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Reed Honors Life of Mara Gibbs ’19

By Randall S. Barton on February 10, 2017 05:02 PM

Family and friends mourn Mara Gibbs, who died after a fire broke out in her SE Portland apartment.

Hundreds of Reedies who knew and loved Margalit “Mara” Gibbs ’19 crowded into the Student Union on Wednesday night to celebrate her life.

Mara died Tuesday, February 7, after sustaining extensive injuries in a fire that raged through her Southeast Portland apartment early Sunday morning. Awakened by the fire, she managed to dial 911, but passed out from the smoke and the heat before she could finish the call. Two other people survived by jumping from the second floor window.

Lauren Gibbs, Mara’s mother, said her daughter hated ceremony, and even avoided her own high school graduation. “She would not have wanted a ceremony to celebrate her,” Lauren said. “But we are going to because she loved Reed, she loved the friends she made here, she loved her classes and her professors, her internships with GlooPen and Reed's Software Design Studio, and she loved Portland.”

Born March 24, 1997, to Lauren Gibbs and Steven Flax, she was named Margalit after Steven’s mother, Pearl, and Lauren's mother, Pat. (Margalit is the modern Hebrew form of Margaret, which means pearl.) She grew up in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where she won prestigious Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards for her photography.

A creative child, Mara began composing songs at age four and loved to dance. By the time she was five, she identified as a “math girl,” taking every math class offered.

Her father related that while she had friends in high school, Mara never quite felt like she had found her people until she came to Reed. She took classes in philosophy and computer science and was accepted to the internship program at the Reed Software Design Studio, which pairs students with experienced professionals in the technology industry.

At the life celebration, friends shared memories and anecdotes of the whip-smart sophomore, relating her propensity for dispensing hugs and humor.  

“As a student, Mara had focus,” Steven said. “She wasn’t one to take an introductory survey of anything. One teacher said, ‘She would follow a problem to the end, even if it led her down a rabbit hole.’ Another said, ‘Mara is so concentrated in her attention, sometimes she doesn’t see the forest for the bark.’ At Reed, she blossomed, had friends, and met the most intellectual challenges. She loved it here.”

In the early morning on Sunday, February 5, a fire broke out in the apartment Mara shared with other Reedies in Southeast Portland. Two other women in the apartment leapt to safety from a second-story window. Mara called 911, saving people in other apartments from the fire that was blazing through the ceiling, but passed out from the smoke and fumes. Firefighters found her inside the flaming apartment, and pulled her to the hallway to perform resuscitation, but she never regained consciousness and died two days later. She donated her organs to other people through the Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank.

At the memorial, Steven said he drew two lessons from Mara’s death. “If you’re in a building and the alarm goes off and you see fire… Don’t be a hero, don’t try to put out the fire, don’t call 911. Get the hell out of the building as fast as you can. Call 911 from the sidewalk. The other lesson, if I have anything to teach, is to remind you for the rest of your lives that there are people you love. Remember at every opportunity to tell them that you love them.”

As the life celebration drew to a close, one of her uncles rose to thank the students for sharing their stories about his niece.

“Mara was willed into this world,” said Kenneth Gibbs, referring to the determination of her mother and father to parent a child. “She was created to make lives meaningful. What I heard tonight was a glorious celebration and reflection of who she was. The seeds had been planted; this community helped her flower.”

It was clear from the stories her fellow Reedies shared about Mara, that she knew she was loved.

The family has established a scholarship in Mara’s honor to benefit a woman studying computer science at Reed. If you would like to make a gift in her memory, please visit this site and indicate the Mara Gibbs Scholarship in the notes section.

If you prefer to mail a gift, please make checks payable to Reed College and indicate the Mara Gibbs Scholarship. Checks should be mailed to:

Office of College Relations
3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.
Portland, OR 97202