Mary Brewer Barkley, a retired school teacher, ventriloquist, and role model without equal on how to best live one’s senior years creatively, died of congestive heart failure on Friday, February 8, 2008, at Goodwin House Hospice in Falls Church. She was 98, just two months shy of 99.
Upon retirement from teaching in 1973, Mrs. Barkley took up the art and craft of ventriloquism. She developed a variety of characters and skits that she customized for various groups, including children’s birthday parties, church groups, nursing homes, civic organizations, schools, and senior citizen clubs.
Early on, her talents were recognized and she was interviewed on a Northern Virginia TV station by Tony Perkins. Her repertoire continued to grow until it included numerous routines enacted by nearly 60 characters all portrayed by her collection of puppets. Her first puppet, “Miss Josie,” named for her mother, was a gift from her granddaughter, Kelley.
The success of these well-received performances led her to enter the Ms. Senior Virginia competition which she won in 1987. She went on to compete later that year in the Ms. Senior America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, taking home the Talent award. She continued to be a goodwill ambassador for the Ms. Senior Virginia program afterwards.
It was also in 1987 that Mrs. Barkley moved to the Goodwin House retirement community at Baileys Crossroads. She became active in the Resident Council, welcoming newcomers committee, and served four years as Chief Fire Warden. But, closer to her heart was participating in the many creative arts programs available at Goodwin House – painting, ceramics, jewelry making and the like.
At Goodwin House, Mrs. Barkley became a member of the Levine School of Music’s Senior Singers Chorale under the leadership of professional director Jeanne Kelley. In 2002, the group, which has performed at the Kennedy Center, began a multi-year study conducted by Dr. Gene Cohen of Georgetown University. The study examined the health benefits of creativity, specifically how mental exercise is vital to keeping senior citizens young.
The study, featured on an “Eye on America” segment of the CBS Evening News in May 2004, profiled Mrs. Barkley as a model senior benefiting from the program. Reporter Wyatt Andrews quoted Cohen, “science has shown that when you challenge older people, both physically and mentally, they do better.” CBS anchor Dan Rather concluded the report, “Imagine tens of millions of Mary Barkleys, looking for some creative outlet to live with everything they’ve got.”
Mary Barrett Brewer was born April 17, 1909, in Rocky Mount, NC, the sixth child and only girl of seven children born to Henry Emmett Brewer and Josie Coghill Brewer. After graduation from Rocky Mount High School, she attended Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1931. She began her teaching career in the Carolinas during the depression, and took on odd jobs to help eek out a living. One such undertaking kindling her creative juices was as the “Story Lady” on radio station WEED in Rocky Mount.
In 1934, Miss Brewer moved to Falls Church, Virginia, to take a position in the town’s new Madison School. In 1935, she coached the Madison Glee Club to a championship in a competition held at the newly constructed State Theatre, just two blocks down from the school.
She soon met Paul H. Barkley, an Associated Press reporter. They wed on April 5, 1936. bMrs. Barkley left teaching for a number of years to raise her two sons, Paul, Jr., and Emmett, and a daughter, Mary Jo.
The family joined Mt. Olivet Methodist Church in 1936. There, Mrs. Barkley and her husband were active in the adult Sunday school programs and helped found Cub Scout Pack 167.
In the 1950’s, Mrs. Barkley returned to teaching, taking a full-time position as a fifth grade teacher at Jamestown Elementary School where she worked until her retirement.
She volunteered as a “Pink Lady” with the Arlington Hospital Auxiliary, was an active member and docent at the DAR Museum, the Arlington Retired Teachers Association and the Women’s Committee of the Arlington Symphony.
Mrs. Barkley’s husband of 27 years, Paul H. Barkley, Sr., died in 1963. She is survived by three children: Paul H. Barkley (Jr) and his wife, Jeanette; W. Emmett Barkley and his wife, Elaine; Mary Jo Anderson and her husband, John A; four granddaughters: Wendy Henninger and her husband, Jim; Tara Ghanadan and her husband, Reza; Kelley Somerville and husband, Steve; Terri Anderson and her husband, John Hitchingham; eight great-grandsons: Louis and Paul Henninger; Julien, Gabriel and Linus Ghanadan; and Ethan, Jared and Hayden Somerville.
Funeral services will be held at the Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, 1500 North Glebe Road, Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday, February 13, at 11:00 am. Viewings will be held at the church on the preceding Tuesday, 2:00 – 4:00 pm, and 6:00 – 8:00 pm. Interment at Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington is private.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that memorial gifts be donated to the Arlington Retired Teachers Association Scholarship Fund, the Goodwin House Hospice, or a charity closest to your heart.