My Friend Alice

(A longer draft of an article I wrote for the newspaper when Alice died earlier this week.)

Alice Rabson could barely see out of her rear view mirror because of all the bumper stickers on the back of her purple Volkswagen Beetle, bold testament to her adamant support for a host of progressive causes. I used to see that car all over town, and it always made me happy to know Rabson was nearby, ready to fight the good fight and bring the rest of us along with her.

Though the bumper stickers were a good start at announcing what she stood for, what they couldn’t tell you was that Rabson had been an advocate for those causes—civil liberties, a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, anti-war —her entire life, long before they were embraced by anything like a majority of her fellow Americans.

Rabson had to give up that VW several years ago as her health began to fail, but until this week she never stopped advocating for her causes. She died quietly Monday morning while sitting at breakfast at the Hughes Home in Fredericksburg.

She was 92.

Wherever she went, whatever she did, Alice Rabson lived what she believed, and she never shied away from expressing herself–fighting on the front lines of progressive issues as a lifelong member of the ACLU (her father was one of the founders), as one of the first members of the local National Organization for Women, as co-founder of and longtime counselor for the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence, and so much more.

“I remember NOW working out of Alice’s home for several months in the 1970s, lobbying for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment,” said her long-time friend Becky Reed, a former Stafford County Supervisor and attorney with Rappahannock Legal Services. “Alice had a number of causes that she believed in. But she didn’t just believe in them—she got out and worked for them.”

Fredericksburg’s Gaye Adegbalola, a renowned blues singer, remembers another moment from Rabson’s early years in town—one that changed Adegbalola’s life.

“I was down from New York visiting my family,” she recalled recently. “My father and I were driving on Princess Anne Street by the Selective Service Board which was in the old Post Office—what’s now City Hall. And there, standing all alone in the pouring rain, holding a sign protesting the war in Vietnam, was Alice.”

Adegbalola told that story recently at a Democratic Party fundraiser where she was performing, exhorting the crowd to show that same “passion and fire to stand up for what we believe.”

“Any time I have lacked courage to stand up for a cause,” Adegbalola said, “the role model who comes to mind is always Alice Rabson.”

My own introduction to Rabson happened 22 years ago, also standing on the steps of City Hall where we were holding signs opposing the first Gulf War. Alice believed that diplomacy, sanctions, a willingness to try anything and everything should precede any decision to go to war. It was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam—in all previous wars–but that, as Rabson saw it, we clearly and tragically hadn’t.

I had just moved to Fredericksburg to teach at what was then Mary Washington College. It was 1990. Rabson, retired from MWC for five years by then as a professor of psychology, had been organizing and participating in progressive political actions in town for decades. Her friend Jane Ellen Teller remembers seeing a photo from the 1960s that ran in the newspaper of her standing outside the old Woolworth’s holding a sign demanding the segregated store open its doors to African-Americans.

Though Rabson was never afraid to stand alone, she was also a firm believer in including her children in political activities, in one case bringing young Steve and Ann Rabson along with her to picket a barbershop in Ohio, where they were living at the time, because of the barbershop’s refusal to cut black children’s hair.

“We were always a very politically active family, and Alice was a great role model for a lot of people, including us,” said Ann Rabson, who continued the family tradition by bringing her own daughter Liz to anti-war rallies. “I was so proud of her. And my daughter was proud of her, and my daughter’s daughter was proud of her. She was adventurous, and not afraid of anything.”

Not that Rabson didn’t have her detractors. Her strong opinions, expressed over the years in letters to the editor, invariably prompted vitriolic responses. People threw things at her while she stood on protest lines. And, because she was not afraid of shaking things up where she worked, she was criticized by some of her colleagues for being “too outspoken.”

Some in the Old Boys Faculty Network at MWC called Rabson “Crazy Alice” behind her back, even after she left the school. I’d heard those whispers before meeting Rabson that day at City Hall. The Old Boys thought she was trouble, and boy was she ever—though the best kind of trouble: the kind who gets things done.

They were wise to keep their whispers to themselves.

Rabson, who might have been five feet on her tallest day, didn’t just take on the larger inequities in society; she was committed to progressive change right at home, starting with the psych department’s antiquated offerings in developmental psychology—her specialty–and continuing through the fight to force MWC and the University of Virginia to go co-ed and end UVa’s discrimination against women that had endured into the 1970s.

When she retired from the school, in 1985, Rabson didn’t sit still for long. Actually she didn’t sit still at all. She joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two and half years serving as a health counselor in the Marshall Islands. She was 65 at the time.

Throughout her life, Rabson’s greatest sources of pride were her children: Ann, an internationally-acclaimed blues pianist, and Steve, who taught Japanese literature as a member of the Asian Studies faculty at Brown University until his retirement in 2006. Steve Rabson moved to Fredericksburg to help care for his mother last year.

In every conversation we ever had, Rabson talked about her children’s lives and their accomplishments—Ann’s latest record or CD, Steve’s most recent translation.

Rabson lived with Ann and her husband George Newman the last three years of her life. But for most of the 90 years prior to that, she was fiercely independent. She was well into her 80s before she stopped driving and moved for a time into an assisted living facility.

As recently as three weeks ago Rabson was still having her son Steve drive her to the Unitarian Universalist Church for her beloved Sunday Discussion Group, a regular gathering whose members, fellow secular humanists, all looked forward to debating the tough issues of the day—with warmth, intellect, humor, passion, and the occasional raised voice.

“She led a full, productive life,” said Steve Rabson yesterday. “She helped so many people personally and professionally. That’s the most significant thing I learned from her—that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is to be able to help other people.”

A few years ago, at a memorial service for our friend Bill Lakeman, another long-time Unitarian Universalist, Rabson, who had trouble walking, nonetheless stepped forward to speak. The minister, Jeff Jones, tried to lead her to one side of the pulpit where he thought it would be easier to step up on the dais. But Rabson insisted on going to the other side.

Jones tried again to lead her to his side, but Rabson still insisted on going the route she had chosen.

Finally, someone in the congregation spoke out: “Alice will do it her way!”

The current UU minister, Walter Braman, who was in attendance at that service, reminded me of that story yesterday.

“Six short words,” he said, “that truly underscore her life and her person.”

There will be a memorial gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 3 p.m. to celebrate Alice Rabson’s life. All are invited.

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