Mary Lea Oxford Underwood was born March 4, 1916 in Crowley, Louisiana, the second child of Lillie Rebecca Knight Oxford and J.W. Oxford. She spent much of her childhood in southwestern Louisiana. Initially taught by her mother, she entered school at the third-grade level and went on to finish high school in Baton Rouge, La. She graduated from Louisiana State University in 1936 and completed her Master of Science degree there in 1937. Pursuing her studies at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, she met and married Joseph B. Underwood in 1939.
She obtained her second master's degree in Religious Education in 1940. In 1943 she traveled with her husband to Brazil, where they served as missionaries in Recife and Campina Grande for 10 years and began raising four children. Returning to the United States in 1953, they settled first in Clovis, New Mexico, and later in Albuquerque, where she shared her many skills and talents both in the workplace and at home with her children. In 1961, the family moved to Richmond, Va. Here, she continued to work while pursuing further graduate studies in Special Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. Sharing her life-long passion for learning, she taught in the Richmond Public Schools for over twenty years, first working with special education students, and later fulfilling what she regarded as the culmination of her career in education, teaching older youth at Richmond's Juvenile Detention Home until her retirement in 1982.
Compassionate and considerate, she had a critical eye for unfairness, prejudice and hypocrisy. Patient and unassuming, she supported all those she loved with quiet determination. A loving mother and a wonderful friend, she died on January 9, 2005. She is remembered fondly by her four children, Wyatt, Judy, William, and Charles; her seven grandchildren, Grant, Kyle, Shauna, Donnie, Mark, Larissa and Ali; her seven great-grandchildren and by friends and loved ones throughout the United States and the world. A small private memorial service will be held in the near future.