Gladys Marita McDowell, 58, who worked for local dry cleaning firms for about 25 years before retiring on disability in the mid-1960s, and who then devoted herself to Red Cross and community volunteer work, died of cancer Sunday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. She lived in Washington.

A native Washingtonian, Mrs. McDowell graduated from Cardozo High School and attended the University of the District of Columbia.

In 1975, a story in The Washington Post told how Mrs. McDowell became a volunteer worker and later head of the volunteer program at the Red Cross service center in Anacostia after absorbing a poisonous substance at the dry cleaning plant where she worked. She was forced to retire for reasons of health and was unable to walk for more than two years following the incident.

"My husband took care of me and I would sit at the window watching people go by," Mrs. McDowell said. "I made a promise to God that I would help other people if I ever got out again. I got out and here I am."

Mrs. McDowell then became an advocate of bringing Red Cross services closer to people, using volunteers with whom the recipients could identify.

"When, for example," she related, "an old lady calls up or we hear about her and she can't get to her doctor, I look over my list and pick someone I think would be the biggest help to her. If [that person] is at work, I call their employer and ask them to give the worker a little time off for Red Cross work . . . I've never been refused."

Mrs. McDowell herself had worked as a volunteer driver for the Red Cross Motor Service. She also served as treasurer of the D.C. Community Education Association and as a member of the National Communication Education Association and the National Association of Community Development. In addition, she served as a committee chairman in the Catherine C. Hemingway Missionary Society.

She was a member of Hemingway Temple AME Church here and served as a steward and a member of several other church organizations.

Survivors include her husband, Thomas G., her mother, Edna V. Davis, and eight brothers, John, James, Boisy, George, Bobby, Leo, MacNeal and Charles Davis, all of Washington, and five sisters, Jean White and Betty Brooks, both of Washington, Louise Grey of Seabrook, Md., Dorothy Washington of Camp Springs, and Ann Bennett of Forestville.