When Beth Ryder-Kenna left her Maine hometown for her first year at Wellesley College, she did everything to push through her trepidation, as she always had in the past.
After all, she was not someone who had let the fear of the unknown dictate her life. As a girl, she taught herself to ride a bike and then used tools to take off the training wheels herself. She turned a Spanish language requirement in school into an opportunity to become fluent, and then taught herself to speak French, too. After arriving at Wellesley, she decided she wanted to knit, and taught herself to do that as well.
She faced duodenal cancer no differently. After Ms. Ryder-Kenna was diagnosed with the disease nearly two years ago, she inspired everyone with her bravery, her resilience, and her dazzling smile, friends and colleagues say.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna, a nonprofit professional whose commitment to public service stretched back to her childhood, died Aug. 21 in the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home in Cambridge. She was 31 and had lived in Boston.
Despite the courage she showed, it was undeniable that death frightened her, said her mother, Bonney Ryder of Decatur, Ala. But some nights, she added, what bothered her daughter most was that many of her dreams would remain unfulfilled.
She wanted to go back to school and pursue a career in school administration. She wanted to meet someone special and have a “great love of her life.” She wanted to become a mother.
“My daughter died, and all of the things I wanted for her, all the hopes and dreams moms have, they died too,” Ryder said. “And I could just sit and hold her hand and put lipstick on her and paint her toenails, but I couldn’t stop it.”
The younger of two siblings, Mary Elizabeth Ryder-Kenna, who went by Beth, was born in Portland, Maine, to Bonney Ryder and John Kenna. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and her father died about two years ago.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna went to school in Portland and graduated in 2004 from Portland High School, where she cofounded Youthink, an organization that aimed to get young people involved in advocacy. She also served on the Youth Advisory Council for the Portland City Council.
At Wellesley, she graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies with a concentration in women’s studies.
Friends and family say her activism was more than just a career path or a resume-builder — it was a way of life. When Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president, Ms. Ryder-Kenna went to New Hampshire to help with the campaign. She had also traveled to Florida to knock on doors and campaign for Barack Obama.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna was staunchly committed to social justice. Feminism and women’s rights were among her top priorities, but she saw connections among many issues, said Emily Randall of Bremerton, Wash., one of her closest friends from college.
“She’s put in the work for the world that she wanted,” Randall said. “In this post-Trump world, where there’s a lot of conversation about the white working class and the economy, Beth had a way of looking at it that was really about humanity, and not about media buzzwords.”
When Ms. Ryder-Kenna died, she had been working as national director of development programs at City Year Inc. since October 2014. Charlie Rose, a City Year colleague, said Ms. Ryder-Kenna put her all into every little project, even the tedious annual report.
“She didn’t have to toot her own horn,” he said. “If you worked with her, you knew she was smart. Her energy was vibrant.”
Though her job was based in Boston, she helped the organization’s 28 locations run their national campaigns, making connections with people from around the country. At a celebration for her life held at Rose’s Jamaica Plain restaurant in August, some colleagues flew in who had only met Ms. Ryder-Kenna over the phone.
“She meant that much to them,” Rose said.
Before City Year, Ms. Ryder-Kenna spent more than six years at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, where she held three positions on a team that created programs for Israel advocacy.
“She was unflappable, because she was able to take things seriously when she had to, but also remember that life is about having fun,” said Dan Seligson, who worked with Ms. Ryder-Kenna on a four-person Israel advocacy team.
“There was just something about her that you could sort of sense the very strong moral compass, like you were always going to have an honest conversation with Beth,” said Dara Klein, another CJP colleague.
“She was going to tell it like it is, but also really have your back,” added Klein, who has adopted Ms. Ryder-Kenna’s cat, Cinnamon.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna also had been involved in the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston since 2013, mentoring one girl for several years. When Ms. Ryder-Kenna died, she left her 401(k) and life insurance policies in a trust fund for the girl to put toward her college education, Bonney Ryder said.
“Beth was committed to this little girl seeing the world in a bigger way,” she said.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna’s friends and colleagues say they’ll also remember her for her unique personal style, which she referred to as “everyday glam,” Randall said.
Her shoe collection in particular was well-admired, including the sparkly black suede, open-toed heels that her mother now keeps with her in Alabama, and the red-glitter kitten heels that another woman once coveted from across a supermarket aisle.
Ms. Ryder-Kenna even showed up to her 26 rounds of chemotherapy “dressed to the nines,” her mother said.
“I don’t think she realized or knew how charismatic she was, that people just wanted to be with her, hoping some of her spark would rub off,” Ryder said.
A service has been held for Ryder-Kenna, who in addition to her mother leaves her brother, Sean Ryder-Kenna of Charlotte, N.C.
When Ms. Ryder-Kenna was first diagnosed, she decided she wanted a tattoo in her mother’s handwriting that would read: “The best is yet to come.” But because of the blood thinner she needed as part of her treatment, a tattoo was out of the question.
While Ms. Ryder-Kenna was in hospice care, her mother decided to make the tattoo happen in her own way. She took out a blue Sharpie, wrote the phrase on her daughter’s forearm, and told the funeral home not to wash it off.
“She ended up with some ink,” she said. “And when I was done with that, I put lipstick on her.”
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