Dr. Rita Finn Sumner, U.S. Air Force Captain (ret.), Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy, animal rights activist, and athlete, died at her home in St. Helens, Oregon, on June 8, 2020. She was 67.
Rita Sumner was the only child of Francis and Dorothy Sumner and related to the celebrated 19th century civil rights and anti-slavery activist, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Rita was raised in the seaside town of Clearwater, Florida. She grew up at its beach, where her father owned a bar and would set aside money for her college education every time he sold a pickled egg. Rita’s mother, who worked for the DMV, encouraged her gifted daughter to satisfy her curiosity and interests. So as a child Rita read medical textbooks for enjoyment and played chess; she swam like a fish, played tennis and softball, bicycled, sailed, took ballet, and tap danced. She was an Explorer Scout, and at the age of thirteen became the youngest licensed scuba diver in the State of Florida. Rita loved animals. Raised a Catholic, she was active in works of service and charity.
Rita’s life is embellished with honors. She attended Clearwater Central Catholic High School, going on to graduate from Florida State University in 1974. She then worked for the Pinellas County Health Department as a Sanitarian and Environmental Engineer. In 1980, Rita entered the U.S. Air Force and survived its rigorous training program (as seen in the film Top Gun), for which her love of mental and physical challenge had well prepared her. Attaining the rank of Captain, Rita was a KC-135A Instructor Navigator on numerous continental and overseas missions. She was awarded the U.S. Air Force Commendation Medal, and in 1983 received the Dyess Air Force Base Award for her outstanding service in public affairs. Following an honorable discharge in 1985, Rita resumed her interest in public health at the Oregon Health and Science University, where she worked from 1987-1998 as an Industrial Hygienist, receiving its Rose Award for outstanding service. Rita received a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Oregon State University, soon followed by a Master’s Degree in Public Health and Safety at Portland State University, concurrently taking coursework toward a doctoral degree. As a graduate student, she contributed to program evaluation activities for a W.K. Kellogg grant on leadership development in nonprofit agencies, diversity, and distance-learning technologies. Under the direction of Dr. Sherril Gelmon, Chair of her doctoral committee, Rita Sumner attained a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy in 2007. Dr. Sumner joined the faculty of the Department of Public Administration at Portland State University, where she worked until 2017. Afterwards, she co-authored Women Veterans: Lifting the Veil of Invisibility, published in 2018 by Routledge.
Rita’s altruism and athleticism were lifelong. She opposed racism and prejudice of all kinds, and supported human rights, veterans’ rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. Her love of animals led her to become a vegan for the last twenty-five years of her life. She was a serious hiker, exceptional swimmer, avid cyclist, and crack marksman at the shooting range. As a hiker, Rita covered the Oregon leg of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Three Sisters west of Sisters township near Bend. She was passionate about the Florida Trail, in particular the panhandle section extending from Alabama to Georgia. An advocate of trail upkeep, Rita was a member of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Florida Trail Association and the Sierra Club.
Dr. Rita Sumner is survived by her wife of thirty-three years, Georgiana Gordon and their fur babies, Xena and Girlfriend; cousins James and Sally Finn of Homosassa, Florida; childhood friends Peggy Dowd Plennert and Mary Kay Mattheus; Air Force friends Dale and Karla Thaler and Genia Woodward; Ray Parke; Judie Briner of Portland State University; postgraduate adviser Dr. Anthony Velteri of Oregon State University, and her doctoral committee Chair, Dr. Sherril Gelmon of Portland State University.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Rita’s memory can be sent to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (https://www.pcta.org/donate/#donate), to the Columbia Humane Society (http://columbiahumane.com/support-us/), or to Public Citizen (https://www.citizen.org/).
A wake will be held at a future date.