January 09, 2020

Reita Irle Rivers, of Athens, Georgia, passed away on the early morning of Thursday, January 2, 2020. She died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Born September 13, 1930 in Jenkins, KY, she was the only child of Lola Dotson Rivers and Earl Rivers. Most of her childhood was spent in Wise, VA. She attended Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA and received her BS degree from Radford State Teachers College. Reita taught Spanish before switching to a career as a representative for Silver Burdette textbook company in Atlanta. There she met a colleague, Pat Haynes, his wife Corky and family. A close friendship quickly formed and lasted a lifetime.

Pat left Silver Burdette and moved his family to Athens in 1964. Reita moved to Athens the next year. She quickly was hired as a graduate assistant and starting taking graduate courses herself. While perusing job offerings at the student employment center, she saw an ad: “Personal Assistant for Miss Jeannette Rankin,” hers was a name familiar to Reita; her grandfather had talked about “that woman from Montana has more guts than most men!” Reita knew Jeannette’s historic journey as America’s first elected Congresswoman; she was hired and very soon became a close friend and confidante.

Reita and many other Athens women marched in Washington, DC in January 1968 alongside the famous pacifist as “The Rankin Brigade” opposing the Vietnam War. Miss Rankin passed away May 18, 1973, days short of her 93rd birthday. Reita executed her estate. Miss Rankin stipulated money left in her estate was to provide educational opportunities for older women. Reita commiserated with four of her closest friends who were also committed to equal rights and expanded opportunities for women. They were Sue Bailey, Heather Kleiner, Margaret Holt, and Gail Dendy. Together they developed the idea of creating The Jeannette Rankin Foundation. The JRF was founded in 1976; the first woman to receive a scholarship was a nursing student in Athens who received $500 in 1978. In 2018, the JRF gave scholarships of more than $3 million to women scattered throughout all 50 states.

Later Reita worked as Communications Director for the Sea Grant Program and Marine Sciences Dept. at the University of Georgia for more than 20 years. She created a successful project of merging science with art. Talented Southern artists went to the Georgia coast with the scientists. Their artwork brought the beauty of Coastal Georgia to life for the public. Reita held exhibitions of the art throughout the state and sparked the public’s interest in and appreciation of coastal resources.

Reita will be remembered as an advocate for social justice, a dedicated feminist, and animal lover.

She leaves behind two goddaughters, Helen Haynes of Athens, GA and Mary Haynes Fierle of Asheville, N.C. (Tim); godchildren, Helena Haynes Fierle and Lewis Rivers Fierle; cousins, Ken Dotson of Midlothian, VA and Tom Dills of Warner Robins, GA.

Services were held Thursday, January 9 at 11:30 a.m. at the Day Chapel, State Botanical Gardens, 2450 S. Milledge Ave., Athens, Georgia. A luncheon in the reception hall followed the services.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Reita’s honor may be made to The Jeannette Rankin Foundation or The Athens Humane Society. Bernstein Funeral Home in Athens, GA, had charge of arrangements.