World War I was raging, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” had recently been released and a month later, Babe Ruth would launch the first of his 714 home runs. Concurrently, in a small California town about a marathon run southwest of Bakersfield that at the time was named Moron (now Taft) on April 2, 1915, Jane T. Cavenagh was born, the first child of Zella and Robert Cavenagh.
While her entrance into this world may not have been noteworthy, her departure was, because on May 29, 2020, Cavenagh passed away at the ripe age of 105.
Family records don’t really exist, but Rob Cavenagh — Jane’s nephew and one of just two surviving relatives — says that his aunt lived in South Pasadena from “the 1940s” until 2018, when she moved to an assisted living facility in Yucca Valley.
Jane Cavenagh received national acclaim in 1929, when at the age of 14, she saved a 5-year-old boy from drowning in the rocky surf at Pirate’s Cove in Laguna Beach. A Girl Scout at the time, Cavenagh was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Honor for her remarkable act of bravery, according to the official account:
JANE T. CAVENAGH, Hollywood, California
Jane T. Cavenagh, 14, schoolgirl, saved Junior R. Coe, 5, from drowning, Laguna Beach, California, August 28, 1929. Junior was walking on very rough rock at the base of a steep cliff that abutted the Pacific Ocean. He fell, and Jane picked him up to carry him over the rough rock. A wave broke near them, knocked Jane down, and carried Junior out as the water receded. Jane got to her feet, waded 30 feet toward Junior, and was then lifted from her feet by choppy waves, but she swam and waded 20 feet farther to Junior. Clasping him in one arm, she swam and waded back to the base of the cliff. Another wave knocked them against the cliff, and they were separated. Jane was carried out 25 feet by the receding water. She waded back to the cliff and then saw Junior in the waves 35 feet from her. She waded to him and carried him to shore. He was unconscious but recovered. Jane sustained severe cuts.
Funding from the award later paid Jane’s way to college, where at UCLA she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and became the first woman ever admitted to Stanford Medical School, though she didn’t enroll. Education was her calling, and Cavenagh taught at South Pasadena Middle School, South Pasadena High School, Riverside Junior College, Pierce College and UCLA. She later worked as an administrator for seven junior colleges. She also dedicated herself to improving education for nurses in California.
Passionate about architecture, Cavenagh served as a docent at the Gamble House “for decades,” according to her nephew, and also volunteered at the Sierra Club, where she frequently led pack mule hiking trips for club members throughout the mountains around the Los Angeles basin.
“Look at all of these mountains,” she would often say, to anyone within earshot.
“Even when she was 88 and I was in my 40s, I visited her at her house on Alta Vista Avenue near the water tower, and she would say ‘I want to go walking,’” said Rob Cavenagh. “We would walk 6 or 7 miles and I was done. I would say ‘when are we turning around?’ I think that walking and a good diet were key to her longevity.”
“That good diet” included a banana a day, purchased a week’s supply at a time.
“She always bought seven bananas,” said Rob Cavenagh. “Not six and not eight. She wanted to eat a banana a day. It didn’t matter to her if they were getting a little old or a little dark. She thought they were good for her.”
In her later years, Jane Cavenagh committed much of her time to the South Pasadena Public Library. In 2013, The Review reported on “a very spry 98-year-old” who recently retired from the Friends of the South Pasadena Public Library’s all-volunteer bookstore after more than 20 years.” Cavenagh served on the library board of trustees, with four stints as president between 1993 and 1998.
“With her 20-plus years of dedicated service on the board of trustees of the South Pasadena Public Library and a similar number of years working in the Friends of the Library bookstore — until well in her 90s — Jane Cavenagh would deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of South Pasadena Public Library volunteers,” said Steve Fjeldsted, former library director
Dorothy Cohen, former mayor of South Pasadena, said at the time “Jane is a woman of great integrity who has generously supported the library by working for decades in the Friends Bookstore and with her years of service on the library board of trustees, to which she was appointed by the City Council. As a sharply intelligent 98-year-old, she is an inspiration that all of us could hope to emulate.”
Former South Pasadena resident Jean Jones, who was library director and later served on the board, said of the 5-foot-3-inch Cavenagh, “She was feisty.”
No record of Cavenagh’s life would be complete without mentioning the fact that, as a teen, she often received rides to school from Clark Gable. She was also fond of traveling the world with her good friend and fellow South Pasadena educator Ann Spellicy.
A memorial service for Jane Cavenagh will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 23, at the Mountain View Mortuary and Cemetery in Altadena. Please do not send flowers, per Jane’s written request, and while she also didn’t want to specify a donation destination, a check to the South Pasadena Library, Gamble House or Sierra Club wouldn’t hurt. That and maybe a banana would do quite nicely.