JPL producer left with 9 children after wife dies on trip

Friends said their goodbyes when Sue Savona left her Glendale home just before Christmas to drive across the country for the holidays. They were shocked last week to learn that the La Cañada High School graduate and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory worker will not return.

Savona, a mother of nine, experienced severe stomach pains while traveling with her husband Gary and nine children to visit family in Green Bay, Wisc. Gary Savona took her to a hospital in Tulsa, Okla., and continued on to Green Bay to drop off the children. He flew back to Tulsa, but too late.

On Dec. 18, just 24 hours later, after she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent emergency surgery, Sue Savona passed away.

She was 38 years old and had given birth to a baby girl three weeks earlier. She met her husband at JPL, where she was doing projection work at the time. Gary Savona is a producer at JPL, directing and editing video segments that tell the story of the lab and its missions.

JPL Media Librarian Sherri Rowe-Lopez heard the news from Gary Savona the day after his wife died.

“I was in shock,” said Rowe-Lopez. “I still am.”

Rowe-Lopez opened a Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union account to allow coworkers to donate to the family. Other JPL workers are covering for Gary Savona while he takes time off.

The four producers who work with Gary Savona collected photos and videos of the family for a memorial service at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose Jan. 11, Rowe-Lopez said.

Sue Savona was a bright woman who was dedicated to her family, Rowe-Lopez said. She graduated from La Cañada High School in 1992 and went on to attend the University of California, Davis, to study biology. The two bonded over their Wisconsin roots and passion for sports, Rowe-Lopez said.

Jess Doherty, who started as a producer alongside Gary Savona at JPL in 2005, said he was in “total disbelief” when he heard of Sue Savona's death. “The mood has been pretty somber,” he said. “It is unbelievable.”

“We know a lot of people across the lab since we're telling everybody's stories,” he said. “Everybody likes Gary and I'm sure this loss just hit very deeply here at the lab.”

Paul Savona, Gary's brother, said the dilemma now is figuring out how best to care for the children: Kali, 16; John, 14; Sam, 13; Jenna, 11; Emma, 10; Sara, 8; Josh, 6; Ava, 2 and Chloe, one month. Family and friends have offered to help look after the baby for now.

“Gary is hurting and distraught and emotional,” he said. “He's hanging in there. He has a lot of support.”

A memorial service for Sue Savona will take place at 10 a.m. Wed., Jan. 11., at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, 2411 Montrose Ave. Contributions can be made to the Sue Savona Memorial Trust Fund at the Caltech Credit Union, 528 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada, or Bank of America, 2320 Honolulu Ave., Montrose. The church has also registered the family for a meal delivery service. Participants can sign up for a day to donate or cook a meal for the family.

For more information, call (818) 249-2008.

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