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Maxine Denham

Counselor, people person, loving wife

Maxine Thornton Denham died on Friday, June 5, 2015. With her husband John, she was for 24 years a resident of Pilgrim Place. She celebrated her 100th birthday on August 12, 2014.

Born Maxine Belle McKinley in Vermillion, South Dakota, she grew up in Manhattan, Kansas and graduated from Kansas State University in 1936. Her first jobs were as executive director of YWCAs in Oklahoma and at Boston University. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City. In 1939 she was a delegate to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Amsterdam and returned just before transatlantic travel became hazardous.

She was married in 1941 to Leonard “Ted” Frend Thornton, with whom she had four boys. When he was ordained, the family lived in Kirkwood, Missouri. He was a college chaplain and she headed the campus YWCA. The family returned to New York, where he studied at Union Seminary and was on the staff of the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village. She was head of the YWCA in Yonkers, New York. Ted died of cancer in 1955. As a widow, Maxine spent many hours obtaining full scholarships to enable her four fatherless sons to receive quality education in east coast prep schools and colleges.

The national office of the YWCA in New York City recognized quality and hired Maxine for its staff. While serving there, she developed lifelong friends who many years later encouraged her to move to Pilgrim Place in retirement. Her YWCA reputation led the national staff of the Episcopal Church to recruit her to help develop a new church school curriculum and train adults to implement it. While living in Greenwich, Connecticut, she was director of Christian education at Christ Church, Greenwich. She traveled all over the United States as an educator/trainer. With the organization unwilling to let her go entirely, she was elected to and served for six years on the National Board of the YWCA.

It was while in her traveling Episcopal Church position that she met John Denham, an Episcopal clergyman in Baltimore who was in similar work on a regional level. In 1968, the National Council of Churches appointed her to a six-week Intercultural Education Leadership Exchange to the Republic of South Africa. There she introduced human relations training to mixed-race groups, not approved by the government at that time.

Pilgrim Place resident Anne Hope participated in one of the weeklong workshops Maxine helped lead. It involved three groups of about a dozen people, representing various Christian denominations and people of all ethnic backgrounds. After a period of silence, the participants spent 40 hours engaging in an unprecedented way. “This was a situation where blacks and whites hardly mixed at any depth at all in normal situations. Churches tended to be very separated, because residential areas were separated,” Ms. Hope said. 

The trainers largely served as observers, discovering the dynamics of the disparate group members. After setting up some ground rules, Maxine and her colleagues watched as the group discovered issues to be addressed and work to be done as well as becoming familiar and comfortable with one another. 

“Maxine was a very skilled trainer, someone who had deep insight into people’s motivation, anxiety, fears and excitement,” Ms. Hope recalled. “Extraordinary trust was built by the end of the program.”

While still employed in New York, she went back to grad school, this time to study individual, marriage and family psychotherapy at Blanton-Peale Graduate Institute. After leaving her national Episcopal Church position, she established pastoral counseling centers at churches in Manhattan and Bronxville, New York.

By spring of 1971, all four of Maxine’s sons had graduated from college: Oberlin, Macalester, Princeton and Harvard. She then said she felt free to marry John Denham. He had started a new leadership development organization in Washington, DC and she opened a pastoral counseling center at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown, at the invitation of John’s best friend. They were married there that fall. Later she established a new counseling center at St. Alban’s Parish on the Washington Cathedral grounds as well as serving on the faculty of the nascent Interfaith Metropolitan Theological Education Center (InterMet).

Encouraged by those YWCA friends who had moved to Claremont in the 1980s, the Denhams joined the Pilgrim Place community in 1990. Mrs. Denham was 76 but shunned retirement. She promptly became interim director of the Clinebell Institute of Pastoral Counseling for three years.

Maxine worked all her life for institutions dependent on volunteers. Finally in retirement she could become one herself. For 15 years she served on and chaired the family selection committee of Pomona Valley Habitat for Humanity. For 14 years she observed and reported on the Claremont Community Services Commission for the League of Women Voters. From 1996 to 2007, she was a chaplain at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center. At age 94, she became a community patrol volunteer with the Claremont Police Department, complete with uniform and badge.

At Pilgrim Place she established and coordinated for 12 years the Christian Presence service at the Health Services Center, a volunteer visitation program to benefit persons with dementia. She then founded and led from 1996 to 2008 the Compassionate Harps program, a service to bring live harp music to chronically and critically ill people at Pilgrim Place and in the wider community.

Miriam Olson, a longtime neighbor of the Denhams, first approached Mrs. Denham with the suggestion for a volunteer harp ministry. She wasn’t surprised when Maxine made it a success. “I knew she was someone who would run with a good idea. She was very caring,” Ms. Olson said. Later, Ms. Olson took up the harp herself, allowing her to keep Mrs. Denham’s vision alive.

Mrs. Denham also served on Pilgrim Place’s Health and Welfare Committee and co-chaired its Residents Health and Support Program for those whose funds are limited in their retirement. She was the Food Court head cashier at Pilgrim Place Festival for many years. Above all, she loved the sense of community that characterizes Pilgrim Place.

Fellow Pilgrim Janet Vandevender first met Mr. and Mrs. Denham in Washington, DC. Years later, she and her husband visited Pilgrim Place, looking for a spot to retire. When she looked across the dining room, she spotted an old friend. “There was Maxine. It was so exciting. It was a lovely gift to find her in this place,” she said.

After Janet Vandevender and husband Paul Kittlaus moved to Pilgrim Place in 1999, they enjoyed many years of friendship with the Denhams, including shared travel adventures and theater and Los Angeles Philharmonic performances. Maxine always greeted her friend Janet in a way Ms. Vandevender feels epitomizes her friendly and engaged spirit.

“She always had two questions when she saw me,” Ms. Vandevender said. “One was, ‘How is your spirit? And if my sweetheart wasn’t with me, she would ask, ‘How is your man?’ It summarizes her in a lovely way. She was such a good listener.”

This bright, energetic and loving woman is survived by her husband John, who in the last year of her life wrote a poem, “Longtime Lover,” to honor her. She also leaves her four sons, Tobit of Santa Cruz, Larry of Annapolis, Maryland, Kirtley of Clover, South Carolina and Tad of Picton, Ontario as well as many friends from Maine to California.

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