Thirty years ago, Desanka Mitrovich called her doctor to tell him she wasn’t feeling well. He urged her to call a cab and come to his office immediately, but Mitrovich, ever elegant, ever forceful, dolled herself up and waited for the bus. Only after arriving at the doctor’s office across town did she learn she was having a heart attack.
“Desa was formidable,” said her niece, Milica Mitrovich, “and the doctor still tells that story.”
A fighter to the end, Mitrovich died in San Diego on May 23 due to complications of lymphoma and COVID-19. She was 95.
Born in 1924 in Sveti Stefan, Montenegro (then part of Yugoslavia), Mitrovich was full of fire, grace and wit from the start. As a young woman, she worked as a school teacher in a small mountain village, and later became the mistress of a one-room schoolhouse. She approached her work with a strong sense of duty, and was revered for her firm-but-fair approach to education.
Many of her former students, now adults, still tell stories about how she was a “mean and wonderful” teacher, her niece said, noting that she was just as likely to bring cookies as she was to make them wash behind their ears in the nearby stream.
Mitrovich fought fervently against the Axis’ occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, and in 1960, moved to San Diego to begin a new chapter of her life. She attended San Diego State University and was the first member of her family to graduate from college. She went on to enjoy a decades-long career at the university’s library, where she worked in the acquisitions department until retirement.
“She was forged in that crucible where women didn’t go off and have their own careers,” her niece said. “The path that she took, being a school teacher and then moving across the world and going to college, required a great deal of backbone.”
Although Mitrovich never married (she said the suitors weren’t up to her standards), she was a loyal friend who made it her “job on the weekends” to call relatives around the world and check in. She was so devoted to her family that when her niece graduated from law school on the East Coast, Mitrovich spent nearly three days on a Greyhound bus to be there.
“If she had to hitchhike or to walk, she would have found a way to do it,” Milica said.
In addition to the friends, relatives and students whose lives she touched, family members said they’d remember her for her poise, charisma, dark sense of humor and beautiful singing voice.
“She was an extraordinary woman,” her niece said. “It was not a conventional life, but it was a life lived as much on her own terms, as much as she possibly could.”
Mitrovich is survived by her sister Beba and four nieces and nephews.