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Dona L. Irvin


Dona L. Irvin (1917-2009), Author

Dona L. Irvin, dearly beloved wife of Frank E. Irvin and mother of Nell Irvin Painter/Shafer made her transition in Oakland at age ninety-one on Thursday, 5 February 2009 after a life of love and letters. Her parents, Charles Hosewell McGruder and Nellie Eugenie Donato McGruder, met while he was a professor and she a student at Straight (now Dillard) University in New Orleans. Dona, their fifth and youngest child, met her husband of seventy-one years, Frank E. Irvin, in the library of their college, Houston College for Negroes (now Texas Southern University). The Irvins married in 1937, the year she received her bachelor’s degree in education. They moved to Oakland in the midst of the second great migration in 1942 with their son Frank, Jr. and infant daughter Nell. Tragically their son passed away at age five, leaving a family that remained at only three people, plus cats and dogs.

One of the highlights Dona shared with Frank, the love of her life, was a two-year stint in Ghana, in the mid-1960s, shortly after that West African nation had gained independence. With her characteristic generosity, Dona taught English to the manual workers at the University of Ghana, where Frank was employed in the Chemistry Department. She also blossomed in an environment free of American racial prejudice, embracing for the first time her full-fledged individuality. She dressed to suit herself, not the racist super-ego demanding drab good taste at all times. On her return to California, she unleashed her inner gambler, taking trips to Reno to play the slot machines for twenty-four hours straight.

For many years Dona Irvin was considered “over-qualified” for the positions available to her in the Bay Area. But things changed, and she was able to seize opportunities opening up during the civil rights era and began a career in education administration: first at the University of California, Berkeley, then in the Oakland Unified School District, from which she retired in 1982. In retirement she began a new and rewarding career as an author. Her first book, The Unsung Heart of Black America: A Middle-Class Church at Midcentury, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 1992. It chronicled the creation and growth of Downs Memorial Methodist Church, which the Irvin family attended in the 1950s and early 1960s and where they found so many of their cherished, life-long friends. After succeeding in her first endeavor as an author, she published a more personal book in 2002, I Hope I Look that Good When I’m That Old: An Older African-American Woman Speaks to All Women in All of America, a title inspired by words she heard so often from younger women of all racial-ethnic backgrounds. This book has become a favorite among the many women to whom she was speaking. Dona was working on a website dedicated to vital elders when congestive heart failure interrupted her writing permanently.

Dona L. Irvin will long be remembered for her intelligence, integrity, determination, good humor, and dazzling beauty—and, of course, her genius for organization. Her thoughtfulness touched so many lives, including those of her daughter’s historian friends who were touched and amazed by her and her husband’s attention. Many appreciated her joie de vivre without realizing that it was hard won after an upbringing of rigid respectability. Growing up during the age of segregation, she had to reinvent herself later on and embrace the freedom to savor her beauty and success. Even so, they never failed to gratify and amaze her.

Dona L. Irvin is survived by her husband and daughter, her nephews and niece Charles Hosewell McGruder III, Stephen McGruder, Denise McGruder, her step-grandsons Richard Shafer and Dennis Shafer, and her step-great-grandson William Shafer. Her memorial service will be held on Saturday, 21 February 2009 at 11:00 AM at the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living, 5000 Clarewood Drive, Oakland, CA 94618. In lieu of flowers, the family invites donations to the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living’s Scholarship Fund in honor of Dona and Frank Irvin’s late son, Frank, Jr.

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