Joyce Valborg Zerwekh, convinced Friend, compassionate friend, and caring mother, nurse and educator, was born January 8th, 1945 in Oak Park, Illinois. As Joyce recounted the circumstances around her birth, “My Aunt Alice kept me in a clothes basket by her wood stove until my birth family chose to reject me as the “illegitimate” offspring of adultery. I was adopted by a loving nearby Chicago family [Ruth and William McCanless] and became Joyce instead of Barbara.” During her teen years, the family moved to suburban Glenview, Illinois.
After graduating from high school, Joyce attended St. Olaf College, a Lutheran liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. She chose nursing as her major “because it did not look boring.” Joyce’s career as a nurse and nursing educator took her to many exciting places: New York City; Madison, Wisconsin; Philadelphia; Tacoma and Seattle, Washington; Boca Raton, Florida; and finally Portland, Oregon. She earned her Masters in Nursing from New York University in 1969, and completed a Doctorate in Education at Seattle University. She was an accomplished clinician, researcher, professor and author in her field, with over 40 published articles and books. A pioneer in the early hospice care movement, in the 1980s Joyce helped start two of the earliest hospices in Washington state, Hospice Seattle and Hospice Northwest. Her last job began in 2004, when she was recruited to develop the first nursing school at Concordia University-Portland. In a brief 2015 autobiographical sketch, Joyce described how “I wrote the Concordia mission, which proclaims intention to develop reflective compassion and strong reasoning, which is how I believe all life should be lived.”
Joyce married Michael Zerwekh in 1969; sons Gregory and Joel were born after the family’s move to the Pacific Northwest. When Michael left the family and ultimately took his own life in 1978, Joyce raised her sons on her own.
Joyce discovered Quakerism through Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center outside Philadelphia, where she and Michael studied from 1970-1971 as the Vietnam war dragged on. A “fallen-away Lutheran,” Joyce was inspired by Friends’ beliefs and actions around seeing that of God in everyone, nonviolence, social justice and equality, Her initial membership in the Society of Friends was recorded by Tacoma Monthly Meeting (affiliated with North Pacific Yearly Meeting or NPYM); over the years, she was active in University Friends Meeting (Seattle, also NPYM), Boca Raton Monthly Meeting in Florida (affiliated with Southeastern Yearly Meeting), and Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland (also NPYM).
She served in multiple roles in the Quaker world. In Multnomah Meeting alone, she was a member of Care and Counsel (formerly Oversight), Friendly Care, Worship and Ministry, Personnel, and Adult Religious Education committees, as well as acting as the Meeting’s representative to NPYM’s Coordinating Committee. She served on Willamette Quarterly Meeting’s Nominating Committee, and on NPYM’s Annual Session Planning Committee. She was also active in the American Friends Service Committee, serving on the Regional Executive Committee while living in Florida.
Joyce was an outspoken advocate for peace, social justice, and climate action, living out her precept of “speaking truth when silence is wrong.” In addition to her professional writings, she was a frequent contributor to Western Friend magazine and the Multnomah Meeting newsletter. As a mother, a nurse, a teacher, and a friend to many, Joyce – to paraphrase a Portland friend – was sensitive, caring, and knew how to get beneath the surface and understand and respond to people’s pain.
Joyce died from a fast-moving form of cancer. A virtual memorial service in the manner of Friends, planned by her son Gregory with assistance from Multnomah Friends, was held on January 23, 2022. More than 140 people were present to celebrate her life and mourn her passing.