Storyteller, teacher, great-grandmother, activist, and kibitzer, Barbara Stix Lipke died on the morning of January 3 of complications of old age (85 years). She was surrounded by family and friends and received calls from at least three continents on her final day.
In her last career, she was a founding member of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling (LANES) and Martha’s Vineyard Festival of Storytelling. She taught in Brookline and Baltimore elementary public schools, raised four children, published a book and two CDs of stories, traveled the world, worked briefly as a reporter, extremely briefly as a bill collector, and played hostess at the Stage Door Canteen. She used to say that everyone should write a book, plant a tree, and conceive a child, and she wished people would do more planting and writing.
She summered on Martha’s Vineyard virtually her entire life, and made it the subject of her audio story-collections. She was for several decades the gracious hostess and fierce guardian of Windy Gates Beach in Chilmark. Anyone who crossed her bow or stole her wind knew her as a competitive, but never over-serious sailor. She first courted her husband of 36 years, Herbert Lipke, later Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, by dumping him overboard into Quitsa Pond when he came to visit her older brother.
Barbara was born to assimilated Jews in Cincinnati. Her mother was a physician, suffragette, and sometime employee of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; her father, Tom Stix, was one of the first agents for radio/TV newscasters and personalities, including Walter Cronkite and many of “Murrow’s boys,” and Eleanor Roosevelt.
She grew up in New York City, where she attended the Little Red Schoolhouse and High School of Music and Art. She used to say that Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the only man who ever reached up and patted her on the head. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, she followed her husband to Berkeley California, Urbana Illinois, Baltimore, London, and Newton. She became an accomplished cook and hostess, as well as an active supporter of progressive causes.
She loved creativity and carried on her father’s tradition as one of the brightest lights of Broadway, “on the paying side of the footlights.” She taught her four children her love of music, theatre, and narrative, reading many books, classic and modern, at the breakfast table “to keep them from fighting” before school.
Once the children were old enough, she took an M. Ed. at Goucher College and taught for 25 years. She could quell a staircase full of noisy students with a single glance. In the classroom, she developed techniques for her book “Figures, Facts and Fables, Telling Tales in Science and Math,” before “retiring” to a new career as professional story-teller.
She continued to inspire teachers and rail against bureaucracy, censorship, and dehumanized so-called “education reforms,” which, she said, replace classroom experience with theory and testing, and weaken public schools, and punish teachers to the advantage of the rich and conservative.
She especially enjoyed collecting and telling stories in many countries about the world’s diverse cultures. She was the second-ever recipient of Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill (a.k.a. “Brother Blue”) storytelling award, and once found that, upon soliciting and receiving the title of Visiting Lecturer (unpaid) at Oxbridge University on one of many business-and-pleasure trips overseas with her husband, that this was one of the highest academic titles in the British educational system.
In earlier years the family slept under canvas while sightseeing across Europe and the States in a Volkswagen Microbus. She tricked her children into competing to clean up after meals as quickly as possible. One of the last life-lessons she taught was to put them in charge of her affairs.
A result was that in her final days she was surrounded by all four of her loving children and their spouses, four of her seven grandchildren, several of her ten great-grandchildren and dozens of visitors. She’s also survived by many surrogate grandchildren and “adopted” international students from China, Latin America, and Scandinavia.
In later years she often told the tale of a family of poor woodcutters — parents, son, and a grandfather who was growing increasingly difficult to live with.
“The father was repairing his great wood-carrying basket (doko) to take the grandfather up the mountain to die, until his son spoke up: ‘Father, please take good care of the doko, so it’ll be in good shape when it comes time for me to take you.’ The father took the basket off his back, and they lived on together, with just a little more understanding, if not more peace.”
Barbara was seldom a burden, and always a blessing.
Send donations in her honor to WCAI, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, or Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, please. Remembrances in all media can be sent to RememberingBarbaraLipke@gmail.com. Memorial celebrations will be held in the Boston area next month, and on Martha’s Vineyard this summer.