Cover photo for Irene Dempsey's Obituary
Irene Dempsey Profile Photo
1925 Irene 2020

Irene Dempsey

July 22, 1925 — April 9, 2020

Irene Dempsey of Davis died on April 9 of natural causes at the age of 94. She was born on July 22, 1925, in Harlan, Iowa, the second child of Roy B. Olson and Alvina Louise Olson (nee Kock). She grew up in small-town Iowa, in Harlan and nearby Walnut, during the dark days of the Great Depression. Her father and mother, both of Danish Iowan stock, struggled with a series of small businesses, including a five-and-dime store and a cabinet shop, to make ends meet. In 1938, the family moved to Boulder, Colorado, and life brightened.

Irene loved Boulder High School, where she edited the school newspaper and appeared in theatrical productions, and graduated to the University of Colorado. In September 1945, as she was starting her Junior year, she met Paul Dempsey (at CU studying Chinese for Naval Intelligence). They were married just three weeks later and celebrated 64 anniversaries together before Paul’s death in 2009.

After spending a year (1946-47) in Stockholm, Sweden, where Paul studied architecture and Irene taught English, Irene completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CU. She then moved to UC Berkeley for her Ph.D. in Psychology, where she studied the psychology of women and gender roles and did clinical work at the Langley Porter Institute.

In 1956, after time in Ithaca, NY, Nevada City, CA, and Syracuse, NY, Irene and Paul moved to Davis and started a family. As her sons grew, Irene began to work as a psychologist, first at the UC Davis Counseling Center and then in her own private practice. Irene practiced for more than 50 years and helped many of her beloved clients dramatically improve their lives.

Central to Irene’s work was the insight that psychological stress generally arises from a gap between resources – skills, finances, network, and energy level – and expectations. The feeling of deficit, when one cannot see a way to achieve what one thinks “should” be done – what Irene called the “underdog experience” – is universal. But Irene saw that it is particularly common for women, of whom much is expected and who often lack support, money, time, and confidence. Irene’s work focused on how one can narrow the gap, either by marshaling the necessary resources or by refining one’s goals. Most important, she believed that the experience of deficit is not just unpleasant, but actually destructive: people are not just happier but also perform much better when they escape from “underdog space.”

Beyond the underlying theory, Irene’s true gift was in making her insights work in practice for her clients. Stress comes from many directions in life, very often from relationships at work or at home.  Irene had an extraordinary ability to listen to her clients’ life challenges and then help them identify simple and practical steps to navigate difficulties that had initially seemed overwhelming. She saw herself as teaching “psychological self-defense skills” and, like any great coach, she knew when to empathize and when to challenge. It was not always easy to be Irene’s client, but some found it truly life altering to have her in their corner.

Besides her early interest in the psychology of women, Irene was ahead of the curve on health and nutrition. She discovered nutritionist Adelle Davis’s books in the early 1950s and was an ardent proponent of healthy eating and daily exercise for the rest of her life. She was an excellent cook, specializing in healthy, quick-to-prepare meals, but also made homemade jam and nearly a dozen varieties of pie. She was also a lifelong exercise enthusiast, constantly in motion, walking several miles a day into her nineties (and encouraging her friends and clients to do the same). She was an accomplished tennis player, winning the Davis City Championship and helping found the Davis Tennis Club.

Irene loved her house and her garden and strove to make them beautiful. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the blooming patterns and habitat preferences of countless flora, and loved designing (and often changing) the many vistas in her garden to present copious blooms in most seasons.

Most of all, Irene loved sharing her ideas and cooking and house and garden with her clients, friends, and family. She made us all feel special, and we will miss her.

Irene is survived by her sons Ajax and Jed, and her daughter-in-law Diana. Because of COVID-19, no memorial service is planned at this time. Please call or email her son Jed at (415) 964-3000 or for information about a future memorial. In lieu of flowers, we ask for donations “in memory of Irene Dempsey” to the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, One Shields Ave, Davis, CA 95616, or The Food Bank of Yolo County, 233 Harter Avenue, Woodland, CA 95776.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Irene Dempsey, please visit our flower store.

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