A leader in government, journalism and the arts


Verna Mae Andersen Shmavonian, who served as a director of research and technical staff in Philadelphia City Council and special projects coordinator for the Buckingham Township Board of Supervisors, died peacefully in her sleep on April 18 at the Artman Lutheran Home in Ambler, six days before what would have been her 93d birthday. 

Shmavonian, who lived in Mt. Airy for 45 years, was a multihyphenate before the word became fashionable. She achieved significant accomplishments in the literary, social justice advocacy, education, and political worlds, and lived a rich family life.

Along with her work in municipal government, she was a filmmaker, journalist and Democratic Committeewoman.

Her daughter, Nadya, told us last week, “I most want people to know that at her core she was happy, compassionate and deeply devoted to the people she loved. And there were many she loved…

“Until she worked for City Council, when we were both pretty much out of the house, her jobs were all part-time. She cared about and did important work, but she was fortunate enough to manage her projects with flexibility. I still have an indelible fondness for Tuesdays and Thursdays, as those were the days she was home when she first returned to work when I was five and Karl, my brother, was two. It had an imprint.”

Karl, told us, “Verna was highly devoted to her grandkids. My boys didn't grow up in Philly, so they saw her less, but she always doted on them when she was with them. She loved feeding them either her cooking or taking them for cheesesteaks to Dalessandro's or Schmitters at McNally's. And she always tried to attend their sporting events to cheer them on. And regarding laughter, Ma loved to say, 'Ya sure, you betcha!' in a Norwegian accent, making fun of her Viking heritage.”

Shmavonian was the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain and his first-generation American wife. She grew up with her brother and sister in the Scandinavian Lutheran enclave of Seabold on Bainbridge Island in Washington. She attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for two years and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English.

She met Barry Shmavonian, an Iranian immigrant, when they were both students at the University of Washington. They married in 1953 and raised children Nadya and Karl. They lived in North Carolina from 1958 to 1969 before moving to Philadelphia. Barry, who had a doctorate degree in behavioral psychology and was a faculty member at Duke University for several years, died in 2010.

Shmavonian always had a strong interest in the arts. She became a guest editor in New York at Mademoiselle magazine in 1952 and later worked as a manager in public information services at the University of Washington. She then moved to Durham, North Carolina, with her husband when he obtained the faculty post at Duke. In Durham, she worked as a writer for the educational station WUNC-TV before leaving the workforce for five years to raise her two children. 

While in Durham she produced an award-winning, nationally distributed documentary film about poverty and segregation in Durham. “No Handouts for Mrs. Hedgepath” was created for a nonprofit connected to the Ford Foundation. She also engaged in protests of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Shmavonians moved to Philadelphia in 1969 and settled in Mt. Airy, partly because of the area's well-documented history of stable racial integration. Shmavonian became a Democratic Committeewoman, and she finished her career years later working as the director of the research and technical Staff for City Council President Joseph Coleman, a resident of West Mt. Airy.

In her private life, however, Shmavonian was joyful and fun. “Just about anything that came out of the mouths of her friends and family made her laugh,” Nadya said. “She loved to laugh, and she appreciated a wicked sense of humor in those around her. Her laugh is perhaps the most common memory people have of her.

“But the most memorable experience I had with Mom was the 20+ years after her retirement when she was the primary grandparent for our three kids. She took such joy in them and was a vital support to us as working parents.”

When asked if Shmavonian passed along her social consciousness to her daughter, Nadya replied, “Given that I have spent more than 40 years working in and around private foundations and nonprofits, I think the answer would have to be yes.”

In addition to her children and grandchildren, Shmavonian is survived by other relatives. A brother and sister died earlier. A private celebration of her life will be held this summer.

Donations in her name may be made to the Mt. Airy Community Development Corp., 6703 Germantown Ave., Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19119; and Germantown Friends School Advancement Office, 31 W. Coulter St., Philadelphia, PA 19144.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com