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DOWNEY – Mary Lou Schmidt, a longtime Downey community icon and leader, passed away on April 24, at the age of 76.
Here in her own words and those of her family and some close friends, is the story of a life spent in service to her family, her city, the Assistance League of Downey and the two hospitals she loved.
“I was born Mary Lou Farmer at Suburban Hospital in South Gate on October 1, 1936, the only child born to Travis Timothy (Dutch) Farmer and Olyne Grace Farmer,” she said. Her birth date will come as a surprise to many of Mary Lou’s friends, because she never disclosed her actual age to any of them. Most thought she was at least five years younger than she really was…and of course, Mary Lou did nothing to discourage this notion.
She weighed just three pounds at birth. “She was so tiny she could fit in the palm of her father’s hand,” said Mary Lou’s husband Don. “In those days, it was rare for a baby to survive at that size, but then Mary Lou was a rare individual in everything she ever did.”
When she spoke of her childhood, she had indelible memories of a very different Southern California than exists today. “I remember when there were no freeways and no subdivision housing,” she said. “The area was covered with orange groves, walnut orchards and avocado trees, with eucalyptus trees acting as windbreaks.
“I remember when a cup of coffee and a candy bar were each 5 cents, hamburgers were 10 cents, and a gallon of gas was 18 cents,” Mary Lou said. “Postage was 3 cents for surface and 7 cents for air mail.
“I remember when doctors made house calls and one could rent a three-bedroom home for $25 per month,” she said. “A matinee movie was 10 cents for a double feature, plus a cartoon and two serial features. Oh, and the newsreel, too!
“I remember waiting in line at a children’s store during World War II to be able to purchase a small metal car for 25 cents,” she said. “Gas was rationed, the lines were long, and you needed a ration stamp to purchase gas. Everyone was allowed just so many shoes, and shoestrings were scarce. There were no fireworks on the Fourth of July, as all the manufacturers were making ammunition for the war effort.”
After attending elementary and middle school in South Gate and Lynwood, she graduated from South Gate High School, where she was an outstanding student and was involved in many extra-curricular activities. During her senior year she was chosen the top student in both the Art and Physical Education Departments. She was also Year Book Editor and a member of the Ramblerettes.
She attended Pepperdine University, where she was involved in many campus activities. “I was a reporter on the Wave, our college newspaper, and I was active in my sorority, Delta Chi Omega,” Mary Lou said. She was chosen as her sorority’s outstanding member during her junior year. She played softball and tennis at Pepperdine, graduating in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education with a minor in Fine Arts.
During her college days, Mary Lou met and eventually married Donald E. Schmidt, a young man from Alabama who was nine months older than her. “I met Mary Lou when I went on a double date with a friend,” Don said. “Of course, she was with the friend. But after that night, I asked him if he minded if I asked her out and soon Mary Lou and I fell in love. And over nearly 60 years, our love continued to grow.”
“We were married in a large, formal wedding on August 25, 1956 in the Church of Christ on the Pepperdine campus,” Mary Lou said. “After college, I accepted a position as Girls Program Director at the Downey YMCA.” During her five years at the “Y”, Mary Lou built her girls program into the largest one of its kind in the entire United States. “I also served on the YMCA’s statewide Youth and Government Steering Committee and was appointed by the governor to a special task force for youth,” she added. In addition, she served on the Downey YMCA Board of Directors for many years.
“When my son Timothy was born in 1963, Don and I decided that family responsibilities would become my main priority,” Mary Lou said. “We had waited many years to become parents and I didn’t want to miss any of my son’s early years.”
It was at this point that Mary Lou’s life turned toward philanthropic work in her community, where she focused her efforts for the final half-century of her life. “I was very active in PTA during the time Tim was in school, serving as PTA President at both the Middle School and High School Level,” she said. “I was also active in and held offices in the Downey Council PTA and the 33rd District PTA.” For her extraordinary service, Mary Lou received both the PTA Service Award, and PTA’s highest honor, the Continuing Service Award.
Mary Lou joined the Assistance League of Downey in 1979, and rose through the ranks to serve as President. “Mary Lou was president from 2007 to 2009, only the fourth woman since 1953 to serve for two years,” said Joan Frey, who was installed as Assistance League President in 2011. “She was so happy and proud when Housing of Medical Emergencies, known as H.O.M.E., was built and finished in 1997 to allow families to stay in a nice place while their relative was being treated at our greatest hospital, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.”
Rick Velasquez, Chief Deputy to Supervisor Don Knabe, remembered when Mary Lou was working to raise funds to build the project.
“I met Mary Lou in the early 1990′s when I got appointed as health deputy,” Rick said. “She made an appointment with me to go over an idea she had about building a ‘Ronald McDonald house’ at Rancho. She called it that to help me understand her idea about having a temporary home for patient families while their loved one was in the hospital. At any rate, things moved forward quickly and her dream was realized.”
Mary Lou helped raise much of the money required to build the 10-apartment project on the south side of the Rancho campus, and has chaired the project since its inception.
“I can still visualize Mary Lou wearing a hard hat as the H.O.M.E. was being built,” said Mary Lou’s good friend and fellow Assistance League member Beverly Mathis. “She not only spearheaded the development and building of the project, she personally made sure that there was always a spirit of partnership with Rancho.”
“After the H.O.M.E. opened, we would talk regularly about minor problems,” Rick said. “We always worked together to help maintain everything up to her standards.”
“I love every patient family that stays at H.O.M.E. while their loved one is in the hospital,” Mary Lou said. “One simply can’t imagine what these families have to endure in seeing a family member fighting for their life. It fills me with joy to know that we can play a small part in helping heal these families by providing a wonderful place for them to stay within walking distance of Rancho’s inpatient units during the days, weeks, or months that their family member is recovering at Rancho.”
“I saw a hard worker, one who was not afraid to get in and make things happen,” said H.O.M.E. Resident Manager Jean Douglass. “This project was very close to her heart…she was so concerned for the comfort of our guests. She wanted to provide them with the best conditions for their stay with us no matter what their situation.”
“In addition to the H.O.M.E. project, she also got me involved in her Assistance League Christmas Tree Brunch in Long Beach and i felt so lucky to meet her family,” Rick said. “Every time I would see her I told her what a wonderful person she was and I told her grandkids how wonderful their grandma was. She would just smile in her own way and shrug me off with a laugh.
“I had the chance to tell her how important she was to Rancho and all of the families she helped, and she told me that was the reason she worked so hard and it was such a pleasure for her,” he added.
Mary Lou’s passion also extended to Downey Regional Medical Center, where she served with distinction for many years on the hospital’s Board of Directors. “I was very proud to be the first woman elected to be Chairman of the Hospital Board of Directors,” she said. She served in that capacity for three years. She was appointed a member of the Downey Regional Corporate Board of Directors in 2009, and also served as a member of the Hospital Memorial Trust Foundation Board.
Mary Lou and Don were honored by Downey Regional at the hospital’s 2005 Charter Ball for “Mary Lou’s tireless efforts on behalf of the hospital and our community; her courageous leadership during challenging times in the healthcare industry; and her warmth that has encouraged others to give of their time, talents and treasures to the hospital; and Don’s constant and considerable behind the scenes support of her efforts.”
“She fought so hard to keep Downey Regional open, and to make sure that the hospital leadership was listening to the voice of the community,” Don said. “She loved the hospital, and her support never wavered during the bankruptcy and all of Downey Regional’s recent challenges.”
Mary Lou’s dedication to her community and her effectiveness as a civic leader was recognized in 2004 when the Soroptimist International of Downey honored her with its “Woman of Distinction” Award. She was also awarded the Volunteer Award from Rotary International of Downey and was named Outstanding Woman of 1998 for the city of Downey by State Senator Betty Karnette.
Mary Lou always wanted grandchildren, and in 2005, her dream came true when Tim and his wife Christy adopted two sisters from Russia. “Meeting Sasha and Katie in the International Airport Terminal at LAX was more exciting than many Christmases rolled into one,” Mary Lou said. “To be in love with their pictures was one thing, but to look into those little faces with those big blue eyes was a wonder.
“Those little girls (now 10 and 11 years old) had no idea how important they had become in my life,” Mary Lou said. “Walking through fire was the least of what I would do for them. Each day of my life thereafter became a joy unlike any I have ever known because of those girls. Every day from then on they were always in my thoughts.”
Mary Lou’s loss was immediately felt by the entire community. Supervisor Don Knabe adjourned the Board of Supervisors meeting in her honor this week.
A celebration of Mary Lou’s life will be held on Tuesday, May 14, at 4 p.m. at the Rio Hondo Event Center in Downey.
“Mary Lou was known by community members as an extremely kind person who had a profound impact on community progress and always tried her best to make things better for all,” Supervisor Knabe said. “Mary Lou’s passing is an incredible loss to her family and community, and she will be truly missed by all who knew and loved her.”
“Mary Lou could always be relied upon,” said her friend and fellow Assistance League member Charlene Roche. “She was also one of the first ones to welcome new members into the organization. She had rock-solid principles and she lived those principles every day of her life.”
“I had such admiration for Mary Lou,” Rick said. “What a great person she was. I will really miss her.”
“I feel so fortunate to have counted Mary Lou as a close friend and colleague,” Beverly said. “This gave me the opportunity to witness her devotion to her family and the dedication and passion that she gave to her many community involvements. Those of us who experienced these commitments must make it our duty to continue Mary Lou’s work. She will be truly missed by the many people whose lives were touched by the very special magic of Mary Lou.”
Published: May 2, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 03