Joan Veit Siddle, a woman of courage, 1930 – 2011

08/11/2011

Joan Veit Siddle, who passed away on July 27, in Point Reyes Station, was a woman of singular determination and intelligence. She traveled the world onboard cramped freighters through pirate-infested waters, raised her children in the Indonesian jungle for five years, caused a highly publicized controversy when she assigned The Color Purple to her students and became an atheist and self-proclaimed communist at a time when most Americans shunned and feared people of such inclinations. She was 81. 

“She didn’t suffer fools gladly,” said Joan’s husband, Stanley Siddle. “She was very intelligent, and put great store in other peoples’ intelligence. She had a very keen mind and a very good personality. She was a New Yorker, born and bred. She was very direct; brazen at times. Joan was no peaches and cream, let’s put it that way.”

Joan was born August 9, 1930 on Long Island to Isabel Flynn and Joseph Veit. Joseph was a probate lawyer, and Isabel was an artist and poet. Joan and her siblings, Betse, Edith and Joseph, would spend hot New England summers on Nantucket. During the academic year, Joan was a star pupil at Dominican Academy, in Manhattan. “She loved school. She was good at it, and enjoyed it a lot,” said her daughter, Edith “Mimi” Lavin. “She had a good memory, and was very quick.”

Joan largely came into her own during her time at Queens College, where she studied English literature. Immersed in the progressive, intellectual community of New York, Joan became a communist. “She would have fearful, towering fights with her father about politics, capitalism, what’s fair and what’s not,” Mimi said. “But she wasn’t a hippie and she wasn’t a beatnik. She [just] had a pretty firm sense of where she stood on issues…. She described herself as a communist until she was no longer able to talk.” For a time, Joan edited the satirical student publication, The Queen’s Garter.

After graduating in 1951, Joan met her first husband, Gerald Lavin, under dubious circumstances. “My father’s brother, Richard, met her over a bridge table. He thought she was cute and got her home number,” Mimi said. “He brought it home and said, ‘Hey, I met a cute gal.’ My dad took the number and called her up, pretending that he had met her over a bridge table, and managed to get a date.”

Gerald had briefly served in the United States Navy—“for about two seconds,” Mimi said—at the end of the Second World War. He went back to school and earned a Masters Degree in education, and became a teacher for the New York City School District.  Joan and Gerald were married at City Hall in Flushing, New York in 1951.

When Joan’s daughters, Mimi and Nancy, were born, Joan began to itch for adventure. She found a classified ad soliciting teachers for a Caltex Oil employee compound in Indonesia, on the island of Java, and convinced Gerald to take a position teaching the children of expatriated oil employees. “She loved it there,” Mimi said. “She loved that it was exotic, she loved the people, she loved the art; she learned Indonesian cooking and [the language].” One of Joan’s fondest memories, Mimi said, was waking to the sounds of gibbon monkeys whooping in the jungle.

In 1963, Indonesia succumbed to a nationalistic, anti-Western fervor. When Sukarno—the politician who exchanged the country’s parliamentary system for an authoritarian “guided democracy”—was elected “President-for-life,” it became clear it was time to go home. Joan and her children made the long voyage back to New York on the freighter, The Steel Apprentice.

Back in the United States, Joan and Gerald grew apart, and had a cordial divorce. Joan earned her teaching credential, got a position teaching junior high school, and took frequent trips to Europe. “She taught herself Greek, and later taught herself Spanish,” Mimi said.

Joan also became fluent in French. She studied the classic texts of Herodotus, Plato, Aristophanes and the other great Greek writers and philosophers, and made several trips to the Mediterranean. “She loved the whitewashed villages on the Aegean, the people, the Cretan vases, ruins and statues,” Mimi said. Joan also had more time to write poetry, which she collected into a book, Better than Day, in 2005, while living in Inverness.

Joan moved to Berkeley in 1972 and earned a Masters Degree in English Literature from the University of San Francisco; her thesis was on Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster. She became a public school teacher in Oakland, where she was exceedingly popular with her predominantly African American students. “She had a lot of verve and humor, but she had high expectations,” Mimi said. Joan also helped many students get into college throughout her tenure.

Controversy arose when Joan assigned Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Color Purple, to her students. One parent objected to Walker’s use of profanity, sexual subject manner, and the use of “Southern black dialect,” and led a crusade against the book being taught in Joan’s school.

But Joan’s students rallied to her defense. “I don’t think any parents should be able to stop other students from reading books,” said Valerie Williams, a 15-year-old student, in the Oakland Tribune. “Nobody likes a sugar-coated book. I want it to be told to me like it is,” said Letticia Buggs, another student. Fortunately, the committee assigned to investigate the case agreed, and the book remained on the syllabus.

Joan met Stanley, a successful businessman, over a game of bridge in Corte Madera. “He was smart, he was well informed, he was funny and he loved her,” Mimi said. They dated for several years, and were married in Nantucket in 1988.

In 1986, Joan opted for early retirement. “She enjoyed her teaching, but she wanted to do more, travel more, live in other countries again,” Mimi said. Joan and Stanley began taking passage on freighter ships to exotic ports-of-harbor around the world. “She was very keen on doing the freighter trips,” Stanley said. “She much preferred to be on her own, and wasn’t very interested in big mammoth cruise ships. At times we were the only passengers on the boat—just you and the crew.”

Joan and Stanley took freighters all around the Mediterranean, from New Zealand to Bangkok and Singapore, to the Caribbean and down the coast of South America. Once they took a freighter from the Bahamas to South America—a 56-day voyage. “That was a long one,” Stanley said.

During their adventures, Joan and Stanley faced bad storms and, on several occasions, pirate-infested waters. “Our captain’s method was, when pirates come up to the stern and throw their grappling hooks to climb up, he would turn on all the hoses on the boat, and the deck would be awash with water. There was a boat attacked in the vicinity while we were there. The captain was very jumpy. Everybody was on watch.” Joan was unfazed by the idea of pirate attacks. “She was probably reading something down in the cabin. She wasn’t that interested,” Stanley said.

The couple enjoyed long, six-month stays in England and two trips to Egypt. “She was fascinated by Egypt, as many people are,” Stanley said. “We were entertained by Egyptian families, who showed us things the average tourist wouldn’t see; the inside of the Egyptian way of life.”

In 1998, Joan and Stanley moved to Inverness. “She became a part of [Inverness’] rich cultural scene, devoting her time to arts and musical endeavors, as well as playing a heck of a lot of bridge” said Joan’s daughter, Nancy. “She loved it here. How could she not?” Mimi said. “She loved opening her eyes on this scenery. She loved the people that she met out here. She never felt cut off.” Joan met many friends in West Marin, with whom she would adventure to the Mojave Desert and the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon.

“She really installed herself in Inverness and Point Reyes Station,” Mimi said. Joan was active in the West Marin Music Festival and was a docent for the Bolinas Museum and Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History, in Inverness.

Joan was diagnosed with frontotemporal lobe dementia in 2006. “[She] continued to write every day—letters, poems and journals—as long as she was able,” Nancy said. Even though she was losing her memories, Joan used humor to mask her handicap. “She compensated by humor, which made it possible for her to function for a long time after she started having trouble placing words,” Mimi said.

In 2009, Joan moved to Stockstill House, where she lived until her death. In a final act of compassion, Joan donated her brain to the neurodegenerative disease research unit at the University of California, San Francisco.

 

Joan Veit Siddle is survived by her husband, Stanley; daughters, Mimi and Nancy; and grandchildren, Charlotte, Oscar and Theo. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to West Marin Senior Services.