Rita T. Gervais
May 8, 1926 – November 30, 2019 / With Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra playing softly in the background, Rita Gervais, age 93, died peacefully at Oakwood Village, November 30th, 2019, in the company of her daughter, Claire and son-in-law Dave.
Though her mind, body, and world became increasingly contracted over the last 15-20 years due to Alzheimer’s disease, she suddenly became very ill and died within 18 hours, probably due to sepsis.
She lived a very intentional and meaningful life, which started when she was spiritually called to a life of caring and commitment, moving from her parent’s home in Detroit, MI to Mallinckrodt convent in Wilmette, Illinois, at age 15. Those plans were interrupted when she developed thyroid disease and was “kicked out” of the convent in her late 20’s, so she continued her elementary school teaching career and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in education by going to night school at the University of Detroit in 1959.
In the meantime, she also met a brilliant classical pianist, organist, and choir director, Gilbert Gervais, and married him in 1957. They had two kids in East Lansing, MI, Paul and Claire before relocating to Bismarck, ND. She put her career on hold to raise her kids and deal with her own health issues until 1969 when she divorced, her ex-husband dying by suicide a year later. This was a major turning point for her, leading to her leaving the dogma of the Catholic church to seek solace and caring at the Unitarian Fellowship.
The Unitarian connection also provided her with personal growth, and was a catalyst to her involvement with social and political issues, while getting back to full time teaching. She plunged into joining an environmental group, the United Plainsman, which worked on reclamation of land leased by coal strip mining companies. From there, she got involved politically with governmental relations for the North Dakota Education Association. Always looking out for the “underdog” she became involved in prison reform, extending her dinner table and home to several people transitioning out of prison. Then in 1982 she was part of a core group who helped pass the nuclear freeze initiated measure in North Dakota.
Her passion for politics grew through those who fought for the disadvantaged and poor but was particularly fueled by moral leaders she admired like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In 1985, she moved back to her native town, Detroit where she was a proud Rainbow Coalition member and delegate for Jessie Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid. She protested apartheid at the South African Embassy and lobbied congressional offices for other peace and justice issues in Washington, DC. She “burned the midnight oil” for numerous campaigns including former Senator Byron Dorgan, deceased Representative John Conyers, and former Senator Russ Feingold. Her quote was “I am a good stamp licker” but she obviously did far more. Her self-written epitaph is “She gave a damn”, and that she did!
After retirement, she followed her daughter to Madison, WI in 1994, before anyone knew that her grandchild, Wil was on the way. With grace and gusto, she fell into the role of regular caregiver for both Wil and Ella during their pre-school years and continued to visit her other grandchildren, Meghan, Andre’, and Kaitlin in Bremerton, Washington.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease dominated her final phase of life, but allowed her daughter the gift of giving back. Rita loved to laugh and even with her Alzheimer’s had a distinct “titter”. She also never lost her love of music, humming and responding to jazz and the “crooners” until her very last hours.
She is preceded in death by her father Anthony Utych, mother Clara Utych, her sister Dorothy Scheibner, her brother Ray Utych, and ex-husband Gilbert Gervais.
She is survived by her brother Gerald Utych, sister-in-law Mary Ann Utych, son Paul Gervais, daughter Claire Gervais, son-in-law David Blouin and grandchildren Meghan Farris, Andre’ Gervais, Kaitlin Gervais, Wil Blouin, and Ella Blouin.
She will be buried at Nature’s Path Cemetery in a small private ceremony and a larger celebration of her life is being planned in the Detroit metro area later next year.
In lieu of flowers, consider a donation to the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability farleycenter.org. The Farley elders, who passed several years ago, were family medicine doctors, and active on many social justice issues that Rita also cared about.
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