Obituary: Martha B. Voelkel

Grandmother, teacher, ‘citizen of the world’

Martha “Mab” Bousman Voelkel died peacefully on April 24 at age 89. She was born November 21, 1934 in Manila, Philippine Islands to Hugh “Gerry” Bousman and Nona Stimmel Bousman, who were Presbyterian missionaries.

She and her brothers were raised in the Philippines, including living through World War II when her family was interned by the invading Japanese at Los Baños Prison Camp. She was one of the last remaining survivors of the Los Baños Raid, a storied military operation conducted by American 11th Airborne paratroopers in concert with Filipino guerillas on February 23, 1945, during which more than 2,000 civilian prisoners were rescued from behind enemy lines without a single American civilian casualty.

After the war, she was evacuated to the United States, but her family returned to the Philippines and she attended the American School in Manila. Upon graduation she enrolled at Wooster College in Ohio, where she majored in chemistry and met Robert T. Voelkel, a track and basketball star who was smitten when he saw her onstage in a production. The two married in 1955. He earned a B.D. at Union Theological Seminary and the two returned to Wooster where he was an instructor in religion from 1957 to 1959, and where their first son Andrew was born.

They then returned to New York where he earned a Th.D. at Union Theological Seminary, and their second son Thomas was born. He took a position in the religion department at Pomona College in 1962, where their third child James was born.

“Mab” held some odd jobs in New York City, including electron telescope operator, but when they moved to California, she turned her focus to teaching. After earning a teaching credential and various stints in the public school system in Southern California, in 1973 she accepted a position as high school chemistry teacher at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, where she worked until her retirement in 1998. She became a beloved teacher and a backbone of science education at Poly.

When Bob took sabbatical from Pomona College to the theological faculty of the University of Marburg, the family moved to Germany for a year, the children enrolled in public school, and she adapted to the role of “hausfrau.” After a bumpy start, she thrived in Germany, learned the language well, and made lifetime friends, including their first and closest friends Pauli and Joachim Spies. The country never left her; she lived in Germany from 1968 to 1969 and 1975 to 1976, visited by herself countless times and for many years happily hosted German friends visiting California.

Her husband died too young in 1987, and she began a long period of widowhood. But she did not allow her grief to extinguish her love of life. She continued teaching, maintained a strong network of treasured friends and extended family, threw parties, and sang in the Claremont Chorale, her church, and other choral groups. She was an enthusiastic citizen of the world and adventurer. She travelled far and wide, running the gamut from being an honored guest in Tokyo to choir tours in Austria to rubber boat camping in Hawaii. In addition, she was an engaged and loving grandmother, traveling widely with Madison, and flying across the country to spend time with Noah and Pauli during school vacations.

Even though a stroke in 2012 limited her ability to travel, she kept her worldliness and sense of adventure very much alive in her last years at Pilgrim Place Health Services Center in Claremont. She spoke (and sang) in Tagalog with her nurses, performed with the choir, and was always game for a spirited round of pool noodle volleyball. Her cosmopolitan perspective, love of learning, and all things chocolate, wide-ranging interests in everything from Napoleon to classic films to football, and her wry sense of humor made her more friends among fellow residents and staff alike.

She is survived by her brother James “Bim” Bousman (June); sons Andrew Voelkel (Jan) and James Voelkel (Kathryn Fogle); and grandchildren Madison Voelkel, Noah Voelkel, Pauli Voelkel, Cole Gibson, and Alessandra Gibson.

She was preceded in death by her husband Robert Voelkel; brother Thomas Bousman (Eleanor); and son Thomas Voelkel.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Pilgrim Place Health Services Center, where she was loved and well cared during the final decade of her life, at, or by check to 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont, CA 91711.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 1 at Claremont United Church of Christ Chapel, 233 Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711.


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