Jessica MacKinnon wrote a lovely tribute to Barbara Ballinger, my grandfather’s dear friend of many years (Rupert Wenzel). [Barbara Ballinger, 97, Oak Park library director, lover of poetry, News, Nov. 16]
Barbara’s wonderful niece, Beverly Jackson, gathered recollections from various Wenzels.

Elsa Wenzel

Barbara Ballinger, 1990, shelving, or unshelving, Ernie. | CREDIT: Historical Society OPRF

From Rupert Wenzel Jr., writing from Ingleside, Illinois:
There are so many stories about Barbara, and others can spin them much better than I.  Very briefly, I’ll relate the origin of how Barbara became the Wenzel’s Honorary Great-Grandmother.

The family had assembled in Maine for Karl and Kristen’s wedding. Dad and Barbara made the trip out for the celebration and I was at loss as to how to introduce Barbara. She was so much more than Dad’s “friend” and I wanted her to be recognized as part of our family. After a number of introductions, I jokingly made an aside — that she was our Honorary Grandmother. Barbara heard that, looked at me, and I could see a twinkle in her eye. She was pleased with the appellation, but she took it one step further and announced to the next person we met, she was the Honorary Great-Grandmother of the Wenzel Family.  

From Elsa Wenzel, granddaughter of Rupert Wenzel Sr., writing from Evanston, Illinois:
It is the end of an era for our family. I’m at a loss.

Barbara decided she wanted to be known as “honorary great-grandmother,” so she signed books to our children “HGGM.” Our oldest, Lilah, preferred to call Barbara by her first name and spelled out her full name on homemade cards. Lilah, who recalls sitting on Barbara’s lap in her office and together poring over the collection of blue ink pens, last week used a blue ink pen to sketch a page of blue-and-white flowers that my dad and I gave Barbara on Friday. “Hi to Lilah,” Barbara said. She always asked about Lilah’s siblings, Charlie, who visited recently, and Rosie too.

Barbara and my grandfather Rupert Wenzel were simpatico. They shared a love of music, literature and art. They loved the community of Oak Park and gave so much back to it. After he passed away, she made a point of walking me and other family members to trees that had been planted in honor of him and my grandmother, Mary Wenzel. Barbara has her own location. Several weeks ago she told me she had admired the way he took care of Mary. We also admired the way Barbara took care of Rupert, even at his last breath.

It goes without saying that Barbara was inquisitive, a voracious reader with an enviably sharp memory. I realized recently that I had not learned much about her life before she teamed up with my grandpa, partly because she kept us on our toes answering her questions about our lives. Even as her short-term memory sometimes failed in recent years, she recited poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Billy Collins and Richard Wilbur. When my dad and I last saw her three days ago, it was the only time she did not recite a poem.

I admired how Barbara maintained friendships with people of all ages and walks of life. She listened. She did not complain often, except when people broke rules of grammar or otherwise exhibited poor taste.

She graciously hosted many family holidays for the Wenzels.

Years ago, Barbara made it known how much she desired to see a pileated woodpecker. Around that time, my dad and I stumbled across one of the huge “Good God” birds flying out of a cluster of trees near the Mississippi River in Keithsburg, Illinois. When we reported that to her, Barbara freely expressed her envy.

George and I will toast Barbara with gewurtztraminer for the lack of Pinot Grigio tonight. Recently Barbara shared Pinot Grigio with me, my mom and their friend Jim, who enjoyed attending operas at the Lyric with her.

I hope to honor Barbara by keeping her kind spirit and memory alive in my children, and seeking to give back to our community. I was privileged to consider her an “honorary grandmother.”

From Judith Wenzel, daughter of Rupert Wenzel Sr., writing from Owl’s Head, Maine:
We have so many happy memories of Barbara. When she would visit us in Maine with Dad, she was very enthusiastic about the wildlife, particularly the loons and pileated woodpeckers. We managed to find her some loons on a quiet pond, but the pileated woodpecker that normally came around to our house every day, absolutely refused to show. We asked friends if they had any on their properties, kept watch daily — and 10 minutes after she and Dad left for the airport, Woody woodpecker started packing at the stump!

Barbara’s love of music, shared with Dad, brought both such joy. What we loved so much about Barbara was her questioning mind; everything was interesting to her. She was passionate about Billy Collins. For her 90th birthday, I wrote Mr. Collins and asked if he could possibly acknowledge her birthday. He did — with a wonderful note.

Barbara was my dad’s closest friend to his death. He adored her.

From Caron Wenzel, wife of Stephen Wenzel (younger son of Rupert Wenzel Sr.), writing from Woodstock, Illinois:
Sharing recollections of Barbara at this time is especially important. It goes without saying that Barbara was an amazing women and adopted Grandmother-in-law. Two particular memories that come to mind. One fun time that was personal with Barbara, it that she assisted me with a nature-based English class for teachers. She taught the poetry section (naturally).  Of course it was excellent and played to rave reviews!

The other memorial moment happened when we were in San Francisco for our niece, Elsa’s wedding. We traveled with Barbara on the same flight and got here through TSA metal detectors without too much trauma. This was followed by a day of sight-seeing in San Francisco, We were in Chinatown during the Lunar New Year celebrations. It was like stepping into another country with dragons, food and Luck Money with hoards of people up and down hilly pavement. As it also happened, the famous City Lights bookstore is just around the corner from Chinatown. Barbara made a beeline to the poetry section and was there for two hours communing with shelves of Beat Generation Poets and the classics. An exciting time was had by all. This all goes without saying that she brought an incredible amount of love, culture, and quality of life to the Wenzel clan. We love you, Barbara!

From Dori Jacobson-Wenzel, Elsa Wenzel’s mother:
Barbara Ballinger was a gracious, noble, intelligent, well-read, and hard-working individual. She loved Oak Park as her home and loved the Oak Park Public Library, the Hemingway house, Lyric Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music, books and ideas.

Barbara and Grandpa (Rupert) Wenzel became partners and shared many events and ideas when Barbara became “honorary grandmother” after Mary Wenzel passed away. Together Barbara and Rupert Wenzel shared friendships, commitment to Oak Park’s politics, social justice issues, and culture.

Meeting Barbara at the opera was a special pleasure for me, as Barbara knew the opera scores, the arias, and recognized and sang her favorites. Plus, we always enjoyed a cocktail or glass of wine and dessert at intermission or post-opera.

Graciousness, knowledge, intelligence and respect for others were Barbara’s “calling cards.” The love of her Oak Park poetry meetings and recitation of favorite authors, such as Gerald Manley Hopkins and Billy Collins, showed her brilliance and her love of poetry, literature and ideas. In her condo she organized a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, so friends in the condo could discuss ideas and share companionship.

We were privileged to know and love Barbara, to enjoy operas and music and birthday luncheons and family dinners.

Barbara Ballinger is a true friend and inspiration to all. She will be sorely missed and fondly remembered.

Join the discussion on social media!