Force of nature, activist, columnist, author, mother of five, grandmother of 11, super-fan to all of those she loved and the causes she championed, Barbara Mullarkey passed away at 84 years young. She died peacefully at our family home on our beloved Elmwood Avenue on Wednesday night, April 15, with her children near.
Barb left behind a loving family, an impressive advocacy resume and a hell of a lot of stuff! She was a researcher, antiquer, collector and saver. She left behind a house full of memories, treasures and more files and boxes of paper than fathomable. Her three daughters and two sons have been digging our way through her amazingly colorful life for months. I feel this may be payback for the five of us never cleaning our rooms!
As we have been going through her files and boxes, we’ve found causes even we forgot about: Fighting to close down the West Side incinerator that was putting carcinogens into the air; working against what she said was the microwaving of our world with cell towers and 5G; prison food reform; advocating for the rights of displaced American Indians; fighting against harmful pesticides in order to keep lawns and parks safe for families and pets; planting the first HOPP tree in her front yard (Historic Oak Propagation Project).
But food and, most importantly, ingredients in the things we put into our bodies held a large part of her focus. A vivid memory from childhood is happy-go-lucky kids eating Twinkies and Ho Ho’s, which changed to all five of us sitting in the aisles at Pan’s Grocery Store reading the ingredients on our favorite cereal boxes and if we couldn’t pronounce it, we couldn’t have it! I think I was 9 and pronouncing mono-sodium glutemate was tricky. Well, no Fruit Loops for me.
As children, we had a bumpy food journey as our mom the nutritionist evolved. Wonder Bread was out, rice cakes were in. The Mullarkey house was no longer our friends’ desired destination for good snacks when Mom the health food nut was born. She practiced what she preached, triggering lots of people along the way by questioning what they were feeding their families.
How dairy or too much sugar or too many additives or preservatives or food coloring caused health issues. Some of you reading this are thinking, “Well everyone knows this!” But in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, this was controversial and Mom was light years ahead of her time. These were lightning-rod issues. Readers got angry, letters were sent to the paper and people called her names. Now these ideas are facts and they are mainstream. Thanks, Barb … you were right.
Wednesday Journal held a special place in her heart as she was one of the young upstarts who had a hand in its beginning in 1980. The Journal was home to her column “Nutrition and You” for 15 years and her place to get her message out. Even after she stopped writing her column, she would send letters to Viewpoints. We still have people tell us that they loved her column. It opened people’s eyes to new ideas. It made people question their choices and options.
Mom found her calling and voice in nutrition first with the Oak Park News and then the Journal, followed by Conscious Choice and the Vegetarian Times. She loved to write. She loved to educate and spread awareness. She loved to enlighten and wasn’t afraid to challenge people of differing views. If she had a dollar for every apology she has gotten over the years and the phrase, “Sorry, Barbara, you were right,” she would’ve been a rich woman!
Her intent was always to help and spread awareness about harmful ingredients in our food supply and also in medicines. She lost a beloved 14-year-old nephew, Tim Carpenter, to Reye Syndrome as doctors didn’t know back then that you shouldn’t give children with this disease aspirin. She always questioned everything after his loss and never blindly accepted. She would constantly tell us that at any time in history the experts were wrong.
Mom has tried for decades to get aspartame removed from food products and even wrote a book about it. She talked of the harm from Teflon and chemicals seeping into the food cooked on it. Her demonstrations for school children and our sports teams about the weakening effects of sugars and about showing us that Coca-Cola can remove rust from nails: “What is that doing to your insides?” she’d say.
We have boxes of letters from the leaders of our country whom she contacted trying to improve people’s lives by making food and the world around us better and safer. She had no fear. She poked the giants. She kept close tabs on all things Oak Park and butted heads with many a trustee, village president and village manager. She called our town “Oaky Parky” and she loved it. She always had the best of intentions. She stuck up for the little guy. She watched out for others. She was always trying to help. She tried to right wrongs.
How she dedicated all this time to doing so much good is a mystery as she was also a tireless supporter of her five children and 11 grandchildren’s schools and activities: Ascension, St Luke, Lincoln (RF), Roosevelt School and WSSRA.
She always had a special affinity for OPRF High School and their sports programs for over 40 years. Her keeping of Huskies stats was legendary. Her pride and joy in those she loved was epic.
We will have a celebration of her life as soon as this pandemic allows us. In the meantime, maybe we’ll meet at a distance at the rocket ship or in her Prairie Garden. It’s been a daunting task to sum up the amazing life of Barbara Alexander Mullarkey!
Our family lost our matriarch and Oak Park lost a staunch advocate for health and wellness — a woman who was a true trailblazer and someone way ahead of her time. Thanks, Mom, for always fighting the good fight. Your spirit, your drive, your insights, your support and your love are terribly missed. We will continue your legacy and will take great care of your lucky 11.
Karen Mullarkey Kerrins is a resident of Oak Park.