Remembering Shelburne's Joan Robinson: 'She Was Somebody Everyone Looked Up To' | Life Stories | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Remembering Shelburne's Joan Robinson: 'She Was Somebody Everyone Looked Up To' 

Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Joan Robinson - SUZI WIZOWATY
  • Suzi Wizowaty
  • Joan Robinson

This "Life Stories" profile is part of a collection of articles remembering Vermonters who died in 2023.


As a young child, Jesse Clements frequently traveled from Boston to Vermont to spend time with her aunt, Joan. Their favorite shared activity was drawing. They would lose themselves in the process, surrounded by craft supplies and pencils strewn across the basement floor.

As Jesse presented her creations, Joan lavished praise.

"She was just the most encouraging [person]," Jesse, now a grade school teacher in Berkeley, Calif., recalled during a recent phone call with Seven Days.

Jesse noted that Joan always gave her full attention. She also pointed out that Joan and her wife, Suzi Wizowaty, kept a shelf of children's books in their collection, despite not having kids of their own.

"It wasn't until I was 17 or 18 that I was like, Oh, most adults [without kids] don't have a shelf of children's books in their house just ready for you," Jesse said.

Joan dedicated her life to helping children access their creative side. Born in Summit, N.J., and raised in Houston, Texas, she became a classroom teacher, a librarian, a traveling storyteller and a performing arts educator who revolutionized the way Vermont students — and teachers — approached learning.

"She was somebody everyone looked up to," said longtime friend and colleague Robin Fawcett, who has taught performing arts at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg since the mid-'90s. "She was really a leader in so many ways."

Suzi was also a local leader, serving as a Democrat in the Vermont House of Representatives for the Chittenden-6-5 district from 2009 to 2015. During that time, she worked on the House Judiciary Committee to help pass Vermont's "Death With Dignity" law, Act 39, which allows terminally ill patients to hasten death with assistance from medical professionals. It was because of that legislation that Joan was able to choose to end her own life on June 16, at age 73, after living for years with Parkinson's disease.

When Joan and Suzi first met in the 1970s, they were instantly drawn to each other.

"I knew from the first weekend I spent with her that that was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with," Suzi said. "It was just one of those amazing things."

After living together for several years in New Jersey, where Joan taught second grade, the couple moved to Burlington in 1985. They liked the progressive vibe — at the time, the Queen City was under the mayorship of Bernie Sanders. Though queer couples did not have the rights and protections in 1985 that they do today, they always felt safe and comfortable in Burlington.

Joan's first job in the area was as librarian at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury. Through that role, she met fellow Addison County librarian Abi Sessions, who served at several local schools.

Their first project together was bringing so-called "poetry breaks" to local classrooms. They would show up, perform a short work and then "just dissolve into laughter in the hallway," Sessions said.

Poetry breaks evolved into a full-fledged storytelling partnership. Though many storytellers made the rounds at the time, there weren't any duos that Sessions could recall. They wanted to tell classic, traditional stories, but also tales that "put forth a vision of people or situations that we felt strongly about," Sessions continued. Their Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty program highlighted strong female characters.

They worked with minimal props and costumes — though, at Halloween time, Sessions would roll a giant wheelbarrow into the room that concealed Joan, who would pop out and spook the audience.

Joan and Sessions never decidedly disbanded their duo, though career changes made it more difficult to keep it going. In the mid-'90s, Joan took a big job leading the Flynn's education department. Former executive director Andrea Rogers recalled that, other than a handful of summer camps and student matinées, the Burlington performing arts center didn't offer much in the way of education before Joan's arrival.

"The seeds were there, but they needed Joan's watering," Rogers said.

Over the past several decades, Joan and many other teaching artists worked together to create a robust slate of performing arts classes, which reached a pinnacle just before the pandemic. The Flynn's educational programming today reaches tens of thousands of kids and adults each year.

One of Joan's most noteworthy and longest-running student programs, which she would bring to area schools, was called Words Come Alive! In each session, kids would hear stories, then creatively reimagine them through dramatic and theatrical exercises.

click to enlarge Greeting card by Joan - SUZI WIZOWATY
  • Suzi Wizowaty
  • Greeting card by Joan

"She was a weaver," Fawcett said. "She would have an idea and a clear plan for the class. But if the kids had ideas of what to make or how to do things, she would always say yes and make it happen — and still be in charge of the classroom."

She also created History Comes Alive!, a program held at Shelburne Museum and other locations with preserved historical features, and Science Comes Alive! Rogers noted that Joan's teaching materials remain in the Flynn's archive.

While things were flourishing at the Flynn, an elementary school in Burlington's Old North End was floundering. Joan served on a task force that changed the fate of the H.O. Wheeler School, turning it into a magnet school focused on the arts. The Integrated Arts Academy was born in 2008.

Joan had been teaching graduate courses for teachers at Saint Michael's College in Colchester that focused on including the arts in general pedagogy. Teachers who made the transition from Wheeler to IAA learned how to nurture the arts and inject them into traditional educational curricula.

"We had a school full of people who were really committed to arts integration and infusing the arts throughout the school day," former IAA principal Bobby Riley said.

Though not every child is destined for a life on the stage or in the studio, Joan believed that the arts held the power to unlock the potential inside all learners.

"It's a way to reach more students ... Part of what you're doing is being able to teach a full classroom of learners and valuing different forms of intelligence," Lida Winfield, chair of the dance department at Middlebury College, explained. Winfield worked closely with Joan through the Flynn and Words Come Alive!

Though Joan began as essentially an outside consultant to IAA, she eventually became the school's full-time drama coach when she left the Flynn in 2013 after 18 years. At the school, Joan and Sessions' poetry breaks took on a new life. Kids would spend days preparing a presentation, which would become an indoor road show unexpectedly popping in to classrooms.

Riley, who had a theater background before becoming an educator, looks back fondly on teaming up for short performances with Joan at biweekly assemblies.

"I think the students really enjoyed seeing us in that role — acting silly, being vulnerable — because we asked that of the students so often," Riley said.

Joan started to pull back from her role at IAA after her Parkinson's diagnosis. She and Suzi had downsized from their Burlington home to the Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, where Joan continued to be a leader and organizer.

Well known to some but possibly hidden to others, one of Joan's talents was cartooning and illustrating. At Joan's funeral, Suzi displayed several posters featuring birthday and holiday cards that Joan had made for her.

click to enlarge Greeting card by Joan - SUZI WIZOWATY
  • Suzi Wizowaty
  • Greeting card by Joan

Bursting with life and whimsy, Joan's creations could likely have been a secondary, or even primary, source of income. But she "hated business-type stuff," Suzi said, and never pursued it — though, before her partner's death, Suzi turned some of Joan's work into packages of cards, which can be purchased at the Wake Robin gift shop.

Throughout their 40-plus years together, the couple led a "kind of ordinary, simple, domestic, happy life," Suzi said. They enjoyed spending time together, hiking with their dogs, Saturday night grocery shopping, working in their garden and reading at night in front of the woodstove.

More than being a master teacher and a quietly gifted artist, Joan was known for her warmth, curiosity and compassion.

"She was a really positive, upbeat, generous person with a really big heart," Suzi said.

"A lot of people, you tell them stuff and they just don't remember," Sessions said. "[Joan] always remembered ... She was just amazing that way."

On a personal note, this journalist can attest to that. Joan never forgot who I was — though I only took one class from her, when I was 11 years old, in 1994. At least I think that's when it was. I can't quite remember. But Joan would have.

The original print version of this article was headlined "'She Was Somebody Everyone Looked Up To' | Joan Robinson, May 24, 1950-June 16, 2023"

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About The Author

Jordan Adams

Jordan Adams

Bio:
Jordan Adams joined Seven Days as music editor in 2016. In 2021, he became an arts and culture staff writer. He's won awards from the Vermont Press Association and the New England Newspaper and Press Association. In 2022, he became a freelance contributor.

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