Obituary: Mary Merrill St. John Zemach Dec. 5, 1930 – Feb. 26, 2021

MARY MERRILL ST. JOHN ZEMACH Dec. 5, 1930 – Feb. 26, 2021

Mary Merrill St. John Zemach passed away of natural causes at her home on February 26, 2021, a few weeks after her 63rd wedding anniversary, with her husband by her side.

Mary was born on December 5, 1930, in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she studied hula dancing, collected insects (including a cockroach deemed worthy of admission to the Bishop Museum), worked in the pineapple fields during WWII, and didn’t wear shoes until 7th grade, and only then because it was required by the marching band, in which she played flute.

Mary left Hawaii upon graduation from high school to attend Radcliffe College in Boston, MA. After graduating cum laude with a degree in biology, she took a position as a lab technician in Philadelphia, where, in a recorder playing society, she met her future husband, Charles (Chuck) Zemach. Mary liked to recount how Chuck had promised her when he proposed that he would take her “around the world”—a promise he fulfilled not once but twice.

The Zemachs moved to Berkeley, California, where Chuck was a UC Physics professor and Mary worked as a medical researcher at the Donner Lab while raising three children. They then moved to northern Virginia where Chuck served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Mary actively participated in her children’s interests, leading a Girl Scout troupe and a Cub Scout den and supporting a host of sports and hobbies and outdoor activities.

In 1976, the Zemachs moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although the dry climate of the southwest was very different from that of her native Hawaii, Mary threw herself into gardening and permaculture. She redesigned her yard as a permaculture demonstration garden, which was toured by more than 1,700 visitors, featured on the cover of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture, shown on public television’s “Southwest Yard and Garden,” and discussed on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” She helped found the first Community Supported Agriculture in Los Alamos, and set up a system to distribute grocery store excess to northern New Mexico shelters and food banks.

Mary was also active in the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, where she regularly taught Sunday school and wrote a nationally distributed Unitarian Universalist curriculum, “A Good Planet is Hard to Find,” which fosters sensible care of the earth. She was the Religious Education Chair from 1979-1981 and then President of the church from 1985-1987.

Mary was president of Jemez House Group Home for ten years and served as president of the Jemez House Thrift Shop board, which raised college scholarship money for graduates of group homes in New Mexico. From 2006 through 2020, the organization helped support 145 students with $610,385 in scholarships.

An active member of the Master Gardeners Association of Los Alamos, Mary will be honored there with a memorial plaque that explains the underground permaculture watering system she helped design.

Towards the end of her life, Mary affirmed to those around her that she had lived life to the fullest; accomplished and experienced all she wished; and cherished her friends and family. She is sorely missed, but gratefully remembered. She filled our lives with warmth, humor, music, stories, a passion for the environment, and boundless energy.

Mary is survived by her husband Charles Zemach, children Art (Colleen) of Durango, CO; Dorothy (Will Mitchell) of Eugene, OR; and Ken (Haideh Plock) of Västerås, Sweden; and five grandchildren. Also survived by her sister, Martha Martin, of Honolulu, Hawaii, she was preceded in death by her brothers Charles St. John of Princeton, NJ, and Robert St. John of California, and parents Harold and Elizabeth (Betty) St. John of Honolulu, HI.

A virtual service and remembrance will be held online, hosted by the Los Alamos Unitarian Church and Dorothy Zemach, at 11:00 am Mountain Time Saturday, April 3, 2021. Please contact the Unitarian Church ( for the Zoom link to attend live, or to view the service later.

Condolences may be sent to the family via Dorothy Zemach, zemach at comcast dot net.

To honor Mary’s life and values, instead of sending flowers, plant one. Or plant a tree. Tread lightly on the earth, care for the environment (reduce, reuse, recycle!), and extend compassion and assistance to those in need.