I first met Bea Barron when I was a political reporter and she was selling ads for The Newton Times in the 1970’s. She was a longtime community activist who had worked for Newton Fair Housing, marched with Dr. King when he was in Boston, volunteered at the local NAACP headquarters and raised money for the civil rights struggle. She embraced the antiwar movement and rode buses to Washington, to sit in at Senate offices and protest at the Pentagon. As the oldest person to participate, she ministered to the young demonstrators when they were tear-gassed.
She would, in years to come, become my mother-in-law. But back then she was the grandmother figure in the Times newsroom, checking up on everyone’s emotional state, all the while working hard to get local shopkeepers to support the new anti-war paper challenging the establishment.
Bea Barron died peacefully at her home on Friday at the age of 95. An Emerson graduate, who loved theater, she became the first female speech therapist in the Massachusetts public schools, only to be fired after three years because she was about to be married. Public schools back then were only interested in employing spinsters.
A mother of three boys, she devoted herself to supporting her doctor husband and his absorption in his clinical practice and cancer research. She immersed herself as well in community causes. She served on the board of the Newton Cultural Affairs Commission, helping to start the Newton Arts Center. In her mid fifties, she tired of waiting for her husband to find time for foreign travel, so she set about doing it alone. It was frightening at first but exhilarating and set even freer her indomitable spirit. Afraid to drive on highways at home, she went off solo on many trips to Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, the Middle East and India. Family lore has it that she got lost once in Amsterdam, ended up in the red light district, and visited with some ladies of the night who took her back to her hotel. She acquired friends wherever she went.
Bea Barron had a horror of being like everyone else. A kind of Auntie Mame character, during the last decades of her life, she dressed mostly in clothing from India, her signature look. She had the exterior of the family’s Beethoven Avenue home painted a shocking raspberry, which faded into acceptability only after years of New England weather. Inside, the house was filled with books, newspapers, magazines, paintings, sculptures and objets d’art from her travels. In her late sixties, she bought an adult-sized tricycle with a huge wire basket for doing local errands, an idiosyncratic form of transportation that ended in near disaster when she improperly cornered at the intersection of Beacon Street.
Bea’s free spirit extended to her housekeeping talents and a general sense of disorder. Once, she wanted to darken the grasscloth wallpaper to better showcase the art and did it with diluted Yuban coffee. Her refrigerator was an archeological dig, with some items that could only be identified by carbon dating.
Her hospitality was legendary. Ring her door bell, the front door opens. Her first words weren’t even hello but “what can I give you to eat? Here, eat some more. You don’t like that? Try this. I’ll get you something else.” She wore you down until you gave in. Passovers at Bea’s in the old days said it all. They were totally inclusive and festive and included family, friends, friends’ friends, and occasional strays who had nowhere else to go for Seder.
The supply of food was especially endless on hot summer days at her pool, where the wonder was that no one drowned from having eaten so much before swimming. Among my most loving memories was Bea, in a floppy sun hat, creating a garden bed by the house for my son Daniel, then just 10 years old.
She was a stubborn woman, which may have been the key to her endurance to age 95. She leaves behind her three sons, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and people from around the world who speak of her indomitable spirit, abiding friendship, expansive hospitality and penchant for doing things her way.