LaVonne’s legacy: Nevada County grieves loss of LaVonne Amaral |

LaVonne’s legacy: Nevada County grieves loss of LaVonne Amaral

LaVonne Amaral of Nevada City died this week.. In 2013, she authored and published three books on the history of Amaral family, including her late husband Frank Amaral.
Photo for The Union by John Hart | The Union

Artist, teacher, author and philanthropist LaVonne Amaral passed away earlier this week at the age of 94.

With her husband Frank, LaVonne made significant contributions to numerous nonprofit organizations for more than 60 years. Together, the couple helped shape both the physical and cultural landscape of today’s Nevada County.

“LaVonne’s legacy touched every corner of our community,” said Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Foundation Executive Director Kimberly Parker.

“LaVonne and Frank contributed to a multitude of local nonprofits whose programs educate, entertain, enhance life, and bring comfort and hope to our community,” added Carolynn Peterson, executive director of Hospice of the Foothills. LaVonne and Frank had been married 64 years when Frank passed away in 2007 at age 88. Frank worked in the lucrative timber and lumber industry, then became a successful real estate investor and developer.

For much of his life, Frank insisted that the “A” in Amaral also stood for “Anonymous.” Then former Music in the Mountains Artistic Director Paul Perry urged the Amarals to go public with their donations.

“Paul convinced dad that Music in the Mountains would raise more money if the Amaral name was on the donation. He explained that people would think, ‘If the Amarals are supporting it, we should support it, too.’” explained Lavonne’s son, Lance.

The true extent of Lavonne and Frank’s philanthropy may never be known. They quietly helped people in need, paying for everything from braces to college tuitions.

“Much of it would have been in mother’s books, but she didn’t keep books,” Lance said. “Dad gave mother money to run the household, and donations were considered household expenses.”

The Amarals also donated land and time to many causes, including land for Nevada County’s first juvenile hall and the Madelyn Helling Library. Other noteworthy public philanthropy by the Amarals included $500,000 to the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Diagnostic Imaging Center, $100,000 to the Amaral Family Festival Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, the venue for Music in the Mountains indoor concerts, and $100,000 to help build Hospice of the Foothills’ Compassionate Care Home.

“We are very grateful for LaVonne’s generous heart, her many years of financial support, participation in securing the future of Hospice of the Foothills, and her dedication to the compassionate care of our patients and families,” said Peterson. “Her legacy will live on through the work of the wonderful organizations she both built and supported. She was a special lady.”

Another admirer and friend is Ken Hardin, artistic director at InConcert Sierra, who knew LaVonne for nearly three decades.

“I’ve always been amazed at her ferocity — in a good way,” he said. “She had strong convictions and a great deal of inner strength. I loved that right up to the last, she always engaged in the community. She enjoyed going out, being with people and being a part of things.”

Hardin said LaVonne was a role model for future generations.

“I was always impressed with her generosity in the arts, and the community in general,” he added. “Her giving was timely. When there was a need, she’d step up and help.”

Rich Keene was LaVonne’s estate planning attorney, which put him in a unique position to watch her mind at work.

“I will always remember LaVonne as a combination of smart, kind, practical, and tough when she needed to be,” he said.

“I have so many fond memories of listening to her as she spoke about her garden, her artwork, her faith, the books she was adamant about writing, and her life with Frank and her children,” Parker said. “The stories could literally make you laugh out loud, or were so touching they’d bring tears to your eyes.”

“The world has lost a dynamo of a woman who was generous, sharp as a tack, caring and fun,” said Terry Brown, president of the board of Music in the Mountains. “Without minimizing her husband Frank, I always suspected that she was ‘the power behind the throne’ in the Amaral household.

“She and Frank loved to sit in the front row of our concerts where they could be up front and personal with the performers. I remember particularly the time after Konstantin Soukhovetski had finished thrilling us with his flamboyant piano playing — and shoes, peppered with sequins — and I glanced over to see LaVonne, such a diminutive little gal, sitting on his lap, happily chatting with him.”

Such was the vivacious personality of LaVonne Amaral. But most of all, friends and family remember her religious dedication.

“She was an extremely spiritual lady, totally connected to God and the blessed Virgin Mary who was her mentor,” said her daughter, Julia. “She never swore, never drank, never was loud-spoken. That’s not to say she wasn’t extremely opinionated, but she was never adversarial or confrontational. She had strong political opinions, and she would make sure you knew what they were and try to get you to change yours, but she’d never make you angry or upset.

“As I read all the cards I’ve received, each one says pretty much the same thing: she treated everyone she encountered with love and compassion.”

LaVonne was an artist; many of her paintings are still on display at Grass Valley’s Center for the Arts. She was also an author. LaVonne wrote a three-volume autobiographical series entitled “What a Wonderful Life,” which covered her family’s history and travels.

“She was a loving, supportive, caring mother and an artist at heart,” recalled Lance, noting that he and his sister were never spoiled. “We got away with nothing; she was fairly strict. Like anyone who’s now 70 years old, I got spanked a lot. Mother never made dad the bad guy, so whichever one of them was available got to do it.”

He said his mother always knew what to do if he were having a bad day.

“She might bake cookies, or talk to me and make me feel better. Then she’d probably tell me to go out and play.”

Lance remembers his mother as a “pistol” who could get things done.

“One day, the cat in dad’s office got its tail caught in the typewriter. Mother was going to get scissors to cut the cat’s tail off. The secretary knew she’d do it, so the secretary grabbed the cat and yanked it hard enough to get its tail out,” laughed Lance.

Saying that his mother is in a better place now, Lance added, “Mother had a strong Catholic faith, and love of her religion and God. She lived a happy, rewarding, generous life. A blessed life.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

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