Marguerite Marsh’s Life of Service

On an early August morning when many of us were barely holding it together in the stultifying heat, Marguerite Marsh was fielding telephone calls, consulting with her personal assistant and planning a visit to the nonprofit she cofounded. She was dolled up in hot pink leggings, a bright aqua tunic dotted with pink flowers, plus matching sandals and eye shadow. She topped the look with coordinated gold link jewelry.
The 91-year-old Marsh is known for her charisma and empathy. “She’s a light like no other when she enters a room,” says Suzanne Gilman, who has served with Marsh as board members/supporters of Cancer Support Community Pasadena and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “She is always impeccably dressed, beautifully coiffed; her style tends to be a little bit flamboyant, a little bit spicy,” she says, adding that Marsh is “the only person I know who could actually pull off wearing a feather boa.”
Marsh’s vibrant personality, zest for life and deep commitment to philanthropy has earned her many admirers. She’s a model of how much one person can accomplish and contribute. “I have a very curious mind,” says Marsh, a former therapist with a Ph.D. in psychology. “I love to keep learning and doing and helping.” She says she adores fashion, and if her outfits “can bring joy to other people, that makes me happy too.”
Marsh, in fact, used to make all her own clothes and belongs to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Costume Council. This is how a chat with Marsh goes: Ask about her interest in music and you’ll discover she’s an accomplished singer (mezzo alto) who soloed with regional orchestras and even sang opera professionally in restaurants. Inquire about hobbies and you’ll learn she’s a pilot, equestrian, tennis player, skier and, most of all, fervent volunteer.
Marsh’s peripatetic interests stem from what Bettina Luttrell identifies as her “insatiable curiosity.” Luttrell is a Maryland-based painter and gallery owner who has known Marsh since fourth grade. “She’s a very sensitive, caring person. And she’s very generous.”
Marsh’s devotion to good works is rooted in her Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. Her father was a minister and missionary; her mother, a teacher. She was born in Shanghai in 1927, relocated to London and then grew up primarily in Takoma Park, Maryland, near the Adventists’ world headquarters. Her family followed the Adventist lifestyle, which included a nearly vegetarian diet, exercise and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. And they observed the Sabbath on Saturdays. “I never felt deprived,” she says. “I feel very fortunate. My parents were very practical Middle Westerners.”
Just prior to her high school graduation, Marsh’s father took on fundraising for the new Adventist medical school in Loma Linda, so the family moved west. She’d sung in church choir since adolescence and chose to study music at La Sierra University in Riverside. (Marsh has endowed a scholarship for singers at this Adventist college.) “My father wanted me to be a doctor. My mother wanted me to get married and do the music,” she says. If you count the doctor of philosophy, she did both.
Marguerite may not have become a medical doctor, but she married one. She met Robert L. Marsh because their parents were college classmates. They married when she was 21. Robert, a surgeon, graduated from Loma Linda in 1943, served in the Air Force in World War II and practiced medicine in Glendale for 37 years. He was also a singer (tenor), and the two enjoyed performing together at social events.
Marguerite Marsh went on to study voice at USC and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. She sang in her church choir and was hired to solo with the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. “Now I was singing on Sunday as well as Saturday,” she recalled in a 2005 speech to students at La Sierra, “and finding those we used to call ‘outsiders’ were really kind and appreciative people.” She was invited to join the Glendale Symphony board, which led to her joining a slew of cultural and civic institutions, including the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. Master Chorale board, the L.A. Music Center Blue Ribbon (a women’s support group founded by Dorothy Chandler), the Adventist Health Glendale Foundation board and the Opera League of L.A.
Then a young mother, she continued to perform, raise her two children — Christopher and Victoria — and volunteer through her church and at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. The Marshes enjoyed traveling and visited some 90 countries. Six trips included “medical missions” for which they volunteered in hospitals and medical clinics in the developing world, including Africa, the South Pacific, Asia and South America. This is among the work Marsh is most proud of. “It was not easy, but unforgettable. I always felt I got more in return than I gave,” she says. It prompted her to enroll in anthropology classes at Glendale Community College. “I realized I needed to know more about the tribes we were working with,” she explains.
Around her 39th birthday, her kids nearly grown, Marsh reevaluated her life. At dinner one night, she turned to Robert and said, “I want to find out who I am.” He was confused. So she explained: “I have been my parents’ daughter, I am also your wife. I am my children’s mother…but who is Marguerite?”
Marsh had started keeping a list of goals when she was 22. “I just wrote down some of the things I wanted to do,” she says. “The list became a powerful tool.” She would file it away but pull it out regularly to see if she was on track. On her list: “flying” and “psychology.” She told Robert she wanted to learn to pilot small planes and study psychology. She said, “I may shock you now when I say that I really want to learn how to dance.” (Traditionally, Adventists viewed dancing as a “worldly amusement” that should be shunned.) To his credit, Robert, also an Adventist, supported her through it all.
Marsh enrolled in a master’s program in marriage and family counseling at Phillips Graduate University in Encino. In 1979, she set up a practice in her husband’s medical office, as well as at her church. At the church, she led seminars, teen groups and women’s groups. She earned her doctorate from Kensington University, a now-defunct correspondence school. For her dissertation, she compared private and church counseling programs.
After 24 years in Glendale, the Marshes moved to La Caňada Flintridge, where she lived for more than two decades until they downsized to a condominium in Pasadena. In the late 1980s, an acquaintance pressed Marsh to do something to support the psychological needs of cancer patients. So she observed therapists at Santa Monica’s The Wellness Community (now the Cancer Support Community Los Angeles), a support group for survivors and their families, and decided to start a chapter in Pasadena. With the help of three others, in 1990, she launched the highly successful Wellness Community–Foothills. Known today as Cancer Support Community Pasadena, this chapter has served over 24,000 people with groups and workshops run by specially trained mental-health professionals.
Raising the funds to launch the nonprofit was a major undertaking — one that deployed many of Marsh’s talents. “She’s a tremendous influencer,” says Gilman. “And there’s definitely a steel structure underneath that beautifully dressed, charming woman.” Despite her abundant energy and varied interests, Marsh is focused and organized. Gilman says she “very carefully selects how she wants to serve and remains loyal to serving that group.”
Marsh is still devoted to the Music Center and the L.A. Master Chorale, especially their outreach programs for children. “I feel that if you have children who get interested in music, they have a whole different take on life,” she says. “They rarely get into trouble if they get into music.”
The last four years have been hard ones for Marsh: first her husband and then her daughter passed away. Yet she finds joy in her grand- and great-granddaughters and believes that her involvement in the arts has eased the pain. Encouragement from friends at Cancer Support Community Pasadena has also helped. “I think we’re all here for a reason,” she says, “and if I can make the world a little better, then I’m really happy.”