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A Life: Sue Barnaby; ‘She so believed in play as learning’

  • Susan Barnaby reads to some of her nieces and nephews and other Tunbridge children during the time when she was running a home day care in the 1990s. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Susan Barnaby holds her daughter, Erin, who is now 36, at the child's baptism at Tunbridge Congregational Church. With her are her mother, Elaine Cilley, left, and her grandmother, Ruby Keyser. Barnaby's family has been in Tunbridge since the 1790s. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Susan Cilley, later Barnaby, back left, with her siblings, clockwise from back right, Patricia, Brenda and Dennis, in a photograph from the 1960s. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2021 8:55:29 PM
Modified: 5/23/2021 9:22:41 PM

TUNBRIDGE — When summer vacation rolled around, the four Cilley siblings weren’t quite done with school. Susan, the eldest, made sure of it.

“Upstairs in the barn she set up a complete classroom,” her brother, Dennis Cilley said. “As soon as school let out, she’d round us all up.”

So it was no surprise that Sue went into teaching. But there was more to it than that.

Research from the past 20 years shows that reading to the smallest children is one of the most powerful educational tools a society can wield. Sue Barnaby had that idea on her own, not because she was expensively educated but because she was deeply rooted in her community, saw a need and was determined to do something about it.

While she was always a teacher, for the past 20 years, Barnaby was first the “Story Lady,” and later the “Math Buddy,” reading to pre-school children up and down the White River Valley, and teaching math and science concepts to young learners. She was a magnetic presence, who drew children to her by making learning fun.

“She so believed in the need for play, and in play as learning,” her daughter, Erin Barnaby, said. “Play is the way you learn at any age,” and Sue was “so bubbly and funny and silly and playful, and she was like that with me at 36,” just as she was with 3-year-old preschoolers.

Sue Barnaby died April 26 of a brain aneurysm while undergoing treatment for an infection in a replacement heart valve, her daughter said. She was a few weeks shy of her 64th birthday.

She was born into a family with roots in Tunbridge that stretch down to the 1790s. Her grandfather, Dyer Cilley, founded a funeral home and ambulance service, which her father, David, ran, and her brother Dennis and his son Devin, now operate, with help from her sister, Patricia. Sue and husband Gordon Barnaby did their courting at Dreamland, the dance hall Dyer Cilley built in 1938.

Sue and her siblings worked there. She and Gordon were married in 1980, the year after she earned a degree in early childhood education at the College of St. Joseph the Provider in Rutland. The main carrying timber in the house they built together on Barnaby family land on Spring Road was salvaged from Dreamland, which had collapsed under a heavy snow load in 1978 or ‘79.

Barnaby started her teaching career in elementary school, first in Sharon, then in Tunbridge. Even early in her career, Barnaby turned learning into a game.

“In her warm, little classroom, at the top of the school stairs, she had cardboard bananas taped to the wall,” Emily Howe, a former student at Tunbridge Central School, wrote in a social media tribute to Barnaby. “For every 10 assignments I finished with marginal success, I got to cut out a scoop of ice cream from a sheet of construction paper and add it to my banana.” Once the students had completed their paper banana splits, they would celebrate with real ones.

After that early experience in the classroom, Barnaby stepped away and operated a home day care for her nieces and nephews and a couple of Tunbridge children. Around the same time, she and Gordon started Corner Rail Fence Co. Being able to set his own hours made it possible for Gordon to ferry their own two children, Luke and Erin, to sports and play rehearsals while Sue and a helper cared for half a dozen children at their home.

She had 15 nieces and nephews, but “she’s ‘Aunt Sue’ to a lot of people who weren’t her nieces and nephews, as well,” Devin Cilley, one of Barnaby’s nephews, said.

Between her teaching and day care experiences, Barnaby intuited that remedial instruction in elementary school wasn’t reaching children early enough. Language acquisition begins at birth, and the earlier children can hear words spoken and understand that they come from a printed book, the better chance they’ll have at learning to read when the time comes.

“Once a child starts to struggle, it’s hard to get them turned around,” Karen Johnson, who worked with Barnaby for many years as an early childhood education coordinator in the Royalton-based Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union, said last week.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of research on the subject, Johnson said. A few educators in Vermont followed their instincts, applied for grants and tailored literacy and numeracy programs for children ages 3 to 5. Barnaby was among them. When she went back to work, she started at the Orange County Parent Child Center, a day care and preschool that mainly serves Tunbridge and Chelsea families, but it wasn’t long before she found a broader role.

Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union, which covered the towns of Royalton, Tunbridge, Chelsea, Strafford and Sharon, won some grant funding and sent Barnaby out as an early childhood interventionist. Her job was straightforward: introduce kids to reading.

“I don’t think Sue ever had any question in her mind that there was anything better you could do for kids than sit down and read with them,” Cynthia Powers, the supervisory union’s longtime grant administrator, said last week.

She read at the local preschools and at home day cares, but she also read with families. The idea was to model how to read with children. Parents who aren’t strong readers were justifiably nervous. What if they make mistakes? “She said, ‘Your children aren’t going to know the difference, if you don’t read well,’ ” Powers said. “Everybody had something to offer.”

Her family and colleagues said Barnaby had a gift for drawing out recalcitrant students, not through pressure, but through making an activity irresistible.

When she arrived at Melissa Frary’s in-home day care, the children would scatter and hide. Frary would say in a loud voice that “Oh well, there are no children here today, Sue, so you’ll just have to read to me.” The kids would jump out and say “BOO!”

Because she’d led her own day care, she understood the solitary nature of the job, Frary said. She almost always stayed longer than her scheduled weekly visit, both to help get kids into their snowsuits and to talk shop.

“She was right there as a sounding board,” Frary said, adding that Barnaby was like a second mother to her.

She became known as “Sue Bumblebee,” initially because a child in Sharon struggled to pronounce her surname, then because it fit her buzzy, industrious personality.

Barnaby made her own games to accompany books or to teach counting and other basic math concepts. Her basement is full of children’s books and games she either made or collected. A game that stood out to her family was called Sugaring Time, and gave children smooth, translucent pebbles of brown glass to count into tiny tin cups that look like sap buckets.

“She had the knack of seeing what kids needed and then creating a game that they could be successful with,” Gordon Barnaby said. If they were on vacation somewhere and she saw a book or a game, she just bought it, often far exceeding her modest budget for such purchases. And when they went out to eat locally, he said, there were always children either pointing her out from across the room or running up to say hello.

The pandemic cut her off from that contact. She’d had heart surgery in 2019 to replace a valve, but was back reading to children when the lockdown began. Accustomed to being surrounded by kids, Barnaby reached out by reading books into a camera and posting the videos to YouTube. She posted 10 videos to her Susan Barnaby channel, the last of them four months ago.

One of Barnaby’s sisters, Patricia Ladd, said that her own daughter is pregnant, and the baby will be able to hear her great aunt Sue read to her.

The videos are classic Sue Bumblebee; unhurried, and not flashy or embroidered with odd accents or gestures. “She was a genuine, isn’t-this-interesting, kind of reader,” Johnson said.

Continuing Barnaby’s work is going to take many hands. At the White River Valley Supervisory Union, which succeeded Orange-Windsor, the effort to hire a new person is starting by putting the job down on paper, Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said. Barnaby originated the role and she added to it as she went along.

The same is true of her work in the community, which included starting a backpack program so kids who needed it could take food home for the weekends.

“She was involved in so many things, she’d have one group helping another,” Dennis Cilley said.

At a recent meeting of the Tunbridge Church, “there were 12 or 15 people there trying to divvy up what Sue’s been doing the last 20 years,” Gordon Barnaby said.

Between 600 and 700 people attended her memorial service at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds earlier this month, and hundreds of cards have come in, many of them from people Sue Barnaby had read to. Her daughter said her mother had stayed committed to her community and to her family, and her work was what knitted it all together.

“I think it was that she viewed her role as to help every kid,” she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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