Dancer, Spanish instructor personified passion
Mary Herms with entertainer Lou Rawls after a performance at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

 by    KATHY DAY

For the North County Times
ENCINITAS ---- Ask those who know Mary Herms for a word to describe her, and the answers flow readily: energetic, loving, inspirational, passionate ---- even rebellious.


The longtime Encinitas resident, who died Feb. 21 of advanced multiple myeloma, carried all those words with her in everything she did, said her older daughter, Monica Herms.

That description was echoed by Asuncion Lusti, who worked for many years with Mary Herms in a project that led to the construction of the Casa de Espana ---- the House of Spain ---- in Balboa Park.

"We loved her dearly," Lusti said. "She embraced everything with a passion."

Lusti said Herms' big smile and countless hours of volunteer work made her one of the best supporters of the Casa, one of the "houses" that display the cultures of 31 countries.

Born Jan. 30, 1944, in Cartago, Colombia, Herms later moved with her family to Cali, Colombia, where she met her husband, Henry, who was in the Peace Corps. They married in 1968 and moved to Encinitas, where he taught as she took her talents in a variety of directions.

A professional ballet and folklorico dancer who had performed throughout South America, she first became involved in the House of Pacific Relations as a founding member of the House of Colombia.

She also choreographed South American dances there for a number of years, said Monica Herms.

One of her students, Samuel Cottrell, danced in Herms' groups at many performances, from Balboa Park to the Del Mar Fair.

"She was very nice ... but very focused on making sure we did them right," he said Thursday. "She was an excellent teacher."

She applied her dancing skills to aerobics classes, becoming one of Jazzercise's first instructors.

It was in that role, her daughter wrote in an e-mail, that Herms danced in an opening act for singer Lou Rawls at the Del Mar Fair. "After the performance with Mr. Rawls, he dedicated the next song, 'Lady Love,' to my mom after giving her a warm hug on stage, " Monica Herms said.

The family's neighbor of 33 years, Sally Lester, called Herms an inspirational teacher and a great friend.

"To this day, there are certain songs that I hear, and all I can think of is Mary saying 'five, six, seven, eight' ... They bring back lots of great memories," Lester said.

While her interest in dance and exercise led her to start her college studies in physical education, it was Herms' ability to speak Spanish that led her to a new profession.

One day, while she was tutoring at Palomar College, an instructor told Herms she should become a teacher, Monica Herms said.

She took the advice and went to San Diego State, where she earned her undergraduate degree and then a master's degree at age 51 in Spanish with a minor in Italian. She went on to work as an adjunct professor there as well as at Cal State San Marcos and Palomar, Mesa and MiraCosta colleges.

One of her thesis advisers remarked about another side of her in a note to the family after her death: "She was a brilliant student and teacher and a superb activist."

Henry Herms, a longtime Encinitas high school teacher, affectionally recalled his wife as "very rebellious" in her youth, always getting in trouble with the priests at the Catholic school she attended in Colombia.

With her background and love of the history, literature and art of Spanish-speaking countries, Herms incorporated that knowledge into her work, her daughter said.

Monica Herms said on the family's Web site that those who knew Mary Herms will honor her by "staying strong, staying silly, staying curious and using our intellect for the good of others as well as ourselves with big beautiful smiles ---- just as she did."