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Emma Jane Riley Dies at 84; Known for Charity Work

April 05, 1999|ELEANOR YANG and PETER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Emma Jane Riley refused to stay in the long shadow cast by her husband, one of the most powerful men in Orange County. Instead, she led several charity efforts, traveled abroad and devoted herself to the Roman Catholic Church.

Riley died Saturday at her home in Newport Beach after being diagnosed with lung cancer in January. She was 84. Her husband died in February 1998.

Riley was the wife of Marine Corps General and former Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, a man who helped transform the landscape of the nation's fifth-most-populous county. She accompanied him to countless community functions and carried herself with dignity, but friends said that on top of that, she had her own outspoken character and adopted her own causes.

"Her motto boiled down to life being a series of commitments, duties and obligations to her husband, family, friends and community," said Gabrielle Chung, one of Riley's nearly dozen godchildren.

On a religious pilgrimage to Bosnia last December, 10 months after her husband's death, the elegantly dressed Riley climbed part way up a mountain with a group of high school students.

"It was a really rugged trip," said Chung, who accompanied her on the trip. "She said she thought it was important for them to see a woman of her status willing to make the climb."

When Riley learned UC Irvine was upgrading some of its medical equipment, she persuaded administrators to allow her to pack the stethoscopes and blood pressure measurers into her own suitcase. She handed out the equipment to grateful churchgoers on a visit to the Middle East in the early '90s.

"She could cut through the bureaucracy," said longtime friend Jean Liechty. "If she needed something, she just did it."

Riley dedicated herself to many philanthropic organizations. Friends estimated she worked extensively with at least three dozen of them.

One of her pet causes was the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana, where groups of children of all faiths spend several days learning about one another.

"She was a really good friend" to the center, said Sister Catherine Marie, who was with Riley when she died.

About 21 years ago, Riley created the Gentlemen's Haberdashery, a benefit held annually to support the retreat. The Haberdashery, a fashion show where businessmen and community leaders walk the ramp, became "quite a local institution," Liechty said.

"She wasn't an airhead, a socialite," Liechty said. "She would go to all the functions but her real interest was in helping people."

Much of her independent spirit came from the fact that Riley was brought up in a pioneering Western family, friends said.

Her family moved to Oregon from the Midwest in the 1850s. Riley was born in 1914 in Portland. After attending high school there, she set about developing a singing career.

"She had a beautiful voice," said her brother, Sam Eddy. "She could really deliver when it came to classical and opera and operetta music."

Riley performed at Portland theaters before meeting and marrying Gen. Riley in 1938. While he served in World War II, she was "the perfect general's wife," Liechty said. Thomas Riley was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 1974.

She continued her sophisticated ways throughout her life.

"The first time we ever met, she was easily the most elegant lady you'd ever seen," said Mary Roosevelt, a friend since 1972. "It was in her training. Nothing fazed her, nothing upset her. She was one of the strongest-minded women I ever met."

Funeral services will be held within the next two weeks in Newport Beach. Afterward, she will be buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Riley is survived by her brother, Sam Eddy, of Eddyville, Ore.; and several nieces and nephews.

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