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Velma Enriqueta McKelvey: A tireless volunteer, instrumental in Harvey Mudd College founding

Tireless volunteer, instrumental in Harvey Mudd College founding

Velma Enriqueta Vergara McKelvey, a proud Claremont resident since 1959, died peacefully at her home on July 13. She was 86 years old.

Velma was born in Los Angeles in 1932 to Julia Ann and Joaquin Vergara. Her mother was a direct descendant of hearty relatives who came west over the Oregon Trail. Her father, Joaquin, immigrated from Spain. He flourished as an artist and designer in Hollywood and spent the war years working for Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Throughout her life, she drew on the toughness from her mother’s side and the artistic detail from her father’s side to make her the extraordinary woman she became, her family shared.

She never strayed far from the Los Angeles basin, graduating from Hollywood High School and earning an English degree from LA’s Occidental College. Following graduation from Occidental, she served as alumni secretary from 1955 to 1959. Those first few years as a college graduate working for her alma mater exposed her to the many aspects of how a large entity (Occidental) relied on its support groups, in this case alumni, to keep the operation running smoothly, both financially and logistically. As a coordinator in alumni relations, the alumni fund, and later the alumni directory, she began to realize she had a real talent for communicating and networking with people, most of whom she had never met, but with whom she shared a common bond.

It was this job that led her to Claremont. While working for Occidental, one day she was asked to drive a representative from the University of Rochester who was attending a college administrators conference in Los Angeles. That easterner turned out to be George I. McKelvey, III, soon to be one of the founding administrators of Harvey Mudd College, and her future husband. Velma and George dated for three years, long distance for that time, traveling back and forth on Route 66 between Claremont and Pasadena to visit one another. They were married in 1959 and began their lives together in Claremont.     

Mrs. McKelvey became active immediately with the fledgling campus groups of Harvey Mudd College, where she once again learned the importance of how crucial volunteers and fundraisers were to any organization, especially one that was just getting off the ground. She would share these lessons with more than three-dozen volunteer support groups that she would be part of for the next 50-plus years of her life. In 1961, she became a board member of the Rembrandt Club of Pomona College, her first official volunteer organization.

She grew up in a household where music was very important, and carried that with her throughout her life. In 1963, she became a member of the Foothill Philharmonic Committee of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Affiliates. She held many positions as a lifelong member of the FPC, including benefit coordinator, endowment coordinator, treasurer and president (three times). She chaired many other committees within the organization and was named Philharmonic Affiliates Volunteer of the Year in 1994.

As a past president of the FPC, she became a member of the Encore Committee of the LA Philharmonic Affiliates in 1970. This too would turn out to be a lifelong membership. In 1973 she helped found the Music Mobile program for the FPC. The heart of this program was a yellow and blue Volkswagen Minibus, which held many musical instruments and traveled to local elementary schools. The Music Mobile was overseen by docents who taught third graders about music, musical instruments and the LA Philharmonic. Mrs. McKelvey was a founder, docent, co-chairman and chairman of the program.

When her son began his academic career at Sumner Elementary School, she immediately jumped in and served on the PFA. This eventually led to her being a founding member of the district advisory committee for the Claremont Unified School District. In 1994, she returned to Sumner to spend many years as a reading volunteer.

Her love for music brought her to the Claremont Chorale. She was a member for more than 30 years, and in addition to the many long and arduous hours of rehearsing and performing the Chorale’s programs, she also held many leadership positions; she served as president from 1987 to 1989 and was instrumental in helping the Chorale gain nonprofit status.

When she began spending summers in Anacortes, Washington, she volunteered with many organizations there as well, including the San Juan Islands Preservation Trust, the Seattle Children’s Guild and the American Association of University Women.

Mrs. McKelvey loved to cook and entertain. Her role as the wife of a college administrator played directly into these talents as she hosted innumerable lunches, teas, dinners, and many other events for HMC faculty, students, trustees, donors, friends and family. Her house was always open to out-of-town friends to drop by. As the years went by and the number of HMC graduates increased, so did her guest list of overnighters who were back in town for college events. She would always offer a guest room for children of friends and friends of friends, even though she would be meeting the guests for the first time when they rang her doorbell.

Always looking for an excuse for a party, she never forgot a birthday (or anything else, for that matter) and always made sure that there was a group to celebrate someone’s birthday, usually in her home with her doing all the cooking and serving.

She was very artistic, had a sharp eye for color and design and was always dressed to perfection, her family shared. She spent 14 years as an interior design consultant and, volunteered as a docent for many showcase home tours and, in Anacortes, boat tours. She was also a fixture for many years as a docent for the Claremont Heritage home tours.

In and around Claremont, she was active with Claremont Presbyterian Church, the Pomona Valley Council of Churches, the League of Women Voters, the Padua Hills Theatre Task Force, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, and the Raymond M. Alf Museum at the Webb Schools.

Her husband George preceded her in death, in 1998.

She is survived by her son George, daughter-in-law Lynn, and granddaughter Brooke of West Linn, Oregon; and by her brother-in-law, Robert McKelvey of Sea Girt, New Jersey.

A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Friday, October 26 at Claremont Presbyterian Church, 1111 N. Mountain Ave., Claremont, with a reception to follow.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Mrs. McKelvey’s honor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic at laphil.com/support-us/make-a-gift; or to Harvey Mudd College’s Velma V. and George I. McKelvey Endowed Scholarship Fund at hmc.edu/campaign/how-to-give.