Remembering Aunt Rita

On Veterans Day this year I found myself thinking about my aunt Rita Mary Laurence — my mom’s younger sister — born on 7 May 1929 in Gloversville, Fulton County, N.Y.

Aunt Rita was not actually in the military, but she rendered service nevertheless. During the Vietnam War, she worked at the blood bank in the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, California, also known as Balboa Hospital — then the largest military hospital in the world.

Laurence, Rita Mary Hyland Lab Schweitzer img084That is also where she died unexpectedly after a brief illness on 1 July 1966 — and her effervescent presence was missed. Aunt Rita was a unique and memorable relative with a story worth sharing.

Aunt Rita’s lighter side

My Aunt Rita moved to California in 1955 when I was a child and took a job as Senior Technologist at the San Diego Blood Bank. She had gone on a trip there with a friend, fallen in love with the city and decided to stay.

And California seemed to suit her. I remember Aunt Rita flying home for vacations looking slim and tanned, sporting stylish cat eye glasses and colorful casual wear.

“You would have loved Rita,” my dad told me years later. “She was funny and unconventional.” Indeed, from the few times she visited what I remember most was her infectious humor and acerbic wit.

On one trip east, Aunt Rita had her red Triumph convertible shipped, too, so she could show off the kind of car she drove — thrilling us children and scandalizing my maternal grandmother by roaring up the driveway at the farm in a cloud of dust just before a family picnic.

“The car was so small you had to pack the trunk as if it was a suitcase,” was how my mom summed it up — a far cry from our sensible Ford station wagon, but perfect for a maverick, wisecracking aunt who liked to travel light.

College educated, self-supporting and independent, Aunt Rita was one of my role models during adolescence — clearing a path that I  would later travel as the turbulent 1960s unfolded.

All business in her career

"San Diego, CA Old Naval Hospital Administration Building 1955" by Adam from Champaign, Illinois, USA - San Diego, CA Old Naval Hospital Administration Building 1955Uploaded by xnatedawgx. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -,_CA_Old_Naval_Hospital_Administration_Building_1955.jpg#/media/File:San_Diego,_CA_Old_Naval_Hospital_Administration_Building_1955.jpg
Old Naval Hospital Administration Building in San Diego, Calif. (1955). During the Vietnam War, my aunt Rita Mary Laurence worked at the blood bank in this hospital — then the largest military hospital in the world. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Aunt Rita was a cutup in her private life, she was all business in her blood banking career.

According to her obituary, after college, “She received her training under Dr. John J. Clemmer, at Bender Hygienic Laboratory in Albany, N.Y.” I have an Albany Times-Union photo from that time showing Aunt Rita with some of the first donors to the N.Y. State Division of Employment’s new blood bank.

After that, she went to work at the San Diego Blood Bank, where she was Senior Technologist from 1955 to 1960. She joined the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) in 1959.

Her next career move was to Los Angeles for a job with Hyland, a serum supplier. During her tenure there, a news photographer snapped the impressive photo shown above of Aunt Rita in a crisp, white lab coat meeting with biochemist Rhena Echert-Schweitzer, daughter of Nobel prize winner Albert Schweitzer.

In 1965, Aunt Rita returned to the San Diego Blood Bank where, says her obituary, “As the dynamic and active Laboratory Supervisor she was responsible for collecting and processing 35,000 units of blood annually and supplying the blood needs of 37 hospitals throughout San Diego County.”

From there she went to her last job at the U.S. Naval Hospital, where she worked as a Medical Technologist in the Blood Bank Section of the Bureau of Medicine & Surgery, Laboratory Service, Clinical Pathology Branch.

Well known and beloved at the time of her death, Aunt Rita was honored through a Rita Laurence Memorial Fund set up by the California Blood Bank System — and a Rita Laurence Memorial Scholarship created by her family to help Gloversville High School students majoring in science in college.

Aunt Rita is remembered fondly in our family as an independent free spirit who carved out her niche in a world where self-supporting career women were just coming into their own.

There will be more on Aunt Rita in future posts.

© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Remembering Aunt Rita”

    1. Thanks, Randy. Yes, I think you would have liked Aunt Rita — her wisecracking meshed well with the Charboneau sense of humor.

  1. Love your Aunt Rita Molly! Just great! Your descriptions are perfect…and once again, beautifully written. So wonderful you are giving voice to your relatives–what a family!! Loved her red car and all of the details….good job!

    Happy Veterans Day!

    I just shared the post with one of the amazing women in my book–and her husband.

    Both in the medical field–she is the biomedical technician in “Sisters.”

    1. Thanks, Jane, for this comment and your previous one. I knew you would love Aunt Rita and glad to hear that you forwarded this post to one of the sisters from you book. Always appreciate your encouraging words, which mean so much coming from a fellow writer!

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