Last October I joined with friends, and family including Jake and Susan Bakalar, Elsa’s nephew and his wife, and ‘honorary daughter’ Marie Hershkowitz who had been a student of Elsa’s, to celebrate Elsa’s 91st birthday. It was a jolly affair with a buffet brought by Jake and Susan, cards, stories, and tributes. And laughter. And champagne.
Two weeks ago my husband and I visited Elsa at the nursing home and again had a jolly time. The menu was more limited, but one of the two other guests who had shown up had brought chocolate cake. More laughter. Who needs champagne?
For the past two days I have been conferring with Susan and Marie, and that other important ‘honorary daughter, Nicole Gordon, to prepare an obituary, because Elsa was failing. This morning I got the call I had been expecting, but dreading. It was time to to send out the obituary.
Elsa (Holtom) Bakalar, of Ashfield and Heath, passed away peacefully at the age of 91 at Overlook Northampton in Leeds, Massachustts on January 29, 2010.
Elsa was born in London in 1918 to Ernest Alfred Holtom and Rosalie Gilder Holtom. She attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls and Bishop Otter College, now part of the University of Chichester.
After graduation she began her teaching career at a school that was bombed, killing many students, while Elsa was out of the building. She was lucky! She went on to teach at Penshurst Village School, often teaching 65 young children in a class. She married a German refugee artist, Erwin Wending. After the war she came to the United States, working for British Information Services (BIS) in New York City lecturing and writing pamphlets, and several articles that appeared in Gourmet Magazine, introducing Americans to English traditions and recipes. There she and Wending divorced. It was in New York that she met Michael Bakalar; it was love at first sight and they married in 1954.
After leaving BIS in the 1950’s, she worked for many years as a teacher in New York City at the Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools, now known as the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, first as a grade school teacher at Midtown (in Manhattan), then at the high school in Riverdale. As a much-loved teacher, she is remembered by her students for a demanding but highly engaging and inspiring teaching style and for her annual uniquely dramatic reading of the whole of Dickens’ Great Expectations to her 6th grade class.
In 1958 she and Mike bought a small house in Heath where Elsa began making the garden that she would write and lecture about for many years. For several years she also ran a summer camp for girls, most of whom were her students at Ethical Culture and Fieldston.
In 1978 Elsa and Mike moved to West County full time. Mike founded the Shelburne Falls and West County News, and Elsa became Director of Community Services at Greenfield Community College. While there she instituted a series of Study and Travel Courses, leading groups through England and its great gardens. She also taught garden workshops in Heath and became well-known for her garden talks to local groups, encouraging new gardeners, and expanding the horizons of experienced gardeners. She was as well known for her charm, wit and turn of phrase as for her gardening expertise
When she retired from GCC she began a career of lecturing to garden groups all across the United States and offered workshops under the auspices of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, the New England Wildflower Society, the New York Botanical Garden and many professional organizations. In 1994 she published her book, A Garden of One’s Own: Making and Keeping Your Flower Garden, made a garden video, and was interviewed on national TV. In every endeavor her husband Mike was at her side, a perennial support: photographer, mover of stones in the garden and slide projector operator on the lecture road until his death in 2000.
She is survived by her cousin, with whom she was raised as a sister, Peter Kerry and his wife Iris of Almeria, Spain; stepson G. Michael Bakalar and his wife Erika of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, granddaughters Dawn Byrd, Amanda Eiras, Leigh Anne Jennings; and four great grandchildren as well as nephews, nieces, cousins and her beloved “honorary daughters” Marie Hershkowitz of Northampton and Nicole Gordon of New York City.
Interment is private. A memorial gathering is being planned for the spring. Memorial gifts can be sent to the Friends of the Heath Library, c/o Jane Deleeuw, Long Hill Rd, Heath, MA 01346, or the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 900 Washington Ave, Wellesley, MA 02482.