Saturday, May 21, 2011

On the passing of a cheerful curmudgeon --
and an early visionary on gender equality

This is a longer version of an op-ed piece which was published by The Berkshire Eagle on Saturday, May 21, 2011. This version includes embedded links to additional resources. A service for Ms. Bubriski is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 3 -- what would have been her 85th birthday -- at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, with a civic-oriented event to follow.

By Bill Densmore

    WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – The New England town meeting in Massachusetts, coming in the middle of May, marks the clear start of more reliably pleasant weather. It’s also a chance to emerge from our cocoons of winter and see fellow townsfolks.
     And so we were left wistful at Tuesday’s town meeting not to be able to greet and hear the cheerful curmudgeon of  Williamstown – Dagmar E. Bubriski.    She died last week, at age 84,  and a progressive  illness had taken her away from the civic life she loved.   You can read the details in the obituary her family wrote.
     A memorial service and some other events are tentatively set for Aug. 3.   With Burbriski’s passing, I hope as a town we’ll also reflect on the value of the responsible critic in society, the voice we don’t always want to, or have time,  to hear, and the value of that in stitching a community fabric that is open, tolerant and affirming of many views.
     We arrived in Williamstown in 1983 to assume the editorship of the town weekly. At that time Bubriski was still in her prime – and deeply involved in historic preservation efforts.
   “She was so civic minded and had a lot of opinions and they were not always the opinions of the majority,” recalls Arthur L. LaFave, who for years ran with his wife and brother-in-law the gasoline filling station on Spring Street known as B&L Service  (now memorialized as the B&L Building and home to Tunnel City Coffee). “She never gave up giving them because she thought they were right, and often times they were.”
   Bubriski never missed an opportunity -- that I saw -- to speak out on public issues. She was a perennial face in the audience as we watched the public-access-TV cablecasts of selectmen’s meetings. Although she never served on that board (although she civic volunteered in countless other ways and once nearly won election to the Legislature), she was probably as familiar and passionate about its business as those who did.
   “Dagmar was never satisfied with any organization she was involved with and that is the charming part as well as the frustrating part because she (didn’t) let anybody rest on their laurels,” recalls former Selectmen Board Chair Margaret Ware, who like Bubriski was graduated from the all-female Mount Holyoke College.  “She (had) an opinion on and wanted to comment on every item we had.  She was a constant presence.”

        Her obituary pulls punches about her tempestuous relationship with Williams College (see this 2002 Williams Record profile). The family house on Hoxsey Street abuts college property and Bubriski rebuffed offers to sell to Williams,  preferring instead to endure two rounds of major-building construction.  Yet she loved art and theater – and treasured the advantages a college brought in that way.   She was an art-history major at Mount Holyoke.
     Other cheerful curmudgeons were always there during my tenure as the town’s editor – the aging Henry E. Bratcher,  and retired New York Times copyeditor Ray Warner – who now lives near Albany,  N.Y.  Ware credits Warner with having pushed the town way ahead of most the rest of the nation to adopt anti-smoking ordinances – over objections of restaurant owners at the time.
    “In a small community where everybody is a volunteer and you are doing the best you can every time and you get tired and you don’t want to think about it anymore,  (you) just want to do it the easy way you always need somebody with a stick in our back saying well have you thought of this,” says Ware.
    In 1965, with four teen-age and younger children, Bubriski lost her husband, Stanley, because he was a passenger in a commercial aircraft that went down on takeoff from a New York airport.  Suddenly, she was a woman without a man – and that experience may have shaped a part of Bubriski’s life that I was only dimly aware of until I visited with her son Peter, shortly before her death.
    Bubriski had a life-long interest in what we’d now call gender equality.  From 1972-1974 the Thurston family gave her a half-hour of radio time weekly on North Adams’ WMNB-AM for an interview program she called “Emphasis: Women.”   She described her own job as: “Home executive – total family management since 1965.”  In 1978, then Gov. Michael S. Dukakis appointed her to the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
    In a 1973 essay, “On the Subject of Power,” she recalled a confrontation with a male Williams College economics professor over her assertion that women lacked power in civil society, because it was in the hands of what she called a group populated  “almost exclusively [by] a white, college-educated male.”  And she wrote: “Actually, this is not completely the fault of men. Women have got to make more noise. They have got to beat on those doors. They must be make themselves more visible: They must be willing to be called aggressive, and they must demonstrate in overt ways that this is definitely a circle they want to break. In a very vigorous manner, they must continually confront the opposition.”
Here’s how Bubriski wrapped up her essay:
    “And you can look me in the eye, and say that women have power? If we are so equal, would you care to exchange places? And status? And opportunity?  However, we do have the power of the ballot. And if women start to question their position, and question the candidates on their positions on women, and if women can coordinate their efforts to elect women, or men who will think positively, and will appoint women – there is hope.
    “And if women will make themselves heard in every aspect of their lives, if they will insist on equal opportunity, on equal pay, on equal service, on an equal voice in policy decisions, and on the vital questions that affect their lives – then there is also hope.
     "Perhaps, most important of all, if the man in power can realize the utter inequality and lack of noblesse oblige in their self-serving attitudes, then there is hope.
    “And then someday women of my age will be able to say with utter honest and pride, that her classmates and friends are no longer heavily weighted on the home-making, odd-job end of the career scale; and that the one or two women industrial executives, professors, etc., that she may know, will be joined by a good proportion of the class, with individual capability and qualifications the sole basis of achievement.
    “And when that halcyon day arrives, I will sit back and agree with my academic friend that yes, indeed, women really do have power and influence, and that they really do reap the fruits of their labors, as well as the respect of their peers, both male and female.”
    When Bubriski, Bratcher, Warner and like-minded cheerful curmudgeons speak up in the civic sphere, there is hope that we will reach decisions that are open, tolerant and affirming, and not the result of a tyranny of the majority.  Let’s always welcome their successors.
    Otherwise we run the risk of filtering ourselves into ever-narrowing silos of personalized thought, so eloquently discussed in founder Eli Pariser’s just-published book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You.”

The writer, Bill Densmore, co-published The Advocate newsweeklies from 1983-1992 with his wife. He now does research on the future and sustainability of journalism for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and consults on media strategies as Densmore Associates.


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