Among her many strengths, Thelma Williams Lovette had a special talent for bringing out the best in the many people whose lives she touched over nearly a century, Dr. Johnnie Monroe said during Friday’s memorial service for the Hill District icon.
Whether encouraging a young person to pursue a career in social work, or chiding another for chewing gum, Mrs. Lovette’s devotion to doing good work in the service of God made everyone around her “step up their game,” said Dr. Monroe, a longtime friend and pastor at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church.
“She knew how to push people to be their best in a gentle and nonjudgmental way,” Dr. Monroe told a crowd of about 500 people who filled the gymnasium of the Thelma Lovette YMCA on Centre Avenue on Friday to remember her life and her decades of work to improve the Hill District community. “She also knew how to correct and criticize and beat on you and make you love her for it.”
Mrs. Lovette, originally of the Hill District, died on May 24 in Mesa, Ariz. She was 98.
The fifth of 11 children, Mrs. Lovette graduated from Schenley High School in 1934, then worked as a dishwasher and pastry cook at the Ruskin Apartments, former YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh chief executive officer Eric Mann told the audience.
She then worked as an elevator operator, a legal secretary, a team mother for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and as the first black social worker for Mercy Hospital beginning in 1966. After working full time and going to the University of Pittsburgh full time, she earned her master’s degree in social work in 1972 at the age of 56, he said.
She ultimately retired as Mercy’s supervisor of social workers.
During those years, Mrs. Lovette also served in numerous groups and on many boards, including a parents’ kindergarten advocacy group, the Girl Scouts of America and the YMCA. She taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school at Grace Memorial, and served as a trustee. She helped organize the precursor to what is now known as the Hill District Community Development Corp. She helped plan the Freedom House Ambulance service, which later became Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services, and served on Pittsburgh’s city planning commission from 1992 to 2006.
She also was a Democratic district committeewoman for more than 35 years, and was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1984.
But in addition to her public service and her political activism, Mrs. Lovette wasn’t afraid to help others in a personal way, said her daughter, Thelma Lovette Morris. During the riots that engulfed parts of the Hill District after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she confronted a group of men who were trying to kick in the door of a store, her daughter said.
“Our neighbors had to drag her away because she was going to challenge them,” Mrs. Morris said. “She was small but mighty.”
And in Arizona, a young woman who spent time with her mother decided to become a social worker partly because of her encouragement, Mrs. Morris said.
Through it all, it was her mother’s love of God and her desire to serve him that inspired her and guided her, Mrs. Morris said. Following her mother’s example would be the best tribute to her life and her memory, she said.
“My mother would want all of you to remember to say your prayers, help others, dance and give thanks for all the blessings God has given you,” Mrs. Morris said.