At her job as a program coordinator at the Matilda H. Theiss Child Development Center, where she worked with preschoolers with emotional and behavioral problems and their families, Virginia S. "Ginny" Cowell could be tough as nails to ensure that services were provided and demands met. But in her private life, she showed her soft side as the doting grandmother of three.
Mrs. Cowell also was known for her personal perseverance, spending much of her adult life battling diabetes and later breast cancer while rarely missing a day of work.
Mrs. Cowell, of Wilkins, died Saturday at UPMC East of breast cancer. She was 65.
"Ginny was very strong. She was one of the toughest people I ever met," said Kimberly Blair, director of the Matilda H. Theiss Child Development Center at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "She handled a lot of complicated situations in her personal life and here. She was strong. She spoke her mind and offered her opinion and did a great job."
The center provides preschool programs for young children with emotional and behavioral issues, those who may have had prenatal drug or alcohol exposure or may be affected by a parent's mental illness. "There are a lot of things that come up with families that have a lot of stressors and she handled a crisis with a cool head," Ms. Blair said.
Mrs. Cowell held a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education from the University of Pittsburgh. She started her career as a Head Start teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools and later worked for Community College of Allegheny County in a program that provided services for people with mental disabilities who were being transitioned from institutions to community settings. For the last 23 years, Mrs. Cowell worked at the Matilda Theiss Center.
"She loved working at the Matilda Theiss Center. Sometimes the families were struggling but she had very strong feelings about the young kids," said her husband of 44 years, Ronald, a former state legislator and chair of the House education committee who is now president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center.
Mr. Cowell said he often used his wife's knowledge of education in his work. "She became another set of eyes and ears and a brain about what was going on with young kids and early education and folks who know me well know that I've used stories about the kids that Ginny has worked with," Mr. Cowell said. "I would not have had the success I had without her."
Mary Ann Raymer, a friend of Mrs. Cowell's since ninth grade, said her friend was "a caring, kind person who would do anything for you." She said Mrs. Cowell was supportive of her husband's career advocating for education both in the Legislature and later in his private work.
"Ginny was the backbone that made it possible for all of that to happen. She took care of everything else so that allowed Ron the time to concentrate and focus," Mrs. Raymer said.
Mrs. Cowell became involved in politics in her own right and went to the 1996 National Democratic Convention as a delegate.
Mr. Cowell said his wife struggled with health issues from the age of 21 when she was diagnosed as an insulin-dependent diabetic. He said she lost toes and part of her foot to the disease. Ten years ago, two months after the death of their son, Robert, from heart disease, Mrs. Cowell was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her initial remission she had two recurrences that were successfully treated.
But the disease returned in November 2011 as a stage four cancer that could be treated but not cured. She continued to work until about a year ago when she became disabled, her husband said.
Mrs. Raymer said Mrs. Cowell never lost her positive attitude toward life through any of her struggles. "She never questioned why things were happening to her. She was always hopeful and positive," Mrs. Raymer said, adding that she remained "fiercely independent" and insisted on driving herself to medical treatments.
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Cowell is survived by a son, Richard, of Murrysville, and three grandchildren.
Arrangements are being handled by Wolfe Memorial Inc, Forest Hills Chapel. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. today at St. John Fisher Church, Churchill.
Mary Niederberger can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1590.