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Georgess McHargue, author of books for young readers

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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Groton author, poet, and editor Georgess McHargue lived with cancer for 16 years but refused to think of it as her “16-year battle with cancer.’’

More noble causes took precedence, her husband, Michael Roberts, said.

“Georgess was a pacifist,’’ he said. “She participated in protests against the Vietnam War, against segregation, for social justice and women’s rights.

“She really disliked the notion of battling cancer, putting up a hard fight or any of the multitude of battle metaphors you find when you start talking about this disease,’’ he said. “She preferred to think of it as dancing, which I think fits a lot of life situations.’’

Over years of surgery, chemotherapy, remission, and finally metastacy, she aptly described herself as “dancing with cancer,’’ he said. “The cancer was making moves, and she was making countermoves.’’

At a celebration of her birthday on June 20, he said, “For the last seven or eight years, she took the lead in the dance, and now the lead appears to be changing.’’

She decided to stop chemotherapy and died under hospice care at her home of metastatic breast cancer on July 18. Ms. McHargue, author of 35 books for children and young adults, some focused on archaeology, myth, and history, had turned 70 on June 7.

At her birthday party, Ms. McHargue, an alto, sang “Bring Me a Rose in the Wintertime’’ with two longtime friends and fellow members of the Nashoba Valley Chorale, Barbara Murray of Groton and Ruth Treen of Harwich Port.

Mairi McHargue Elliott of Groton said her mother’s choice of dancing rather than battling with cancer “was something more poetic. It wasn’t a dance but a standoff, defiant. From mother, I learned to take life by the horns and to follow my heart over my brain. Her vast knowledge guided her, but her heart gave her the answers.’’

Her death was mourned by her family and countless friends, those who worked with her on town affairs - she was a founding member of the Groton Town Democratic Committee - and in the trenches during political elections as poll watcher, sign-holder, and get-out-the-vote champion. She was also mourned by the many strangers who admired her rose garden.

“These are not hybrid roses, but rather from very old stock,’’ said Nancy Rosenberry Hoit of Hingham, a friend since childhood. “The garden was like a metaphor for G’s life - unconventional, poetic, colorful, informal, and for all to see and love. She knew the history of every rose, even back to the Tudor Era.’’

Many friends turned to her for answers before trying Google or an encyclopedia.

“Georgess was such a strong person mentally that I guess I was expecting her to somehow be able to physically defy the odds,’’ Treen said. “In the 40 years I have known her, I have immediately gone to her for any kind of knowledge I needed, from the meaning of an obscure word or phrase that I couldn’t find in the dictionary to her opinion on a politician or a political happening. She was so much more than a walking encyclopedia and a compassionate and loyal friend with a jolly sense of humor.’’

In her choice of wardrobe, Ms. McHargue had a certain panache. About 5-foot-7, she wore long colorful dresses and big earrings. “Her presence filled a room,’’ Murray said.

Until her illness, she wrote every day. “She would sit at her roll-top desk in a room full of books,’’ her daughter said.

She was born in New York City, the only child of Mac and Georgess (Boomhower) McHargue. She was often referred to as “Little G,’’ and, until her death, “G.’’ At 10 months, she posed for Squibb Cod Liver Oil. She was precocious and a storyteller, even in kindergarten. “The world as I knew it was entirely predicated on words - their use and misuse, their dissection, accumulation and glorification,’’ she wrote in an autobiography for one of her publishers.

She and Hoit became friends at age 9 while growing up in New York City. “We used to imagine galloping our imaginary horses across the sidewalks of 72d Street,’’ Hoit said. “It was G’s imagination - an ability to weave the endless stories of our imaginary steeds - that made her my special friend from that day to this.’’

From kindergarten to senior year, they attended Spence School in Manhattan, a private school for girls, and spent summers together at their family homes. Hoit was the sister she didn’t have, she wrote. Then, Ms. McHargue went to Radcliffe and Hoit went to Smith. They became godmothers to each other’s daughters and remained active horsewomen.

In 1963, Ms. McHargue graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard with a major in history and literature. She went to New York and got a job in publishing with Golden Press for two years and then, “spent three months traveling around Greece and Italy honing her language skills,’’ she wrote.

Back in New York, she worked as trade-publisher for Doubleday & Co. for five years. “I was active in local and national political campaigns, civil rights organizations and a variety of now-defunct peace and feminist groups,’’ she wrote. “I was splashed with yellow paint at a demonstration on lower Fifth Avenue and partially gassed in front of the Washington Monument.’’

She was nominated for a National Book Award for her first book in 1968, “The Beasts of Never,’’ and wrote many reviews over the years for The New York Times Book Review.

While working on her sixth or seventh book, she wrote, New York had been too expensive for a freelancer so she moved to an apartment in Cambridge. Soon after, she went to Scotland on a vacation “disguised as a scientific expedition to visit Stonehenge.’’

“One of the other participants,’’ she wrote, “was a fuzzy-haired electronics engineer with a high-voltage grin.’’ She and Roberts married in Massachusetts in 1974. They moved to Groton in 1975.

“Georgess was always upbeat. Her smile was electric, and she had a strong, positive soul,’’ he said.

When Roberts gave up engineering to become an archeologist, they and their daughter lived for a time in Micronesia, where he worked on preservation projects. While still writing books, Ms. McHargue edited technical reports in history and archeology for his Institute for Conservation Archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and for their historic preservation company, Timelines Inc., where for a time she was chief executive.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Ms. McHargue leaves two stepdaughters, Kelly Jean Richardson of Houston and Traci Ann Roberts of Shell Beach, Calif.; and four grandchildren.

Two weeks before Ms. McHargue died, her dog, Cody, died of bone cancer.

Her love of horses remained strong. In a poem she wrote, “When I Go,’’ Ms. McHargue expresses her love for them.

It begins, “When I go, I will go with the horses/Look for me where the long manes/and the long grass are tossing together’’ and ends, “Do not look for me among the twittering birds./When I go I will go with the horses.’’

A memorial service will be held in the fall.

Gloria Negri can be reached at negri@globe.com.