Rena S. Smilkstein

Family anchor, enthusiastic volunteer

Former Claremont resident Rena S. Smilkstein died in Sacramento on November 21, 2014. She was 91.

She was born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, the daughter of Russian immigrants Henry and Molly Rosenblatt. Her father was a writer and poet and her mother a nurse. Throughout schooling and during undergraduate and graduate studies at UCLA, Rena excelled. She had work published in the nutritional science literature and gained admission to the Sigma Xi science honor society. These achievements were quite notable for a woman of that time, but rarely mentioned by her and certainly never advertised. This early pattern of remarkable accomplishment with little regard for recognition was a constant throughout her life.

For her life’s work, she chose, as she might have put it, “to be useful.” She worked briefly as a public school teacher, but spent nearly her entire adult life committed to making a home where her family could thrive, serving extensively as a volunteer and unconsciously acting as both beacon and compass for those around her as they navigated their lives.

She married her husband Gabe in 1946, and her first two children were born while he attended college in New York. One of these births was, and apparently still is, the only one to have occurred right on that campus. After her husband’s medical schooling in New York, now with three children, they headed to Los Angeles for his residency training. Among many memories from those years, Mrs. Smilkstein often mentioned a 1954 automobile drive to Alaska, with four children, to spend a summer while Gabe worked for the Alaskan Indian Health Service.

This would not be the last of the adventures or challenges brought on by Dr. Smilkstein’s determination to work periodically in unusually difficult settings, matched by Rena’s willingness and ability to make it possible. 

They settled in Claremont for the next two decades. In addition to nurturing her family, which had increased to five children, it was there that Mrs. Smilkstein began 50 years of service with the League of Women Voters, served as a school board member and on the parks and recreation commission, and participated in innumerable community service activities. This time was rich in family growth, development and accomplishment, but not without challenges. Several times she acted as sole parent when her husband served stints as a medical missionary in the former Congo, Vietnam, Thailand and other locations, and they shared the grief after the death of their oldest son in 1969. Throughout all, she remained optimistic, grateful, forward-looking and steadfastly focused on helping make a positive impact wherever she could.

When her husband transitioned from private clinical practice to academic medicine, she moved with him to Davis, Seattle and Louisville, all the while continuing and expanding activities. Rena was certified as a master gardener. She enjoyed folk dancing, hooked rugs, was a weaver, read prolifically and sometimes traveled. Being uprooted was never easy, yet she facilitated each move, made herself a valued member of each new community and remembered each fondly.

Her husband died in 1995, shortly after returning to Davis. Mrs. Smilkstein remained active in the League of Women Voters, as a volunteer with the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum, as a Yolo County literacy tutor and as a Davis library volunteer. She participated in Global Volunteers service trips to Northern Ireland, the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Costa Rica, Vietnam and Kauai. In recent years, she was a vibrant and valued resident of the University Retirement Community in Davis.

Mrs. Smilkstein remained healthy, active, curious and engaged, continuing to participate in many longtime pursuits but also taking on new roles such as coordinating her book group, a job in which she continued until very recently.

Through her words and actions, Rena encouraged her children to seek adventure, to explore both the outside world and their inner selves, to serve others and to be individuals. She will be remembered by her family as a caring and unflinchingly honest and ethical person.

She was preceded in death by her husband Gabe and son Glen. She is survived by her other children, Linda Hammons and Dan, Marty and Tina Smilkstein and by eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. At her request, there will be no formal memorial service. Contributions are greatly appreciated to Heifer International, the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Southern Poverty Law Center.


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