At 96, Thelma Lovette rose to her feet from a wheelchair, arms supported by her daughter and son-in-law, as 400 people in the gymnasium of the new YMCA in the Hill District rose to theirs.
Wednesday's grand opening ceremony of the Thelma Lovette YMCA, 2114 Centre Ave., was a tribute to her legacy in the neighborhood as much as to her YMCA service.
At the microphone, Mrs. Lovette said, "I am just thrilled." Acknowledging the support on each side of her, she said: "I used to dance and now I need help walking. But isn't it wonderful to have someone's help?"
The crowd cheered.
"It is rare to praise a living legend" in person, said city Councilman Daniel Lavelle. "And I had to wait in a very long line to give her a hug."
As people filed into the gym before the spirited ceremony, huddles formed around her. Head after head bent to touch hers, hands clasping hers, and each huddle that enclosed this tiny neighborhood quarterback gave way to the next.
"There's hardly anything that got started to better this neighborhood that didn't have something to do with her," said her son-in-law, Gregory Morris.
Mrs. Lovette, the first black social worker at Mercy Hospital, was the first woman to serve on the YMCA's board of management. A lifelong resident of the Hill, she was the daughter of a plumber and a homemaker on Wylie Avenue and spent her adult years as a volunteer and activist for numerous Hill District causes.
She also served for several years on the city's planning commission.
In a great irony that future development risks repeating, Mrs. Lovette was priced out of her apartment in Crawford-Roberts, the housing development that she helped initiate as a board member of the Hill Community Development Corp.
With that and her age, she joined her daughter, Thelma Morris, and son-in-law in their home near Phoenix three years ago.
But there were no downsides at the grand opening, where people lauded the progress taking place in the Hill and toured the state-of-the-art facility saying "beautiful" and "amazing."
The new Y, a $13 million project, was initiated by Eric Mann, who said it was "a dream, really" when he was the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh for eight years until last fall. Groundbreaking was in the summer of 2010.
"It is great to see it a reality and to honor the work Mrs. Lovette did, not just for the Y but for the revitalization of the community."
A concern among YMCA officials is building memberships and being able to serve low-income residents. Mr. Lavelle's office donated $10,000 to a subsidy fund, and state Sen. Jim Ferlo and Rep. Jake Wheatley each devoted $1,000 toward that end.neigh_city