Gretchen Van Tassel Shaw died on Tuesday, January 11 (1/11/11), at her home in Brunswick, Maine, just weeks short of her 93rd birthday, with her three children and her cat Katydid nearby.
Gretchen was born on February 4, 1918 in New York, daughter of Chester Burrows Van Tassel and Alma Ruth Bogue Van Tassel. She spent her childhood in Scarsdale, New York, and graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1935. She graduated with a B.A. from Bennington College in 1939, where she studied architecture, design, and photography, and was a member of the college’s fourth graduating class.
During World War II she worked at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., making drawings of patents and top-secret sonar and radar equipment. She was one of two women in the drafting room, and recollected her supervisor’s concern that they might distract the men from their work.
Her next job was for the War Relocation Authority, which oversaw the creation of internment centers for Japanese-American citizens during World War II. In her job as a visual information specialist, Gretchen was responsible for the photo files, and also photographed families who had been relocated in the east coast of the United States. Other photographers who did work for the WRA included Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.
Prior to her death, Gretchen was the only surviving photographer from the WRA. After a stint working for the National Housing Agency in the graphics department, she worked as a freelance photographer, including doing assignments for Mademoiselle magazine. During a summer in Europe she did work for the World Bank, photographing steel mills, tankers, and other projects it funded.
She was married in 1950 in Scarsdale to David Shaw, an architect and graduate of MIT. They first met in Boston when Gretchen’s sister Katrina and her husband, Tom Wuerth, introduced them to one another. The newly married couple first lived in Georgetown, and then in a tiny cottage on the Gordon Strong estate in rural Dickerson, Maryland. Their rent was free, Gretchen said, in exchange for a wave as the owner took his daily drive. Their first child, Alison, was born while they lived in Dickerson. From there they moved into a brownstone in Georgetown where Stephen and Michael were born, and then to a big brick house in Kensington, Maryland, where they raised their three children.
Gretchen threw herself into everything she did with energy and grace — being a loyal and loving mom and wife, gardening, cooking, sewing, ceramics, art, and photography. She had a passion for the natural world, women’s rights, and political activism.
The family spent most weekends from May until November on their sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. Although David was the skipper, Gretchen was quite a sailor in her own right, having crewed at one time for women’s national sailing champion Virginia Weston Besse.
For many summers beginning in the 1930s, Gretchen spent time on Martha’s Vineyard, where her parents ultimately retired in the early 1950s. David, Gretchen and their children loved the time spent together at her parents’ antique cape home on South Water Street in Edgartown, and at “Pinkletink,” a cottage on Dunham Road. Their annual vacations on the Island were filled with days swimming and sunning at the Chappaquiddick Beach Club, sailing, fishing from the town wharf, enjoying afternoon tea, picking raspberries, and picnicking on the beach beneath the cliffs at Gay Head.
Gretchen’s younger sister Katrina’s in-laws, Gustav and Elsie Wuerth, also lived in Edgartown. There was never a shortage of family from four generations, who all loved the Island. Gretchen’s brother Peter eventually inherited the South Water Street house, where he still lives today.
Gretchen always loved to travel. Her most memorable trip was with her husband and three children in 1969. They went on a six-week, eight-country European tour that began with a voyage on the grand ocean liner SS France, and included such memorable moments as eating escargots in Paris, watching the moon landing on TV at a B&B in Amsterdam, rubbing elbows with the prince of Lichtenstein during lunch at a local restaurant, and exploring the Isle of Skye, after which the family sailboat had been named.
In the 1970s, once her children were old enough, she went to work for the National Park Service in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where she ran the bookstore at the nature center. After her retirement in 1980, she and David moved to Brunswick, where she was active as a volunteer for the Maine Maritime Museum, at the Bowdoin Museum of Art and Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum, with Literacy Volunteers, and as a Master Gardener with the Co-operative Extension Service.
Gretchen was a life-long learner, and took advantage of the opportunity to take classes at Bowdoin College. For Gretchen and David, retirement was not a time to while away their years, but rather an opportunity to embrace a very engaged and active chapter of their lives. They never considered retiring south to a warmer climate, but instead chose the challenge of Maine winters. They relished long adventurous cruises onboard Skye, exploring the rocky Maine coast on foot, winter excursions on cross-country skis, and the job of maintaining the big old farmhouse, barn, and three acres of land on Adams Road. They also cared for a succession of beloved cats, including Willy, who ate ice cream every night and had the girth to show for it.
In the mid-90s, David was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, beginning another, more difficult part of their lives together. Gretchen lovingly cared for him throughout his decline. One of her ultimate strengths was that she accepted what life brought her, and handled each challenge with honesty and grace.
Gretchen was pre-deceased by her husband David, who died in 2005, and her sister Katrina Wuerth, who died in 2004. She is survived by her three children, Alison of Oak Bluffs, Stephen of Brunswick, Maine, and Michael of San Rafael, California; Alison’s spouse, Sue Dawson, and Michael’s spouse, Karen Shaw; grandchildren Isobel and Maria Shaw, and Sarah and Jesse Dawson (who all called her “Grandma Gretchen”); and her brother, Peter B. Van Tassel of Edgartown.
A memorial service and celebration of Gretchen’s life is planned for Sunday, February 6, at 2 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Pleasant Street in Brunswick, Maine. There will be an “afternoon tea” reception in the parish hall following the service. Donations in Gretchen’s name can be made to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, P.O. Box 808, Newark, NJ 07101-0808.