Joanna Sigel, social worker shaped South Boston clinic

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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Just by walking into a room in 1971, Joanna Sigel altered the course of uncounted lives in South Boston and one life in particular.

Fresh out of his residency, Dr. George Sigel was a psychiatrist and met her right after being charged with putting together a mental health treatment outpost that became the South Boston Behavioral Health Clinic.

“Into the clinic walks this tall, red-headed Irishwoman,’’ said Sigel, the program’s medical director, who married her a dozen years later. “I wouldn’t say I was smitten, but I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This is a clinic I’m hired to develop in South Boston, and she’s an Irishwoman who obviously was perfect for the job. Her interest in mental health delivery was excellent, and her knowledge of working in the poverty sector was quite pronounced.’’

Mrs. Sigel, a social worker who helped shape the clinic, saw thousands of clients, and was a mentor to scores of students who passed through its doors, died Dec. 20 in her Norwood home of complications of heart and lung ailments that prompted her to stop working last year. She was 72.

“She was the most graceful, compassionate person I have ever known in my entire life,’’ said Gail Cohen, clinic coordinator for South Boston Behavioral Health, which will reach its 40-year milestone in July. “She devoted her life to helping less fortunate people and has always been an advocate for mental health. Her patients loved her, and not just her patients. She had time for her staff and everyone.’’

Along with her duties as a social worker, Mrs. Sigel “developed the relationships with the training schools for students in social work,’’ her husband said. “She hired the remainder of the staff, and she set up some of the infrastructure you need to run a mental health clinic, where we would figure out a way of taking in referrals, developing a records system, a process for internal supervision, and eventually bringing students into the program. She developed the guts of the clinic.’’

All that, however, was only part of Mrs. Sigel’s contribution, which went beyond the merely administrative.

“Quite frankly, she brought to the clinic a kind of thoughtfulness and curiosity about why people do what they do that brings them to a mental health clinic,’’ her husband said. “One of the highlights of her career was giving one of her patients the 25-year medallion for her sobriety in AA. That was quite an honor for Joanna to do that.’’

Longtime friend Terri Hartford of Mechanic Falls, Maine, formerly worked at the clinic and recalled her initial encounter with Mrs. Sigel.

“It was almost like a vision, the first time I met her,’’ Hartford said. “She would light up when you spoke with her. You felt like you had been touched, somehow.’’

As Mrs. Sigel provided mental health care in South Boston during the integration of public schools and public housing, “she always had stories,’’ Hartford said. “We would stay after work and sit around, a lot of times for hours. It was this solid, supportive group of people, and you needed that to do the kind of work you needed to do in the D Street projects. You’d look out the office window, and there would be shattered glass on the streets and bars on windows.’’

Amid such challenges, Mrs. Sigel “would walk into a room, and there was always laughter,’’ Cohen said. “There was never a lull in conversation with Joanna. And she was quite a mentor.’’

Born in Boston, Joanna Donovan was the oldest of four children. She graduated from Emmanuel College and spent a few years working in the social service field with the disadvantaged before getting her master’s in social work from Simmons College.

She married Sigel in 1983. They have two daughters, Hannah and Katharine, who both live in Norwood.

Mrs. Sigel “gave to our two girls a quality of mothering that hopefully will get them through the tough moments that may or may not await them in their own lives,’’ her husband said. “And I think she and I had a very successful marriage. Life without her has been incredibly different. It’s very hard to feel that void that her absence has created.’’

Not long after graduating from college in the early 1960s, Mrs. Sigel became close friends with Michael O’Day, who lives in Roxbury but is staying with the Sigels for a few months while recuperating from illnesses.

“She was beautiful in every way,’’ O’Day said. “She was a charming and funny, kind, generous, warm, and loving woman and a friend in every way. She’s helped me so much in my life.’’

Along with joining O’Day on trips to places such as London and Paris, Mrs. Sigel helped care for him on different occasions.

“I’ve had some surgeries, and I always recuperated here,’’ O’Day said. “She was always there when I was sick, and she nursed me back to health every time. She’s been a wonderful mother and a wonderful, wonderful friend. I will miss her so much.’’

Even as Mrs. Sigel was dying, she added to her circle of close friends, her husband said, among them Marion Conlin of Norwood.

“I hired Marion, who was a personal care attendant and really the one who provided the essence of care for Joanna in the last five or six months,’’ he said. “She has become a friend for life.’’

In addition to her husband and daughters, Mrs. Sigel leaves a stepson, Nathan of Waltham, and a sister, Eileen Browning of Dorchester.

A memorial service will be held at noon today in Gillooly Funeral Home in Norwood. Burial will be private.

Hartford said she “couldn’t even estimate the number of lives that Joanna touched’’ during her more than 38 years at the South Boston clinic.

“She devoted herself to all of her patients,’’ Cohen said. “They would call her day and night; she was always there. She would see some patients for 30 years-plus. Joanna made an impact on so many people that my phone hasn’t stopped ringing. She’ll never be forgotten.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at