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Eleonore Russak Powell: Pioneer of LGBT inclusion

Eleonore Regina Russak Powell died June 29, 2015 at Pilgrim Place in Claremont. She was 98 years old.

She was born on June 12, 1917 in New York City, New York where she attended Hunter College. She was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, New York where she met her future husband, Oliver Powell. They were married in 1937 and lived at Union Theological Seminary where Mr. Powell earned his Master of Divinity degree.

Mrs. Powell returned to college to earn her bachelor’s degree at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in Illinois in 1964 and became a certified dietician. She worked professionally in this field in many capacities, primarily as head dietician in several hospitals.

Words cannot adequately describe this vivacious, smart, compassionate and committed woman. Eleonore was known for her humor, wisdom, love of conversation and dedication to the rights of women, civil rights and LGBT rights long before these issues of social justice and human rights were part of the country’s social, religious and political landscape.

Much of her activism on justice issues happened in the context of the United Church of Christ. Oliver served as a minister of UCC churches in Illinois and Massachusetts and retired from the Massachusetts Conference, UCC, after which the couple moved to Cape Cod. Mrs. Powell was active in those churches and in the denomination, advocating for those who suffered discrimination and injustice and, in her own way, moving the church beyond its own stuffiness and inaction. She was anything but a typical minister’s wife, and brought a breath of fresh air to all of her endeavors.

Mrs. Powell will be remembered for her laughter, for her ability to listen to others and offer words of comfort or wisdom and for being a mentor to so many over the years. She was known for her quiet way of leading talk into action and her feistiness and tenacity when she determined to make something better—be it the food service she was supervising or receiving or old mindsets that excluded God’s children from the fullness of life. 

She was a realist, never hesitated to speak her truth and moved herself and others into arenas of thought and action previously not imagined possible. She was an avid jigsaw puzzler and bridge player, and introduced anyone who could toss a set of dice to the game of Zonk. In her more than 30 years as a resident, Mrs. Powell left an indelible mark on the lives of many at Pilgrim Place. Friends say she epitomized the spirit of retirement. “It is what it is,” she would often say, not with resignation but with grace, acceptance and the will to make things better.

As a couple, Eleonore and Oliver Powell had a profound influence on the UCC both as individuals and together, especially in the last four decades of their support of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life, leadership and ministry of the church. They founded the UCC’s Parents of Lesbians and Gays and counseled many parents struggling with the sexual orientation of their children, and were very active in PFLAG and the UCC’s Open and Affirming Coalition.

For many within and beyond the LGBT community, Eleonore was the mother who offered, as novelist Dinah Muloch Craik put it, “the inexpressible comfort of being safe with a person,” who kept “what is worth the keeping and with a breath of kindness [blew] the rest away.”

She co-founded Another Voice at the Claremont United Church of Christ, a support and educational group to encourage LGBT and straight allies, and was an active participant over the years. Her life was remembered in prayer by the General Synod of the UCC, which was meeting on the day she died.

Mrs. Powell was preceded in death by her husband Oliver Powell, who died in 2003. She is survived by her son and his spouse, David and Beverly Powell of Crystal Lake, Illinois, and her daughter and her spouse, Lois “Loey” Powell and Brenda Joyner of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Another child, Jonathan, died in 1963.

She also leaves her grandchildren, Kathryn Powell Coffey and Jonathan Powell; four great-grandchildren, Colin and Liam Coffey and Kyra and Taylor Powell; Susan Griffith, beloved mother of her grandchildren, and two nephews, Paul and George Russak.

A memorial service of celebration will be held at Claremont UCC where she was a member, with the date still pending. Memorial donations in honor of Eleonore R. Powell can be made to Pilgrim Place (625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont, CA 91711), the Open and Affirming Coalition of the UCC (700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115) or United Church of Christ Annual Fund (700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115). 

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