Above: with author and poet José Oliverez and Jim Madigan | Photo by Tina Harle

Although she initially considered Oak Park to be only a temporary waystation in her life, Barbara Ballinger stayed for more than 60 years, becoming a vital fixture in our community and playing leading roles in the library, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, First United Church of Oak Park, the Doris Humphrey Society and several other nonprofit organizations. Barbara, 97, died on Monday, Nov. 14, at The British Home, where she was receiving hospice care after a fall this summer.

Barbara was a well-deserved recipient of the Senior Citizens’ Center of Oak Park-River Forest’s 2017 Ulysses Award, which honors seniors committed to lifelong learning and who have made significant contributions to the community.

“It would be easier to list the things that Barbara was not involved in than those in which she was,” said Rev. John Edgerton, lead pastor at First United Church of Oak Park, where Barbara participated in pastoral visits to members, the social justice committee, the buildings and grounds committee and a Brookdale fellowship group which continued to meet online throughout the pandemic.

(2017) with author and poet Jane Hirschfield | Tina Harle

Born in 1925 in Miami, Oklahoma, Barbara began her library career with the Oklahoma City Public Library. After graduating from the University of Kansas, she drove the Topeka Public Library’s bookmobile, for which she earned her chauffeur’s license. She received her master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois and landed a job in 1958 as the assistant director of Oak Park Public Library’s Maze branch. She served as director of Oak Park’s library system for 32 years before retiring in 1991.

“Barbara was a grand woman, who led the library during a period of tension and change, guided by the principle that public libraries are for all. She was an outstanding public servant, committed to literature, education and Oak Park history,” said Jim Madigan, former assistant director of the library.

Rick Ashton, a friend and former librarian, credits Barbara with spearheading the collaboration between west suburban libraries in the 1970s and 1980s. She was committed to breaking down barriers between libraries and, according to Ashton, is largely responsible for the current SWAN network that allows for the seamless distribution of materials throughout the suburbs.

Sharing a July 21 birthday with Oak Park’s famous native son, Ernest Hemingway, Barbara was a dedicated volunteer with the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. She helped create the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Archives, now housed at Oak Park’s Main Library, which includes translations of many of his works as well as a check for $100 that Hemingway intended to cover any outstanding fines.

The Friends of the Oak Park Library honored Barbara’s many contributions with the creation of the annual Barbara Ballinger Lecture, which has featured notable authors, including Natalie Moore, Claire Lombardo, Alex Kotlowitz and Louise Erdrich.

Barbara was a voracious reader and belonged to several local book clubs.

“She was a wonderful, loyal contributor to our book club for almost 40 years,” said Doris Angell. “She talked us into reading all sorts of books we might not have been inclined to read, like the multi-volume Swann’s Way and Mediations by Marcus Aurelius. She enjoyed a literary challenge and, consequently, we didn’t read junk.”

Angell, and several others who knew Barbara well, remarked on her love of poetry, particularly by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“She would open our meetings with a poem by Hopkins. She would get a look of sheer joy on her face when she recited poetry, which she did by heart. She was just in seventh heaven,” said Angell.

“What we loved about Barbara was her questioning mind — everything was interesting to her,” said Judy Wenzel, the daughter of Barbara’s great, close friend, the late Rupert Wenzel.

Caron Wenzel recalls visiting San Francisco for a family wedding and following Barbara as she made a beeline into the famous City Lights bookstore, where she spent two hours perusing the shelves and communing with the classics and books by Beat poets.

Barbara made a particularly strong impression on Beverly Jackson, the widow of Barbara’s nephew, Mark Weitzenhoffer.

“I used to tell people that I wanted to be just like Aunt Barbara when I grew up. I admired that she was free to do what she wanted to do, unencumbered by others’ needs. She had the ability to graciously get what she wanted from people. She just expected that you would respond positively because it was the right thing to do. In the family, we affectionately referred to that as being ‘Aunt Barbaraed’,” Jackson said.

Besides her love of literature and poetry, Barbara was devoted to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as one of its longest subscribers; the Lyric Opera, particularly Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle; and the summer Ravinia Festival. Her great-nephew, David Weitzenhoffer, fondly recalls accompanying Barbara to see James Levine’s return to the CSO at Ravinia in 2016.

“We braved a torrential downpour and flooded roads and got soaked getting from the parking lot to our seats. But you could not have found a happier woman anywhere in Chicago, seeing the CSO present a marvelous performance of Mahler under Levine,” he said.

Barbara will indeed be missed by her family, many friends, and the Oak Park residents who continue to benefit from the nonprofits she helped thrive. “In the Jewish faith, we say when someone dies, ‘may they live in blessed memory.’ That is a true comfort now,” said Angell.

Barbara’s family plans to hold a memorial service in the near future. According to Barbara’s wishes, the service will be a concert, free and open to the public. Not surprisingly, she also requested the reading of a special poem.

In this oral history, Barbara shares about her life growing up and her experiences at the library. Click the link below to listen.


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