Wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend…writer, traveler, dancer, athlete, and artist, Mary Louise Downer, 93, a 60-year San Marino resident, passed away Friday evening, May 30, in her home, with family by her side. She is survived by her husband, Dan, children David, Richard, Steven and Christina, a daughter-in-law, son-in-law, five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter and many nieces and nephews.
Mary Louise (or Mary Lou…but never just “Mary”) was born in Lewistown, Montana, to Homer Edgar Geis, of Nebraska – an attorney, state legislator, and publisher of the local newspaper in Winnett, Montana, and Gladys Louise Geiger Geis, of Chicago – a Winnett homesteader. Mary Louise became a southern Californian at the age of two when the family relocated from Winnett to South Pasadena. Soon after, Mary Lou’s sister, Barbara, was born, and the two siblings never lived more than a few miles apart for the rest of their lives.
Mary Lou attended South Pasadena schools, graduating high school in 1938 – a year early. She attended college first at Monticello, in Illinois, where, along with her classwork, she found time for dance, chorus, lettering in three sports, and serving as editor-in-chief of the bi-weekly Monticello Times.
Mary Lou continued her studies at Pomona College, where, among other accomplishments, she wrote the college’s traditional spring musical her senior year. Upon receiving her BA in English in 1942, Mary Lou worked at the Los Angeles Times, first as a copy “boy” and then in the editorial women’s department before being offered a reporting job. Her resume also included teaching a journalism course at USC. It was at Pomona that she met Dan Downer – the love of her life – and on September 1, 1945, the two were married in Juneau, Alaska. Mary Lou accompanied Dan to Fairbanks where they spent the next ten months in a cabin with no indoor plumbing while Dan completed his military service.
Mary Lou and Dan returned to Los Angeles, settling in San Marino in 1954, where Mary Lou devoted herself to raising her children and became active in PTA as well as charitable community work with the Assistance League and PEO. She was a strong supporter of the Pasadena Playhouse, Huntington Hospital, Huntington Library, San Marino Historical Society, and San Marino Community Church. She loved cooking, and appreciated fine, and exotic, food – not only insisting that her family try at least “two bites of everything” they were served, and working with her sister-in-law Lyn to compile family recipes into “the” family cookbook, now a staple in their children’s and grandchildren’s kitchens, but joining a few close friends in forming “Les Cochons Elegants,” dedicated to regularly enjoying good meals together. In recent years, going out for dinner and a movie with family became a favorite Friday night tradition for her.
Mary Lou traveled widely. Her most ambitious trip was a four-month, twenty-nation, fourteen-thousand mile odyssey throughout Europe in the summer of 1963 in a Volkswagen bus, accompanied by her father, her sister, their combined seven children and, at times, both husbands. Subsequent years included trips to Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii, sailing with the family in Maine and the Caribbean, returns to Europe and Alaska, travels in the Far East, river and ocean cruises. In the late 1970s she joined her sister on a trip to China with the second group of outsiders allowed into that country following its re-opening to the West.
Mary Lou never lost her passion for writing. She was a voracious reader and quoted favorite poems from memory. During the 1950s, she wrote columns for the Los Angeles Times recounting her experiences with young motherhood; years later she filled in as society editor of the San Marino Tribune. Always she was either working on, or thinking about, stories for children she could turn into books. She was a long-time member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and was a charter member of the “Lunch Bunch,” a prolific group of local authors which has met regularly since the 1970s. Even after macular degeneration and increasing health problems made it nearly impossible for Mary Lou to read or write, she continued to work on her stories, assisted by son David.
Mary Lou had a wonderful sense of humor and was a caring correspondent. She loved entertaining with imaginative parties. She faced life with enthusiasm and equanimity. She was generous and considerate, and esteemed kindness in others. She valued etiquette and admired action; she always wanted to be “doing something.” Her counsel, her example, and her presence are irreplaceable and will be profoundly missed.
A memorial service will be held at San Marino Community Church, 1750 Virginia Road, Saturday, June 21, at 11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the PEO – Chapter DG, “Mary Lou Downer Scholarship Fund” in care of Sue Barry, Treasurer, 2820 Lorain Road, San Marino, CA 91108.
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