. In 1945, as a relatively well-to-do white girl, she joined an interracial youth council. She went to meetings up in Harlem, but the group also met at her parents’ home, where, at 14, she insisted that the Black members of the council ride in the main, rather than the service, elevator of her Park Avenue home.  This attention shaped her work as a community organizer and a human being for the rest of her life. 

She loved dogs and chocolate and remained curious and informed about the world and attentive to the needs of others until her final illness. 

She is survived by her daughters, Gretchen, of Paris, France, and Susan, of Merced, Calif.; her son, John, and his wife, Andréa Bailey; and her beloved grandchildren, Christopher and Sara, of Los Angeles, Calif.

The family is grateful to the staff at Park Merced for the care they have given her over the years, and to Covenant Care hospice for their care at the end of her life. Gifts in her memory can be sent to Doctors Without Borders, Heifer Project International or Friends of the Merced County Public Library.

This is a paid notice.