The hand-painted star that dangles from a blackened tree in front of what was Marnie Schwartz’s Coffey Park house offers a silent prayer for love, hope and peace — ideals Schwartz, in recent years, found to be in short supply.
Burdened by health and financial struggles, she had become isolated in her final years of life, friends said.
But those who remember better times recall an intelligent and generous educator who was driven to help society’s most vulnerable — a woman who might be rallying support for victims of October’s firestorm had she not lost her life in it.
The 68-year-old New York native died alone in her Hopper Avenue home Oct. 9 as the Tubbs fire laid waste to her Santa Rosa neighborhood. She had severe hearing loss and used a machine at night for sleep apnea, perhaps preventing her from hearing neighbors who tried to alert her to the blaze, friends said.
Described as both hilarious and sweet, with a ready smile and the heart of an activist, she had devoted her professional life to teaching English as a second language. She also trained English-language teachers at state conferences and supplied free instructional materials through a website she and several partners developed.
Known for calling everyone “Sweetie” or “Sweetheart,” she was an advocate for immigrant rights and embraced politically progressive ideals, friends said.
“Marnie was a special person, because she always tried to put herself in the shoes of others — of those who had less — and make their lives better,” said Marcia Gladstone, a religious teacher at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, where Schwartz once served as president. “Not everybody does that.”
Born Marjorie Lenore Schwartz outside New York City, she was the oldest of three sisters.
She studied psychology at State University of New York in Binghamton and in the early 1980s moved to California, where she was married for a decade or more and had two step-daughters, said Denise Harrison, senior administrative assistant at Shomrei Torah. She divorced in 1992, said her brother-in-law, Steve Smith, of Groton, New York.
Schwartz earned at least two master’s degrees, including one in English-language instruction. She taught in Walnut Creek, San Rafael, Geyserville and, eventually, at Lewis Adult School in Santa Rosa.
Still married when she arrived in the Santa Rosa area around 1980, Schwartz was long involved with the Shomrei Torah Jewish community, serving as president from 1985 to 1987 and participating in study of the Torah and community service.
In her active years, before debilitating depression took hold, she loved foreign travel and cooking for friends.
“People really loved her,” said Harrison, a longtime family friend who hung the star in Coffey Park in tribute to her. “She was very kind, and very generous, and just a good person.”