Deborah Whitney, 1918—2016

Courtesy of Dakota Whitney
PEOPLE: Deborah Whitney, a teacher and writer who summered in West Marin, played an important role in her grandchildren's lives. She died last month at age 98.  
04/14/2016

Deborah Whitney, the matriarch of an Inverness family who raised three children and embarked on a new teaching career after she was prematurely widowed, died on March 24 at age 98.

Deborah was gracious and graceful in manner, yet straightforward in advising family members during tough times. She was devoted to her family, but had a strong independent streak.

“She was very self-sufficient,” her grandson Xerxes said. “She took care of a lot of things, for others and herself.” 

Deborah was born in Evanston, Ill. in 1918, but her parents—a psychiatry professor and a housewife—moved to Berkeley when she was just six months old. She had a mostly quiet childhood in the East Bay with her siblings, Mary and Ted, though when she was 13, a boiler blew up in a house on fire in her neighborhood. The local kids had gathered to watch, and Deborah’s hand was badly burned, leaving scars and a lifelong fear of fires.

Her family spent summers on the coast, first in Bolinas and later in Inverness. Deborah hung out with other summer kids, often spending the day at Shell Beach, which at the time had lockers. Without a paved road, kids often went to the Launch for Hire, where Brock Schreiber ferried people to the pocket of beach. Other times they would just walk to Seahaven, at the time undeveloped pastureland.

She met her husband, James Whitney, who lived in Berkeley and counted Oscar Shafter as an ancestor, during one of those Inverness summers. (Like Deborah’s father, James became a psychiatrist.) The couple married in 1941, after she graduated from Radcliffe. 

With the help of an aunt who gave them a $10,000 wedding gift, they purchased property on Camino del Mar, where they built a cabin and a modest summer house on a bluff overlooking Tomales Bay.

In Berkeley, the couple had three children—Nick, Peter and Kathleen. They became involved in Democratic politics at a time when Berkeley was a Republican-controlled city. They worked to help women and minorities win elected office; James, who ran in a state assembly race, was involved in drafting a fair housing ordinance for the city.

Deborah was also well versed in progressive causes. Nick recalled a letter she wrote to him long ago about James coming around to her perspective on the Vietnam War. But Deborah’s children noted that it wasn’t until her husband died of a heart attack when she was just 48 that Deborah truly came in to her own.

“When my father was still alive, she was kind of overshadowed by him,” Kathleen said. “She didn’t really come into her own until a few years after he died. She adored him. But she didn’t really know who she was.”

In the second half of her life, Deborah spent many years teaching adult education and English as a second language at the Berkeley Adult School. She continued to travel, as she had done in earlier years, to places around the globe: Europe, China, Chile and Russia. She visited her daughter while Kathleen served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, even as a civil war was on the horizon, and the pair also went on safari in East Africa.

She loved to write, joining creative writing groups and publishing a book called “The House at Valley Falls: A Station on the Underground Railroad,” about her grandmother Elizabeth Buffum Chace’s time manning a stop in Rhode Island, helping black slaves reach safety. Deborah often brought her typewriter, one with a few electronic flourishes, to her Inverness house.

She also played an important role in the lives of her grandchildren, particularly Xerxes, who has cerebral palsy.

“She was really my inspiration—the most influential person in my life in my immediate family,” he said. “She was the first person to realize my difference.”

He said she paid for physical therapy and tennis lessons, the latter a passion that Xerxes has carried with him to this day: he coaches high school tennis in Windsor and teaches summer lessons there and in Inverness. She also paid for speech therapy when he was in college, which was instrumental in helping him deliver motivational speeches.

Family members said Deborah made sure to maintain relationships with all of her grandkids, even when troubles arose among the parents. “She was also a stabilizing force in the family. Me and the other grandkids, we could count on her when things got crazy,” Xerxes said.

Early on, the Inverness house had been James’s project, but Deborah continued to come each summer and the house became a gathering place on holidays and birthdays. “The sense of the family is enshrined in that Seahaven house,” Nick said. 

She spent her downtime at the beach, socializing with her many friends, solving the crossword in the San Francisco Chronicle and playing ping pong and Scrabble. She could get pretty competitive: sometimes during Scrabble she would make up words, daring Nick to challenge her.

But there was one key issue she wanted complete collaboration on: the family home, which is now owned held in a trust. “It’s to keep the legacy going here,” Nick said.

 

Deborah is survived by her children, Nick, Kathleen and Peter; her sister, Mary Kent; 10 grandchildren; and four great grandchildren. A memorial will be held in Oakland, at St. Paul's Towers, on April 17.