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The attendees listen Rev. Michael Messner speaks during the funeral mass for Rita Smith-Wade-El at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster on Saturday, January 12, 2019.

When Ismail Smith-Wade-El recalled Saturday that perhaps the one thing his mother, Rita, knew best was how to “create a village,” the evidence was right there in front of him.

Filling the pews at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Lancaster, a few hundred mourners gathered to pay their final respects to the longtime Millersville University professor of psychology and African-American studies, a woman known as a fierce leader on social justice issues and racial equality in Lancaster and beyond.

Rita Smith-Wade-El was — to the many family, friends, former students and admirers who attended her funeral services Saturday — an unmatched advocate and mentor.

“I would not be the person that I am today, the thinker that I am, had it not been for Rita,” said a former student who is now an MU trustee and state House of Representatives member, Jordan Harris. “I am unapologetically black. And I learned to be that from Dr. Smith-Wade-El.”

After a 10-year battle with triple-negative breast cancer, Smith-Wade-El died in her home Dec. 29 at the age of 70.

Her prolonged illness and decision last summer to forgo further treatment had allowed her to plan her funeral months in advance.

From the church — where she served as a lector, Eucharistic minister and social justice committee member — to the pallbearers, eulogy-givers and even the red color of her casket, Smith-Wade-El made the decisions to alleviate any burdens on her sons, Ismail and Ayodele.

“She always worked to ensure that in her experience, any pain, any suffering, that she had endured, no one else should have to,” said Ismail, who delivered one of the eulogies. “Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El was my hero.”

Ismail, a Lancaster City Council member, described his mother as someone who maybe “loved a little too much” — who always left their Lancaster city home unlocked and with the lights on to show they were open to helping anyone.

He recalled a moment as a child when the family was in a financial crisis and at risk of losing their home. They were driving by the Route 30 exit near the Park City Center mall when his mother pulled over to give a homeless man a few dollars.

“She taught me if you see someone with a need, if someone asks for something that is in your power to give, you give it. And even if it is not in your power, you try anyway,” he said.

A native of Washington, D.C., Rita Smith-Wade-El earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Barnard College and her doctorate from the University Pennsylvania. She spent the last 35 years teaching at Millersville, where she was the founder and director of the school’s African-American studies minor.

“We had no better credentialed colleague than Rita,” said Barbara Stengel, a former MU professor and close friend who also gave a eulogy.

She was “relentless” but also fun, and seemingly impatient even though she rarely was, Stengel said. And her contributions to African-American studies at MU are “incalculable,” she said.

In September, Millersville’s trustees renamed its intercultural center the Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El Intercultural Center.

And her impact goes far beyond the campus. Her involvement in local groups included the Lancaster branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Compeer Lancaster, and Silvery Moon Chapter No. 56 of the Order of the Eastern Star.

She was the recipient of the Essence of Humanity Award from Crispus Attucks Community Center in 2015 and previously was awarded commendations such as the Lancaster YWCA Racial Justice Award and the Church Women United’s Lancaster Chapter’s Valiant Woman Award, as well as it’s United Nations office Human Rights Award.