Marita Donovan Pinkel passed away at the age of 92 on Feb. 29, 2020 in Saratoga, California, surrounded by her family. Wrapped in her beloved St. Jude’s blanket, she drew her last breath as she listened to one of her favorite songs, “We Shall Overcome,” during the final verse: “We Are Not Afraid.”
In the week before, learning that their grandmother was terminal, several of her grandchildren gathered at her bedside one last time for the stories only she could tell, and for singing and laughter. It was a fitting tribute to a woman who had devoted her life to her family and who had instilled a sense of fun and adventure in all her grandchildren.
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Marita graduated from Holy Angels Academy and received a degree in home economics from Buffalo State Teachers College. She married a young medical student, Donald Pinkel, in 1949 and taught kindergarten in the Buffalo public schools before staying home to start a family. She and Don lived with their growing family in New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Wisconsin before re-locating to southern California in 1979. She was essential to Dr. Pinkel’s success as a pioneer in the treatment of childhood cancer, guiding him through his recovery from polio - after he became disabled in 1954 during his service as an Army doctor - and supporting his efforts to build St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital into a world-class institution. The couple divorced in 1981.
A central experience in Marita's life was moving to Memphis in 1961 when Dr. Pinkel became the founding medical director of St Jude’s. The hospital was still under construction when the family arrived. Marita was a big support to her husband, hosting dinners and parties for researchers and clinicians from all over the world. Her warmth and outgoing nature put the families of St. Jude recruits at ease in what was a very different culture in an unsettling time.
Living in Memphis in the 1960s and early 70s, Marita worked for civil rights in very pragmatic ways when it was not socially acceptable or popular to do so. Her home was open to all; she was courageous at a time when there was a price for having courage.
Wherever she lived, Marita found ways to be a vital part of her community. After moving to southern California, she became active in Friends Outside (advocacy organization for families of prisoners), first as a volunteer, and then as a board member; enlivened newcomers’ groups; became a faithful member of the Half Notes singing group; and devoted many hours to the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). The Chapter established the Marita D. Pinkel Award, an annual award, in her honor.
After her years as a homemaker and mother of nine children, Marita became a travel agent, taking the bus to downtown LA every day. Always one to find the silver lining, Marita found opportunities for trips to Israel, Ireland, Alaska, the Caribbean, and Tahiti. In retirement, she was active in NAMI and All Saints Episcopal Church and volunteered in the inter-generational art project at Holy Family School in South Pasadena.
Marita Donovan Pinkel is survived by her sister, Elizabeth Donovan Giblin of Saddle River, NJ. She leaves her eight surviving children: Rebecca (Frank Amthor) of Birmingham, Alabama; Nancy (Jack Muench) of Los Gatos, California; Mary (Daniel Quinn) of Anchorage, Alaska; Thomas of Anchorage, Alaska; Anne Noelle (Bruce Greene) of Huntsville, Alabama; Dr. Sara Pinkel (Casey Wimsatt) of San Jose, California; John (Susan Shyu) of Los Gatos, California; and Ruth (Ted Jordan) of La Canada, California. Marita’s third child, Christopher, passed away one year ago. Marita is also survived by sixteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Marita is preceded in death by her parents, Thomas and Angela Donovan; her sister, Patricia Donovan Jacobi (Donald); and her brother, Thomas Donovan Jr. (Mimi).
The family wishes to thank Hospice of the Valley and Our Lady of Fatima Villa Assisted Living for the excellent care Marita received in her final days in Saratoga and the Right at Home Caregivers and the Villa Gardens Community for their kindness during her last year in Pasadena.
Services will be held at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California at a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made be made to the Marita D. Pinkel Fund at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital or the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).
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