Eulogy for Nancy Chappelear Baird
Nancy Chappelear Baird, who was born on November 25, 1918 and died this past Sunday morning, was surely the most intelligent, funny and compassionate gadfly to grace this area in the last hundred years. She was a scrooge to herself who lavished money on institutions, a traditionalist who embraced the future, a childless woman who adopted entire communities.
Nancy came by her individualism naturally. Though her mother, Nannie Binford had been born in Richmond near the end of the nineteenth century, she taught Nancy at a young age that the great tragedy of the South was not that the Civil War ended badly but that segregation continued unabated. Her father, George Warren Chappelear, was a true Renaissance man - a brilliant historian and dedicated biology professor who sheared his own sheep from which he spun wool to knit his own sweaters. Both parents were highly principled and taught by example. Dr. Chappelear threatened to resign as head of the Harrisonburg Masonic Lodge when a Jewish man was refused membership; the decision was immediately reversed. The Chappelears became members of the Harrisonburg Methodist church where both Nancy and her younger sister Georgina starred as Sunday school pupils. Even so, immediately after the Methodist Bishop of Virginia issued a letter read from every parish pulpit condemning the 1928 presidential candidacy of the Catholic Al Smith, the entire family walked out, joined the Episcopal Church and recruited others to do the same.
Nancy learned early in life that by persevering she could overcome and even thrive with significant physical handicaps. Her outwardly turned leg prevented her from running so she became a lifelong swimmer. When poor eyesight ended her dreams of being an architectural engineer, she schooled herself to become a brilliant mathematician. My wife’s father, Cdr. Samuel Curling, was a personnel specialist in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He knew of Nancy’s work for the Navy during World War II, referred to her as a genius, and said if she had been a man the Navy would certainly have awarded her a commission and made her an Admiral. One caveat here, though; Sam and Nancy formed a mutual admiration society of sorts. Sam loved to tell the same jokes and Nancy loved to hear them. Their hands down favorite was, “ Which two groups make up the only native Virginians in Middleburg? Why the stable hands and the horses, of course!”
Though never a mother herself, Nancy delighted in the company of children and became especially close to Diane’s family and the son and daughters of her good friend Thelma, to whom she was always “Aunt Nancy.” She treated each to swimming lessons, cooking classes, movie passes and at an early age, tickets to the National Theater. To them Nancy was an independent, even exotic role model who had a sophisticated downtown apartment and traveled the world with friends. To our own children she was a third grandmother for whom they could do no wrong. Very early on we learned we had to be careful how we presented their accomplishments. Twenty years ago, fully believing we were the perfect parents raising the perfect three year old, Diane boasted in a letter to Nancy about Genevieve’s mature behavior. As Diane and Genevieve browsed through a mall department store, our daughter had picked up and cradled an outrageously priced $40 display bear, announcing, “Mom, this is a nice bear; this is a nice, nice bear.” Genevieve held tightly to the teddy for another ten minutes, but when told it was time to leave, she miraculously patted his head and returned him to the shelf! Not three days later we received a card from Nancy saying she believed that if a gift could make a child especially happy, she should be rewarded with it. Nancy enclosed a check, not for $40, but for $42, so that the sales tax would be covered. (Today Albert Bear is still a cherished member of the family.) Never one to play favorites, Nancy saved each of David’s elementary school drawings, convinced he’d be famous in the near future. A few years later she gushed appreciation for his bleached blonde hair, telling him it was the perfect accompaniment to his earring.
Nancy’s willingness to embrace the ever changing whims of fashion in no way undermined her deep, abiding love and commitment to the teaching, even the preaching, of history. Diane sometimes likes to simultaneously exaggerate and poke fun at her own southern background, and once when handed a new, just debuted large-face Lincoln dollar bill, Diane jokingly nudged Nancy and asked if didn’t she agree that its likeness should be banned from the homeland of Jackson and Lee. “I most certainly do not,” Nancy loudly admonished. “I like Lincoln. His mother Nancy Hanks was born just over the mountain and his grandmother, Lucy Hanks came with her parents from the eastern part of the state in the 1780s.” You can bet Lincoln jokes immediately disappeared from Diane’s repertoire! An observation made during another visit brought more approval, however. In speaking of how she herself had lost touch with the times, Diane wondered aloud why so many couples were able to make the commitment to stay together after the birth of a child, share floor walking and diaper changing duties, but refuse to marry. “Oh I know what you mean,” Nancy agreed. “Plus, when the poor baby girls grow up, they’ll never be admitted to the DAR!!!”
Probably the most cherished Nancy stories, though, relate to her soaring wit, boundless energy, relentless good humor and unabashed candor. How can one possibly do justice to those uniquely typed, endearingly phrased, 8 1/2 x 11 bi-monthly epistles that appeared in the mail box of everyone in her address book? A virtually unedited segment of a favorite from September of last year illustrates how Nancy quite literally managed to put even the most unexpected “down time” to good use:
“I am unstable on my feet. I fell getting undressed and it took Al and me a half hour to get me up. Then while he was out I slipped getting onto my bed, hit my shoulder on the closet wall and my right hip on the floor. I could tell I had not broken a bone. After sliding around to the phone, I called downstairs for someone to help me get up, but they said no one here can touch you. I phoned Dr. Whitehead’s office to tell them that I had fallen and not broken anything. He said I did not need to go to the hospital. I called a friend and she told me that her husband used to fall and she had to call 911 to come and get him up. So I did that and the rescue squad got me up in no time. I had been on the floor 1 1/2 hours reading the paper.”
Nancy and Diane’s all time favorite mode of communication was by telephone. Nancy was thoroughly aware of the myriad of issues involved in charitable giving, and loved to vent and guffaw at the same time. The phone would ring, and Nancy would immediately launch into, “Well, here’s the latest!” Often there would follow an absolutely scathing yet simultaneously hilarious rendition of an encounter with some pompous self-promoter or other. First runner up:
“Now doesn’t this just get you? You know how I gave close to ten percent of my entire net worth last year to (Nameless Guilty University) to get their book on the Valley published. Well, I’ve told them repeatedly that it was just a one-time thing, but they keep coming at you. Today they sent me a proposal for a speaker’s forum to bring in the likes of Tom Brokaw that I couldn’t afford even if I sold every last stick of furniture! And believe you me, I know just which genius over there thought I’d spring for a parade of glamour boys coming down here from New York!
And Diane’s all time favorite:
“Wait ‘til you hear the latest! I just got a call from the Rockingham County United Way saying they wanted to give me an award for being their largest donor this year, and I only gave them $5,000!!! Can you believe that with all the chicken and turkey multi-millionaires running loose around here that they can’t do any better that that? And I’ll tell you something else, I know why the local doctors and lawyers are saying they’re too poor to do anything helpful now and it has nothing to do with the stock market. The country club is planning this big renovation and the poor darlings just got their new assessments!
Diane once asked Nancy if she believed in Heaven, and she said no, not in the traditional sense; she believed that we are each responsible for making a Heaven here on earth for those around us by doing the best that we can. That concept always included accepting situations as they are while continuing to move forward in life. I hope you’ll allow me to relate one more story. A number of years ago Nancy invited us to a lovely sit down dinner at her home here in Delaplane with several other guests, and it was obvious she had spent the whole morning cooking. She’d laid out her best china and silver and Al, forever known to her as “Dream Prince,” had finished the blessing. As soon as the food was passed, someone knocked over a pitcher of iced tea, and its contents spilled down the entire center of the table. With her keen analytical mind Nancy calmly surveyed the situation, calculated the amount of time and trouble that changing the linens and place settings would require, noted that everyone’s immediate space was still dry, and grinned. With a flourish she grabbed a clean napkin, dabbed at the stain and announced, “Well, now the table’s been baptized!!!!”
I would like to say on behalf of Diane, Genevieve, David and myself that through Nancy each of us feels that we have been baptized by her zest for living, her generosity of spirit, and her uncommon commitment to humanity. We pray that everyone here today might look to her life as inspiration to create just a little more of that Heaven on earth she so passionately sought.