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Joan Mrlik; Inspired Children's Charity

September 17, 1994|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joan Riker Mrlik, better known as the infant Catherine Variety Sheridan who inspired Variety Club International's charitable work for children, has died at the age of 65.

Mrs. Mrlik died Sept. 9 in Charleston, S.C., where she lived, the charitable organization announced.

Born on Thanksgiving Day, 1928, "Baby Catherine" was abandoned on Christmas Eve by a mother who said in a note that she had eight children and could not afford a ninth. The baby's name, she said, was Catherine. She left the baby in the nursery of the Sheridan Square Theater in Pittsburgh during a matinee.

"I have always heard of the goodness of show business and I pray to God that you will look out for her," the mother's note said.

John H. Harris, who owned the theater, was one of 11 entertainment industry businessmen who had recently founded a social club in Pittsburgh that they named Variety. When a search for the mother was unsuccessful, Harris placed the child in Pittsburgh's Roselia Foundling Home, one of his mother's charities. He and his fellow Variety Club members decided that since the infant had been entrusted to show business people, they should adopt her and underwrite her financial care and education.

When she was 5, the much-publicized Baby Catherine was adopted by Norman and Gladys Riker, a Long Island, N.Y., couple who were among 300 couples screened by the club. The club "daddies" felt that the child could have a happier, more anonymous life in another state.

When the new parents met the child in Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, they asked what she would like to eat.

"I ate a huge bowl of whipped cream. I don't know why. I've never touched it since," she told The Times in 1980 when she attended the 52nd annual convention in Los Angeles of Variety Club International.

Starting with Baby Catherine, the 11 Pittsburgh businessmen became zealous about assisting foundlings and handicapped children. Today, Variety Club International raises more than $40 million annually to support children's charities, hospitals and camps throughout the United States and in eight other countries.

Renamed Joan Riker by her new parents, she grew up in New York. She earned a nursing degree from Cornell University in 1951 and served as a Navy nurse during the Korean War. Afterward, she joined the Foreign Service as a public health nurse in Saigon.

In 1957, she married Navy Lt. Michael Mrlik, with whom she had three sons, Michael and twins Richard and Robert, and a daughter, Lisa. The family lived in Asia for 20 years where Mrlik worked for United States Lines. Later they settled in Charleston where he was port manager and she worked as a part-time nurse.

After the 1980 Variety convention, she became an ambassador promoting the charity's work on behalf of children.

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