Obituary: Thelma Lovette / Civil rights pioneer and activist; Hill District YMCA bears her name

Feb. 28, 1916 - May 24, 2014

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Thelma Lovette was 80 years old when she ran in the Western Pennsylvania leg of the torch relay for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

More than 40 friends and family members piled into a bus and drove to Erie to watch her run her portion. She needed knee surgery at the time, her daughter, Thelma Lovette Morris, said, although witnesses never would have known once the torch was in her hands.

"When they passed that flame to her, those little legs just stretched out," Ms. Morris said of her mother. "I had to run to keep up with her."

That strength characterized her mother, she said, and was exemplified throughout most of her life. Ms. Lovette died Saturday in Arizona, where she had been living with her family for the past few years. She was 98.

The longtime community activist and volunteer was a "soldier," former city Councilman Sala Udin said, and had a hand in "every aspect of social development and civil rights in the Hill District."

"Because she was educated early, she was always the first one to do this and that," Mr. Udin said of his life-long friend and colleague. "Some people, when they go through a door they close it behind them, or when they go through a window they pull up the ladder behind them. Thelma was the opposite ... she was always one to encourage others to come up behind her."

She was born on Feb. 28, 1916, the fifth of 11 children. Her father, Henry M. Williams, was one of the first black registered plumbers in the city, and Alice Johnson, her mother, was a homemaker. Her brother, Robert "Pappy" Williams, would become the first black police magistrate in Pittsburgh and the first black ward chair in the state of Pennsylvania.

She grew up on Wylie Avenue and would regularly visit the Centre Avenue YMCA to watch Pappy's basketball games. She graduated in 1934 from Schenley High School. She worked full time while attending the University of Pittsburgh to pursue a bachelor's and master's degrees in social work. She became the first black social worker at Mercy Hospital and retired as supervisor of social workers after more than 15 years with the hospital.

Watching her mother, Ms. Morris said she always thought community service and involvement was "a way of life."

"She always dragged me to meetings with her ... so what other model did I have?" she said. "This was the model my mom set for me: Be involved and give back to your community. She did that very willingly."

Ms. Lovette kept her bus ticket from her trip to Washington, D.C., where she participated in the 1963 March on Washington. That ticket, Mr. Udin said, which noted riders would be picked up from "Freedom Corner," was one of the first written evidence of a corner at Centre Avenue and Crawford Street in the Hill District that now holds a civil rights monument.

She was the first woman to serve on the YMCA's board of management, and also served for years on the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. Her decades of service to YMCA and her community culminated in the newest Hill District branch, the Thelma Lovette YMCA, being named in her honor. The opening ceremony for the branch in April 2012 was the last time Ms. Lovette visited Pittsburgh, her daughter said.

Aaron Gibson, executive director of the Thelma Lovette YMCA, remembered Ms. Lovette's visit to the facility the day before the grand opening. She tried out several of the arm pulleys in the gym area and told onlookers, "Watch me smoke," as she worked the machine with her right, then left hand.

Ann Haley, a board member for the Thelma Lovette Y, said Ms. Lovette was a "gentle giant" committed to the "Y" and "looking out for what was best for the children."

At her 80th birthday party, she said, Ms. Lovette asked party-goers to donate money to Centre Avenue Y instead of giving it to her. People always listened and were responsive to her gentle and persuasive manner, she said.

"She was able to persuade people, never uttering a mean word or even raising her voice to get her point across," Ms. Haley said. "Just with that smile she was able to captivate an audience and get them to listen to her. We want the young people on the Hill to know about Mrs. Lovette. They know the Y is named the Thelma Lovette YMCA, but they don't know who she is."

The woman who organized the electric slide at his wedding, Mr. Udin said, was the same woman whose political savvy caused her to be a catalyst in the social development of the Hill District. He consulted her on many political decisions.

"None of us would have been anywhere near successful without the help and support of Thelma Lovette and her family," Mr. Udin said. "Her history is the history of the Hill District."

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889. First Published May 24, 2014 11:21 PM


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