Lael McCormack at one of her favorite vacation spots, Echo Lake.
music in the park san jose

– Gilroy lost a woman Monday who changed lives and redefined the
idea of being disabled.
GILROY – Gilroy lost a woman Monday who changed lives and redefined the idea of being disabled.

Lael McCormack, 73, died Monday shortly after returning from one of her many trips to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. She returned complaining of shortness of breath and pain in her shoulder.

In her honor, the City Council mentioned Lael at the beginning of their Monday night meeting and Gilroy’s youth symphony performance was dedicated to her.

Lael is survived by her devoted husband of 53 years, Dr. Joseph G. McCormack of Gilroy and daughters Camille McCormack of Molokai, Hawaii, Christine McCormack of Gilroy, Carla Adams of Gilroy and Celia McCormack of Gilroy. She is the grandmother of Katherine vonStrasser of New York City, Scottie Adams of Gilroy, Peter Adams of Gilroy, Christopher Adams of Gilroy and Greggory Adams.

Lael’s youngest daughter, Celia, said it was fitting Lael was able to spend her last days at Molokai, her favorite place in the world.

“She absolutely loved it,” Celia said of Molokai. “She went there whenever she had free time and stayed with her mother. She loved the sound of the air blowing in the palm trees.”

Although Lael’s mother died four years ago at the age of 92, Lael still made annual trips to the island. And the best way Celia could describe her mother was with the Hawaiian phrase “Ha’ale’ale i ka pu’uwai.”

“It means ‘A heart filled with love,’ ” Celia said.

Lael was born in Berkeley March 5, 1929. She graduated from Anna Head Royce School of Berkeley and was a member of the Alfa Phi Sorority at UC Berkeley, where she met her future husband Joseph McCormack during a dance at the beginning of the school year.

“He said, ‘That’s my golden girl,’ ” Celia said. “He was devoted to her. They shared the love of art and culture, and their family meant everything to them. We were the focus of their life.”

Two years later, Camille, the first of four daughters, was born and soon after followed Christine and Carla. But at the age of 25, Lael contracted paraplegia secondary to Polio Myelitis and was confined to a wheelchair. However, she refused to miss a step.

“She never thought of herself as handicapped,” said Celia, who was born two years after Lael contracted Polio. “She was so active (before she was handicapped), but it never stopped her. She drove, she cleaned, washed the clothes, went grocery shopping and always with a smile on her face.”

Celia said her mother’s independence taught her and her sisters a valuable lesson.

“We became very self-dependent,” she said. “What right did we have to complain.”

Joseph moved the family to Gilroy in 1959, deciding it would be a great place to raise his four daughters. Lael quickly became a leader in the community, which at that time had a population of 7,000. Among the many contributions she made to the community was taking part in the design of El Roble schools in Gilroy, founding the McCormack Swimming School in 1976, working with the American Red Cross, organizing Bible study for children and youth art projects. She also became involved with many local organizations, including the Gilroy School Board, the PTA, the Gilroy Assistance League, the Children’s Home Society, Arts and Cultural Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission and Board of the Physically Challenged Appeals Committee. She received Woman of the Year Award in 1967.

“She just jumped right into the community,” Camille said. “She’s been a matriarch to many families.”

She graduated in 1968 with honors from the first graduating class of Gavilan Junior College and went on to San Jose State to receive her degree in Art History.

But Lael’s impact on the community spanned more than just her involvement in its programs. She changed the lives of almost everyone she met, and her name became synonymous with a feeling of comfort for those she knew.

“It was very impactful for people,” Celia said. “Anyone who came across her felt her warmth.”

Visitation will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Habing Family Funeral Home, with the family present from 4 to 7 p.m. A Memorial Service will be held for Lael at 3 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Gilroy Presbyterian Church with a reception following the service in the church fellowship hall.

Her family would appreciate donations to the Lael McCormack Memorial Fund c/o South Valley National Bank, Gilroy.

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