Nancy P. Seiberling
1917 to 2015
Gardener, environmentalist, activist
Planter of trees, ideas and ideals
Champion of all things beautiful
Tribute from Grace Seiberling:
My mother died this morning about 6:30 [ 5 AM CT 01/12/2015 ]. She was 97 and had advanced Alzheimer's. We knew the end was coming because she had stopped eating or drinking on Friday.
My sister Angela was with her. She arrived about midnight and spent all night beside her, listening to her labored breathing. She said she was in a zone and talked to Mum, thanking her.
Her New England upbringing was always part of her identity and was present in the way she spoke. She was named for Nancy Pendleton, the wife of Phineas, one of our great-great-grandfathers who was a clipper ship captain sailing out of Searsport. We had a painting of his ship, the Nancy Pendleton.
She spent summers in Maine. She sailed with her uncles on the Black Jack and was scolded by her grandfather when she and friends made a funhouse in the garage. Later she went to camps that explored the wilderness. She loved Lake Superior because it was wild and because it had beautiful rocks like Maine, but no seaweed and no barnacles.
She went to Wellesley, graduating in 1939. Her family moved there from Winchester, so she and Aunt Becca could attend. A family friend helped with tuition. She majored in art history but Wellesley opened many other possibilities for her and she was a very loyal alumna. She saw Martha Graham, or maybe Doris Humphrey and was amazed. Thus began her life-long interest in modern dance. She made sure there were dance classes for children and took classes herself; in Iowa when there weren't any for adults she arranged to have classes given.
She talked about herself as a kind of wallflower and Aunt Becca as the glamorous one, but pictures of her make her look very attractive. She talked about going with a friend to dance all night to the strains of a big band, Benny Goodman, I think. She had enormous vitality.
Every anniversary my father told a different story of how they had met. “I was looking through a telescope on top of the Empire State Building and I saw the most beautiful woman ...” “I was in a submarine and looking through the periscope.” She was in fact hired by my father, who was at that time director of education at the Toledo Museum. She made it sound as if he took her under his wing and educated her about all sorts of cultural things, music especially. They were married in 1941.
She stayed at home with us while we were growing up. She surrounded the house with beautiful gardens. She fed us according to Adele Davis's dictates, which led to food that was not always delicious, although she was an excellent cook. Driving us to school she sang in the car with us.
She involved us in her art education projects, including murals, puppet making, and knitting, something that sparked long-term interests for us and our friends over the years.
When we moved to Iowa she did a lot of entertaining for my father, who was head of the Art School. She said when we were little it was totally absorbing for her. But when we had gone she came into her own as a Civic Volunteer, which she listed as her profession. She said her fifties were her best decade.
She made a difference in Iowa City. She and Gretchen Harshbarger formed Project GREEN (Grow to Reach Environmental Excellence Now). Gretchen was a trained landscape architect, but Mum was the spokesperson, persuader, and fund raiser. They began with plantings along one avenue, and then in other places, but ended up by getting people to think about the urban environment, approve a pedestrian mall, and pay attention to zoning issues. She received numerous awards.
After my father died she sold the house in the country and moved in town to the house they had bought for their retirement. She created a beautiful environment for herself and exercised by walking around the neighborhood.
For her 80th birthday we arranged with the City of Iowa City to have part of a park planted with native trees and designated “The Nancy Seiberling Heritage Grove.” She was delighted. “You've beaten me at my own game!”
When she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer's she arranged to have an organization called HomeSafe supervise her care. They progressively provided more and more help. When she no longer recognized her home, we moved her to a small facility where she was well cared for. She survived about fifteen years, which is longer than the average eight. She no longer recognized us during the past five years or so and was less and less responsive. But she talked to herself and seemed to be thinking through things in her past.
We were lucky that she was always cheerful and gracious in her decline. She would say “How nice to see you.” and “This is such a nice place.” I'm hoping that I'll get back the image I had of her in her younger days, as my memory of her in her later years fades, that image of a mother who was active and energetic and outspoken.