Joan Cecchi, the feisty founder of a free medical clinic in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, died last month at age 91.

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Joan Cecchi, a petite powerhouse who founded a free medical clinic and led a food bank for decades in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, passed away peacefully last month at 91.

The British émigré started her life in Seattle as a 1960s housewife who donned pearls, cashmere sweaters and heels as she cared for her husband and two boys, according to her son, Rob Cecchi. The prim outfit was traded in for flats, comfortable pants and cotton sweaters soon after both kids started going to school, though.

After moving to Seattle, Mrs. Cecchi longed for a challenge on par with work she had done in London as vice president of a British import/expert business or as a World War II lookout from the only house in her neighborhood that survived German bombing.

“She wasn’t a typical housewife,” said her son. “She was breaking glass ceilings before people were talking about breaking glass ceilings.”

A challenge of the right magnitude presented itself as she took a good look at her children’s Georgetown schoolmates: Poverty and lack of access to medical care abounded for most children and their families.

“To see the kind of poverty that was there in the most powerful country in the world just floored her,” said her son.

So when parents at a school meeting discussed the need for a low-budget medical clinic in the area in the late ’60s, Mrs. Cecchi committed to starting one.

Her Georgetown Medical Clinic project met wide opposition in 1969 from neighbors who thought free medical care would be a magnet for drug-addicted hippies or communists, as one local preacher suggested. Nonetheless, her son said, within a year, she had a group of doctors working volunteer stints at a small house on South Lucile Street that she had been able to charm out of developer Jack Benaroya.

“She was such a forceful person, she could get you to do anything,” said Group Health’s Dr. Michael Wanderer, one of the clinic’s first volunteers. “Manipulative isn’t the right word, but she’d make you say, ‘Yes.’ All the doctors loved her.”

Wanderer said word-of-mouth eventually increased the neighborhood’s trust in the clinic. When the clinic outgrew the small house, it moved into an empty schoolhouse and merged with the Georgetown Service Center food and clothing bank.

And when Mrs. Cecchi was able to corral enough citywide support and government grants, the center moved into a larger facility, one that had previously been a police station.

All her volunteer efforts never kept Mrs. Cecchi from preparing dinner for her family in the evening.

“She did it all behind the scenes and was always around for us,” said her son. “She made it seem very low-key.”

Mrs. Cecchi never spoiled her children, though, her son said. When some of his classmates were receiving cars and trips to Hawaii at his high-school graduation, his mother gifted him with a jewel box holding a single peanut.

” ‘He’s done what was expected of him — congratulations!’ ” Rob said she told him. “I laughed so hard.”

Soon after the center’s last move, Wanderer said, its medical services were phased out because more sophisticated and better-funded clinics were popping up around Seattle. Mrs. Cecchi then turned her full attention to managing the center’s food and clothing bank.

By the time Mrs. Cecchi retired from the center in 2001, family and friends say, she had kept countless low-income residents on their feet as she helped them feed their families or find a way to keep up with their monthly bills.

She kept a note in her wallet for years from one of those people, who had returned one day to give a $10 donation. It read: “I used your services three and a half years ago and never forgot your kindness.”

Georgetown Service Center’s food and clothing bank has since been folded into those services at St. Vincent de Paul at 5972 Fourth Ave. S.

Mrs. Cecchi is survived by her husband, Richard Cecchi, of Seattle; her two sons, Rob, of Des Moines, and Paul Cecchi, of San Francisco; and one granddaughter.

A memorial service for Mrs. Cecchi will be held at 11 a.m. on her birthday, Oct. 27, at St. Philomena Catholic Church, 1790 S. 222nd St., Des Moines. Rob Cecchi says there will be cake to celebrate “the old girl.” In lieu of flowers, the Cecchi family suggests donations to a food bank.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.