One Classy Lady

By: Jane Weinke, curator of collections/registrar on November 11th, 2009

I fondly remember my first visit on a sunny spring day in 2003. I awoke in the Manhattan Sheraton Towers, the noise of the vibrant city filtering up to the room. While I am by no means a world traveler, I have been fortunate to visit many exotic cities, and by far New York is my favorite.

Kathy Foley and I got an early start, taking an 8am taxi to Penn Station to catch the Long Island train to Babylon. Riding the train is a special treat for me. As a lifelong resident of the Midwest, rail travel is not a normal mode of transportation, so I was eager for this journey. The hour-long trip passed quickly as Kathy and I chatted about the scenery and the impending visit to Virginia Eckbelberry.

Mrs. Eckelberry (as I always called her) was the wife of wildlife artist Don Richard Eckelberry, the connection that brought us together. Don died in 2001 and their artist friends, including many regular Birds in Art participants, encouraged her to seek assistance to preserve the body of Don’s work that remained in the house and studio. She invited Kathy and me to visit their residence and offer conservation assistance. We spent that first day getting acquainted, sharing a fabulous pasta Alfredo lunch Mrs. Eckelberry prepared (she was a gourmet cook), discussing Don’s artwork and options to preserve it, and getting a tour of Babylon.

I have many memories of our first meeting: the spritely woman who met us at the train, the stylish hat she wore, her huge smile, and what had to be the longest surviving Datsun sedan on earth. The vehicle looked to be in good repair though Mrs. Eckelberry did mention she believed it to be the oldest running “non-collector” car in Babylon. While the exterior was intact, years of Long Island dampness had taken a toll on the interior, which was riddled with mold and had an overpowering musty odor. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the roads in Babylon are narrow and winding, and I suspect Mrs. Eckelberry had a slight perception problem as we narrowly missed parked vehicles and curbs as we careened down the roadways. All priceless memories.

Happily, that was the first of many visits and, as I write this, I realize I could relate dozens of stories from our gatherings over the years. Mrs. Eckelberry was a pioneer in many ways: a 1937 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, a woman with a long and distinguished textile-design career, a world traveler, an accomplished artist, and a wife who supported her husband in his artistic endeavors. She and Don were instrumental in founding the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad. I could go on and on.

Sadly, Mrs. Eckelberry died on October 18th. With her passing comes the realization there will be no twice-yearly visits to Babylon, long lunches spent in wide-ranging conversation, pampering her cat Victoria as if she were my own, that this is truly the end of a fascinating period I doubt will ever be matched. But I trust Mrs. Eckelberry knows that Don’s work will be cared for and exhibited, that my memory of our time together is treasured, and our encounters made me a better person. My hope is that her many friends and admirers will come to think of the Woodson Art Museum as the new home of the Eckelberry treasures and be reassured they are safe and secure as well as loved and used.

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