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City Mourns Community Matriarch, Volunteer

This story is about my wonderful neighbor and friend, Isobel Pelham, who passed away recently. I write this with gratitude so readers may find her story positive and inspiring.

San Clemente resident, Isobel Pelham, passed away Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, at the age of 75. She is survived by her three children, Melissa, Peter, and Sam Pelham, their spouses (respectively, Jeff Juneau, Maureen Pelham, and Allise Pelham), 5 grandchildren (Warren, Graham, Samuel, Cameron, and Malcom), older brother, Ben Williams, twin brother, Rod Williams, and their many children and grandchildren.   

Since Isobel arrived on La Paloma in 2006, our neighborhood became a close-knit family, an extended pack of Pelhams, watching over each other, sharing meals and family gatherings, tilling gardens, nurturing butterflies, cuddling canines, and volunteering for the good of our community. She was so engaged with San Clemente that it seems as though she's been here forever, like Ole Hanson appointed her the Spanish Village Ambassador. She accomplished a lot in 6 years' time.

Isobel's first San Clemente volunteer position was walking canines at the animal shelter. Whatever joy those wagging tails gave her, she reciprocated, and brought plenty home to La Paloma. She thought quite a bit about getting a dog of her own, but decided that she already had an unlimited supply. Between her children's dogs, Gilly, Rusty, Trixie, Maxwell, Blue the Bouvier, Blue the Terrier, and my Foxy right down the street, there were plenty of slurpy kisses to share. Like Isobel's human family, her canines loved each other as she loved them. Auntie Isobel's house was their house because she welcomed all. 

In 2008, she was appointed to the San Clemente Human Affairs Committee and the San Clemente Collaborative, on which she served 2 terms. Volunteering as a community liaison to improve the lives of residents in the Las Palmas Elementary / Max Berg Park neighborhoods, she tutored students with homework and helped those with language barriers engage with the community at large. She touched lives young, old, and in between. 

One of her favorite, lifelong activities was gardening, which she continued as a member of the San Clemente Garden Club. But true to form, Isobel tended other people's gardens before her own. She nurtured community flowerbeds city-wide and volunteered her time at Concordia's Butterfly Garden, where three of her grandchildren attended school. 

The annual monarch migration captivated her. She regularly rescued their chrysalises so she could teach friends, family, and kids about the butterflies' metamorphosis from grub to grandeur. Isobel thought the butterfly was the perfect metaphor for young people. They, too, will mature, spread their wings, and become beautiful in their own way, she believed.  

Helping young people was the focus of Isobel's adult life. Her late husband, Peter Pelham, became the President of Washington D.C.'s Mount Vernon College for Women at the age of 31 and held that position from 1962 until 1977. He guided the college from a 2-year seminary for young women to one that became a prestigious, fully-accredited 4-year institution that prepared students for global leadership positions

Mount Vernon College merged with George Washington University in 1999, but the Pelham name is forever recognized on campus. Two years ago, the new residence hall on the old College campus was dedicated as Pelham Hall with Pelham Commons as the center of student life. 

As the 25-year old wife of the College President, Isobel was thrust into the position of nurturing young women from around the world while raising a family of her own in the 1960's and 70's. Many of those students were children of either foreign ambassadors stationed in D.C. or members of the U.S. Foreign Service. The Pelhams provided an international way-station where young people from every continent and culture were assimilated with their American family.  

Isobel maintained those contacts her entire life. Despite her illness, this past summer she provided a home to Peter Rogers, a young law student from Sweden, whose mother had lived with the Pelham family decades earlier. Isobel provided him with a San Clemente home and a family to call his own as he volunteered for a Legal Aid non-profit in Santa Ana. Isobel's grandchildren became fast friends with Peter, and fondly recall the Summer of 2012 as the Summer of Peter the Swede. Peter told me this summer that his Mom loved Isobel as she did her own Mom, so he, in turn, revered her as his own grandmother. Isobel wouldn't have it any other way. 

Giving and reaching out to others was in her DNA. Following their leadership positions at Mount Vernon, Isobel and Peter formed an international educational non-profit called Global Connections, which endures today. Its mission remains constant: focusing the transformative capacity of education to develop future community leaders who collaborate with others by finding common ground in an increasingly diverse world. 

Isobel carried that mission to San Clemente, putting it to work as a member of the Human Affairs Committee, as a tutor with the Boys' & Girls' Club, and as a member of the League of Women Voters, where she volunteered to register new voters, educate them on key issues, and assist with candidate forums for the benefit of local residents. 

Of all of her civic activities, Isobel believed voting was the most patriotic thing she--and everyone else--could do. As her health began to decline in recent weeks, she worried she wouldn't be able to make it to the polling place for this 2012 election. So, I ordered her a vote-by-mail ballot online. I checked in on her at her home the morning after the election. She was in significant discomfort, but when she saw me enter, her eyes lit up and she smiled as broadly as a cheshire cat. "Obama won," she said, "and I voted." Then she told me she loved me. I hugged her and told her, "I love you, too." 

Several days after her passing, I asked Isobel's daughter-in-law, Allise, if Isobel cast a vote for those eleven propositions on our California ballot. I assumed evaluating them would be too difficult, considering her delicate state. But I assumed wrong. Allise said she considered and voted on every one of them and all the political office positions, too. Casting her presidential ballot was her last gift to our community and country. 

Isobel transformed us from residents of a densely populated place where almost no one knew any one's name to a village where smiles and kindness connect us all. Like the butterflies she so admired, Isobel spread happiness and gratitude from coast to coast. She will be forever missed but never forgotten. 

Thank you, Isobel, for sharing yourself and your family with all of us in the Spanish Village by the Sea.

The Pelham family will likely hold a celebration of Isobel's life early next year, to give people a chance to get through the holidays and plan a visit to San Clemente. They also request that, in lieu of flowers, people volunteer their time for their community or donate to the Boys and Girls Club


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lori Donchak November 18, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Brenda, This is a wonderful glimpse into how special Isobel's place in San Clemente is. She is a role model for all that is good in our community and in life. Thank you for capturing her spirit so beautifully. I miss Isobel very much. Lori
Gay Ann Morrisette November 18, 2012 at 05:26 PM
What Isobel was to San Clemente, she was to every community she lived in, and to every group of people she was involved with. Some people are missed by no one, some people are missed by a few, and then there are those like Isobel who will be missed by hundreds. She is the best person I have ever known and my life will always have a huge hole where she was. I consider myself very lucky to have had such a good friend. And I know I am just one of dozens and dozens of people who feel this way. Thank you Brenda for such a loving tribute and for also being such a good friend to Isobel. Gay Ann Morrisette
Wayne Eggleston November 18, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Isobel was a truly very special and lovng person. She was always a regular at Park Semper Fi tending to the plants that she adored. Her spirit will always be a part of the Marine Monument.
Judy Jones November 18, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Thank you Brenda for a wonderful tribute to Isobel. She will be missed by her friends, her family, and all of us who have benefited from her contributions give us a better community and better world! --Judy
Sandy Exelby November 19, 2012 at 01:02 AM
Brenda, thank you so much for this fitting personal tribute. It is not surprising that her gentle warm spirit was felt among your neighbors. We are surely missing her in the League of Women Voters. Sandy Exelby
Sera November 19, 2012 at 03:36 PM
I first met Isobel at a community event held at her home. The fact that she would open her home to the community, said something about her as being a very generous person. I came to learn that she enjoyed gardening. She told me about her work with the garden club. We connected on both loving to grow gardens. She invited me to assist in building the gardens at Concordia. Im so glad I was able to know Isobel, because she was one of those rare people who is just a kind, loving soul through and through. Im so glad I was able to get to know her, and I will miss seeing her gardening and around town. Just a sweet sweet person.
leslie davis November 19, 2012 at 08:39 PM
I had the pleasure and honor of knowing Isobel from her appointment to the Human Affairs Committee and as a liaison to the San Clemente Collaborative. What a wonderful and compassionate lady. She immediately became involved in the community as a member of the HAC. She never hesitated to chair the committee, as she considered it her duty as a member. She gave unselfishly to the children and families in the community and was always in attendance at potlucks, fundraisers and events. She was honored by the Orange County Human Relations Commission last year as a unsung hero, devoting her time to the community to better relations between young and old, enhancing the community with her interaction. How lucky San Clemente was to have Isobel a part of it. I am proud to have known her.
suzanne ansari November 19, 2012 at 09:19 PM
Isobel was an angel in our midst and she will not be forgotten. Her kindness and dedication to volunteerism will live on through those she has touched. I am very blessed to have met Isobel through volunteering as a tutor at the boys & girls club and also through the San Clemente Collaborative. Her smile and warm heart will be missed.
Doris Weinbaum November 21, 2012 at 01:36 AM
Beautifully written! I had the honor to serve as co-chair of the League's water committee with Isobel. She is my role model. She lived with intelligence, generosity and grace. I am grateful that she was my friend.
Georgette Korsen November 27, 2012 at 09:12 PM
You didn't need to know Isobel....to know Isobel. It was all written on her sweet face. It was in her smile the very first time you saw her. She was indeed a special soul. Thank-you, Brenda, for paying tribute to your dear friend.
gailm November 29, 2012 at 12:43 AM
What a wonder tribute to her. She was a kind, giving and charming lady and we will miss her much. I am sure the flowers in the garden with show her great smile and sunshine. Gail Milazzo
james hamilton December 07, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Hello Brenda, Thank you for doing such a wonderful tribute to a fine neighbor. She is missed.

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