When Thelma Lovette returned to Pittsburgh in 2012 for the dedication of the new YMCA that bears her name, the line of people waiting to say hello stretched out of the gymnasium into the next room. It was like meeting the queen, except she greeted everyone with, “Hello Sweetie.”
Veteran civil rights activist Alma Speed Fox said that isn’t far from the truth.
“She was a lovely person, and, how do I say, part of the Hill District elite. So, she kind of was like royalty,” said Fox. “She was a social activist, with her work at (Mercy Hospital) and with the schools. And of course her family was very politically connected and that helped in the Civil Rights struggle. It didn’t make it easy, but it was…easier. And she was a real lady. I can turn it off and on, but she was a lady all the time.”
Lovette, the long-time social conscience of the Hill District, passed away in her Mesa, Ariz., home May 24 following a recent stroke. She was 98.
She was the 5th of 11 children. Her father, Henry, owned a plumbing business, which stood where the upper parking lot of the former Civic Area is. Her oldest brother, Robert E. “Pappy” Williams, was the first Black magistrate in Pennsylvania, an ally of Mayor David L. Lawrence and a powerful Democratic chairman of the city’s 5th Ward.
Another brother, Jacob, was a district justice. Her brother Frank, was a deputy controller for Allegheny County, and her husband, Bill, followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a plumber.
Lovette’s own political career included a 35-year stint as a Democratic committeewoman. But she never took a patronage job. She washed dishes, worked as an elevator operator at (then) Bell Telephone and worked in the team teaching program at Pittsburgh Public Schools. She also attended school when not working, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. She was the first Black social worker hired at Mercy Hospital.
Tim Stevens knew Lovette all his life and said even though she’d been living out west, her spirit remained.
“She was one of my personal heroes. She was close to my mother and attended the same church,” he said. “She was special to me, to the community and to the city. Her energy, passion and dynamism are qualities we should all hope to model.”
Reverend Johnnie Monroe, retired pastor at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, said though he was politically active before meeting Lovette, she “encouraged” him even more.
“She was one of the finest people I ever met; sincere, dedicated, community-minded, and she was a mentor to both young and old,” he said. “I had the privilege to go on a trip to Africa with her. It was a 90th birthday present for her. We went to Gambia, Senegal, South Africa–she was 90 and kept up the whole way, a real trooper. When she left, she left a void in the church and the community. She’ll be missed.”
When the Thelma Lovette YMCA on Centre Avenue opened in 2012, the former president of the Greater Pittsburgh Y, Eric Mann, flew in from his new post in Jacksonville, Fla., for the opening. He said he wouldn’t have missed it.
“Oh yeah, I had to see Thelma do this,” he said. “And it’s great to see a dream realized, not just for the Y and Thelma, but for the Hill.”
Lovette, with the help of her daughter, Thelma Lovette Morris, and son-in-law, Gregory Morris, rose from her wheelchair to address the standing, cheering crowd.
“I used to dance and stand up straight, now I need someone to help me. But isn’t it nice to have someone to help you,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to come in to the Centre Avenue Y. The Y encouraged me and I want you each to encourage them. A new city is being developed along Centre Avenue And I am excited to see it. It’s a wonderful building and I am blessed to be here. I’m trilled. I love all of you. Thank you all.”
The Arizona Memorial for Thelma W. Lovette will be Tuesday, June 3, 2014 at Mountain View Funeral Home & Cemetery 7900 E. Main Street Mesa, AZ 85207. Family visitation 9:30 a.m.; Service at 10:30 a.m.
The Pittsburgh Memorial will be Friday, August 1, 2014 at the Thelma Lovette YMCA 2114 Centre Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15219 at 4:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, please contribute to the Thelma Lovette YMCA 2114 Centre Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15219.
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