Gini Havel, artist and gardener, dies at 90

08/24/2017

Gini Havel, an Inverness gardener, artist and fierce tennis player who helped found a countywide nature education program, died peacefully on July 28. She was 90 years old.

Gini had an adventurous spirit and traveled extensively with her husband of 70 years, Dick, to explore exotic plants and birds. She made art throughout her life and would invite friends to her home studio to create ceramics, prints and collages. Her daughter, Julianne, said she had a rebellious attitude toward art. 

“Her father said to her once, ‘Why don’t you be an illustrator of plants?’ and she said, ‘That’s not art,’” Julianne said. “She didn’t want to draw how plants looked. She wanted to do it her own way.”

Virginia Johnson Havel was born on Sept. 10, 1926 in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Franklin, was a medical doctor and taught at the University of Oregon. Her mother, Julia, maintained their home in the scenic neighborhood of Council Crest Park in the hills above the city. 

As a child, Gini preferred the outdoors and would often swing in the trees outside her home. She was a tomboy, her son Peter said, and her father introduced her to tennis at an early age. She would play the game long into her 80s and made special events out of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. She mirrored the fierce athleticism of her favorite player, Roger Federer. 

“She was very competitive on the tennis court,” Tracy Grant, her niece, said. “Gini was a very sweet and lovely lady, but she liked to win and play hard.”

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at Reed College, Gini completed a project on why crawfish blood is blue and spent a year in Mexico studying Spanish and art. One day at Reed, Gini met Dick Havel at a local pool. They spent their first date on the Willamette River but the friend who was supposed to give them a ride home left them behind. Dick walked her home. 

Early on in their relationship, Dick gave Gini a recording of “Death and Transfiguration” by German composer Richard Strauss, which impressed her greatly, Tracy said. 

The couple married in 1945 in Portland. Gini was 19 at the time, and together they pursued graduate degrees. Dick earned a medical degree and a master’s in chemistry from the University of Oregon, and Gini earned a master’s in physiology from the University of Portland. They moved to New York so Dick could complete his residency at Cornell University’s Medical Center. While there, Gini gave birth to her first sons, Chris and Tim. 

The family moved back to California in 1956. Dick joined the faculty at the University of San Francisco, and Gini gave birth to Peter and Julianne. The family lived in Ross until 1962, when Dick took a sabbatical at the Caroline Institute in Stockholm.

“They had a lot of guts to bring four little kids to live in a foreign county for a year,” Peter said.

Back in Ross, Gini attended Dominican University in San Rafael to earn a teaching credential. She went on to teach biology, botany, physiology, anatomy and nature studies at the College of Marin. With Phyllis Faber and others, Gini helped found Natural Science Education Resources, a nature education program for public schools in Marin County. 

Gini was also a Marin Master Gardener and wrote gardening columns for the Light. She belonged to the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, the Audubon Society and the Inverness Garden Club. She helped early land preservation efforts in Marin through her work with the Environmental Forum of Marin, where she was an honorary life member and served as a board member and president.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Gini and her family came to West Marin for outings at Shell Beach, renting a house in Inverness one summer. “They loved it and started looking for a place to have and build,” Peter said. In 1976, they purchased a piece of land overlooking Tomales Bay. “They built the tennis court before they built the house!” 

The house, designed by local architect Jim Campe, was completed in 1978. Gini planted raspberries, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, arugula, kale, strawberries and persimmon and kiwi trees. She was an avid mushroom hunter who kept her favorite spots for gathering chanterelles, boletes and oyster mushrooms a secret. 

“I wouldn’t eat wild mushroom picked by anyone else,” Tracy said. 

Gini and Dick took countless trips to observe native plants and birds, including up a river in Indonesia. They traveled to Belize, Costa Rica and Cuba to bird watch, hike and scuba dive and frequently visited Australia, where they attended the 2004 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. Gini documented all of their travels in curated albums that numbered about 50.

Their children would continue their parents’ love of science and art. Peter teaches at the University of California, Davis, in the Department of Nutrition and the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Molecular Biosciences. Chris researches cigarette smoke at the University of California, San Francisco, and Tim studied biophysics and has worked at M.I.T. and Harvard. Julianne has run a preschool and shares Gini’s interest in ceramics and photography.

In their later years, Gini and Dick loved to watch Masterpiece Theatre and PBS NewsHour, rarely missing an evening program. Tracy joined them in holding season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony. The couple would take walks through Inverness with their cat Katya, and when Peter would visit, they’d sit around at dinner and read their favorite sheriff’s calls from the Light.

After Dick passed away in the spring of 2016, Gini moved to Drake’s Terrace in Terra Linda. She lived with her beloved cat Katya and would join her neighbors in museum visits. Before she died, Tracy took her young daughter there to say goodbye.

“When I kissed her goodbye, Gini opened her eyes a little bit and murmured something that I think was, ‘I love you too,’” she said. 

 

Gini Havel is survived by her children Chris, Tim, Peter and Julianne; her grandchildren Jocelyn, Tyler and Cameron; her niece, Tracy Grant; and her grandniece, Melanie Grant.