Anne Chambers Gay

  • "I found this obituary after doing an online search to find..."
    - Rhianna Nissen
  • "Our lives were richer for her being our friend - and Robbie..."
    - Cheryl King
  • "Dear Friends of Anne C. Gay, PhD. I just received a..."
    - Donovan Gay
  • "On March 25, 2012, The Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan..."
    - Donovan Gay
  • "Robbie was a blithe spirit -- so full of fun and laughter. ..."
    - Nancy Rose

GAY ANNE CHAMBERS GAY "Robbie" This is how you knew Anne Gay was in the room. The laughter was louder, the conversation sharper and the people around her grew a little taller, raised up by her gaze, wanting to be as good as the person she saw they could be. The loving wife, fiercely funny friend and unflappable advocate for children died March 25, 2011 after a brief, brave battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. For Gay, and for anyone who knew her, it was too soon. Her early departure, at a very young 63 years old, has left the rest of us wandering rudderless, wondering if we can ever laugh the same way again. Still, we are smarter, kinder and better at loving one another because of her. For the children of Washington, D.C., it is an especially acute loss. From the very beginning, Gay's heart, along with her considerable talents, belonged to them, first as a kindergarten teacher at St. Peter's Elementary School on Capitol Hill, then in public schools in the District, and later, in the 1990s, as a much-beloved principal at Janney Elementary School in Northwest. There were more than 450 students at Janney in those days, and as they entered the school in the morning, Gay greeted every child, every day, by name. In 1999, when she announced that she had been tapped to become the Assistant Superintendent for Special Education for D.C. Public Schools and would be leaving Janney after 10 years on the job, parents at the much-envied elementary school freaked. One in particular. "I bought my house by fax. Never saw it. I bought it because of Anne Gay," New York Times columnist David Carr, then a writer at The Washington City Paper, wrote in May 1999, Gay's last year at the school. "Gay is the principal of Janney, a District elementary school right next to the Tenleytown Metro station in Ward 3. But "principal' doesn't really capture it. She is czarina, den mother, fascist and ruler of the Janney kingdom. Every parent at the school - doctor, lawyer, journalist, thief - bows to Gay. She owns our children's destiny, so she owns us...Gay has built an island of competence in a storm-tossed system through sheer force of will." When she retired from public education in 2004, she helped found the District of Columbia Association for Special Education, a nonprofit that helped advocate for students with learning differences in Washington, and served as the group's executive director until her death. DCASE President Georgia Vergos said the loss was enormous. "We have just lost the best advocate for these kids," she said a few days after Gay's death. But, she said, "The thing I'll miss is how hard I could laugh with her." Gay was there for her family as well. To us, though, she was "Robbie," a loyal confidant, a patient mentor and a friend who delighted in entertaining those she loved with her incredible cooking and her extraordinary knack for turning difficult situations into hilarious ones instead, for making the rest of us laugh hardest at exactly the moments we thought we could not laugh at all. Her 40-year marriage to Donovan Gay stood the test of time, the ravages of everything else and served as a reminder to the rest of us of what love looks like when you marry your best friend and never look back. Four decades into their marriage, Robbie and Donovan still did crosswords together, traveled the world together, even did their grocery shopping together. They were inseparable and in love. In a way, we were all her students. Robbie was my aunt. And she taught me how to chop garlic without crying, love others with abandon and live fully every day, tackling life like a linebacker and staying in the game even after you were sucker-punched, so you didn't miss a single moment. Robbie was curious about the world and read voraciously. She loved board games and cards and was devilishly good at them. She cooked like a whirling dervish, played volleyball like a champ and beat the rest of us at Scrabble before we could line up our letters for the slaughter. She listened and she kept our secrets. She liked to tell embarrassing stories about herself, make you laugh until you wet your pants, and then, sometimes, make you laugh some more. And she approached the illness that took her life the same way she did everything else: with grit, grace, humor and the appropriate amount of indignation, this time that something as banal as cancer would have the nerve to rob her of what undoubtedly would have been years more of adventure, riotous laughter and fun. Or maybe that's how the rest of us feel. If you met her even once, you're likely to have caught the gleam in her piercing blue eyes, that look she got before she struck with the funniest, most irreverent thing you'd heard all week, and you know how much poorer we are without her. "My job is to pay attention. People need, really need, to know that they belong somewhere," she told Carr in 1999. "I want them to know that they belong here." Robbie accepted people - the geeky, gay, straight, black, white and the just plain odd - as they were. But she made us better than we were without her, too, and we knew it. She loved us into more than we thought we could be and we are grateful. It was, perhaps, her greatest gift to us. And maybe her greatest lesson as well. There won't be any funeral, of course, because Robbie wanted a party instead. So sometime soon, the rest of us will have to learn how to live, and laugh and revel in all the remarkable things about the world without her, take care of each other as she would have taken care of us and throw her the kind of party so wild it reminds us that we are alive. Robbie would have liked that. Anne "Robbie" Chambers Gay was born July 23, 1947 in Baltimore to John Francis Chambers and Martha Kinser. She was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, where she attended St. Ursaline Academy and Bethesda Chevy Chase High School. She was a graduate of Catholic University in Washington, from which she also received her doctorate. She is survived by her husband, Donovan Gailliard Gay; her mother-in-law, Mrs. V.E. Gay; her sisters-in-law, Marcellette "Marcie" Gailliard-Gay Williams and Patricia A. Gay; her brothers-in-law, Alvin C. Gay, Robert D. Gay and Lance Helmick; her sister-in-law, Gail Gay Helmick; her nephews, Jonathan K. Williams and Corey Helmick; her niece, Mara C. Gay; her sister, Donna Smyth; her brother-in-law, Tony Wackerle; her nephews, David Smyth and Sam Wackerle; her niece, Kate Wackerle; her niece, Jeanne Kramer Smyth; her nephews, Larry and Baxter Helmick; and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles. A special scholarship/foundation will be established by the District of Columbia Association for Special Education, DCASE, in honor of Robbie's service. Contributions can be sent to: District of Columbia Association for Special Education, 711-A, Edgewood Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017.A special scholarship/foundation will be established by the District of Columbia Association for Special Education, DCASE, in honor of Robbie's service. Contributions can be sent to: District of Columbia Association for Special Education, 711-A, Edgewood Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017.

Published in The Washington Post on Apr. 1, 2011