A Life: Barbara Treasure Blough, 1924-2018; ‘So Smart, So Effective, So Efficient and So Caring’

  • Barbara Blough is photographed at her daughter Diana's home in Hanover, N.H., in 2013. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)

  • Barbara Blough is photographed at her desk at Dartmouth Medical School in May 1990, shortly before her retirement. (Flying Squirrel Graphics photograph)

  • Barbara Blough is photographed at her 1974 graduation from Dartmouth's Master of Arts and Liberal Studies program. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2018

Hanover — Briefly, Barbara Blough wondered if she might become bored in Hanover.

Maybe she hadn’t stopped to consider that her adventures thus far were primarily of her own making, since the day 35 years earlier when she’d conscripted an older cousin and marched to the local school to sign herself up for first grade, unbeknownst to her parents.

Possibly she didn’t grasp her own generosity of spirit, a trait that would produce more than 50 years of enthusiastic service to the Upper Valley community.

At any rate, the fear — now laughable to those who knew her — was soon put to rest. Not long after moving to the town she would call home for the rest of her life, Blough recalled in her 2009 memoir, she signed up for her first volunteer gig, helping schoolchildren learn to ski, despite having been on skis only once before in her life. Showing up to the ski school on 7-foot-long, 30-year-old skis, she quickly grew to love the sport, as well as the thrill of helping others. From that day, her momentum never slowed.

“She just got stuff done,” said Patricia Jackson, a close friend of Blough, who died peacefully at her home on July 1 at 93. “She was so smart, so effective, so efficient and so caring.”

Settling in Hanover with her husband, Foster, and their two young children in 1963 after serving as a naval officer in World War II and bouncing around the country as a military wife, Blough fell hard for the quaint college town and devoted herself to causes large and small. Rarely questioning whether she was suited to a task or slowing down when challenges arose, she left her mark on numerous area organizations over the years. She matched inner-city kids with local host families for the Fresh Air Fund; helped raise money for Hanover-Norwich schools; launched Dartmouth Medical School’s now-robust alumni program; prowled New York gift shows for the Pink Smock gift shop at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center; served on multiple committees for the Montshire Museum and the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College and lent a hand, an ear or a bit of expertise to anybody who needed it.

“She was always looking for things to do that helped other people and supported the community,” said Blough’s daughter, Diana Blough, who lives in New York City. “She would just take on something new and roll up her sleeves and then share it with other people.”

Born in 1924 in upstate New York, Barbara Treasure grew up poor, clothed in a succession of dull brown jumpers and employed from a young age at various knuckle-skinning jobs in the working-class town of Fulton, just south of Lake Ontario. It was, despite the difficulties, a happy childhood. In the memoir she penned primarily for her grandchildren, Ella’s Daughter: My Mother, My Family, My Life, Blough recalls days spent on sledding hills and in swimming holes, or on the backyard “stage” she and a boisterous band of siblings and cousins constructed out of bedsheets and clothesline.

On her fifth birthday, which was also the first day of school, Blough told her mother she was going to play with one of her cousins, but instead sneaked off to school with an older cousin and somehow managed to enroll in first grade. “This is where my lifelong love affair with the classroom began,” she wrote.

If her penchant for learning blossomed early, Blough’s can-do attitude was the soil in which it grew. And that attitude only deepened after her father deserted the family around her ninth birthday, leaving her mother to raise five children alone –— which she did with grace, determination and humor.

“My mother had a very strong role model in my grandmother,” Diana Blough said. “She just adored her.”

Initially on the secretarial track, one of just a few career options available to women in the 1940s, Blough immediately jumped into the war effort after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, first signing up for a nurse’s aide program at the local hospital and then joining the U.S. Navy. At first she tried doctoring her birth certificate to get in, but ultimately she had to wait until she turned 20. She worked in naval intelligence in Washington, D.C., typing and filing and taking care of documents seized from the Germans as the war on the European front came to a close. Her enlistment was not only a ticket out of small-town life but a ticket to college under the popular GI Bill. She went on to graduate from Syracuse University, before being called back to active duty during the Korean War and then attending Officers Training School in Boston, where she met Foster Blough, a Marine officer. The two were married in 1954 and spent the next nine years at various military bases, landing in Hanover after Foster put in for retirement from the Marines and found a job at Dartmouth through a connection with a fellow officer.

With her enthusiastic and inquisitive nature, Blough probably would have been happy anywhere. But Hanover — where her big-city friends had predicted she’d die of boredom — turned out to suit her perfectly.

“I felt at home in Hanover, N.H., from day one,” she wrote in her memoir.

Along with a work ethic that allowed her to manage a variety of part-time jobs and volunteer duties and still have dinner on the table at 6 p.m., Blough became known for her wit, warmth and diplomacy.

“She was very intelligent and articulate and had a wry sense of humor that was just right on,” said Jean Sibley, a longtime friend who lives in Etna. “She would go out of her way to make sure that people were included and known, in the sense that she knew how to ask the right questions because she was curious and interested.”

Blough’s diplomacy was especially valuable on the many committees she served on over the years. “She was just an amazing, intelligent and quiet woman who always had the ability to frame a conversation in a positive way,” said Robert Keene, a retired Hanover dentist who worked with Blough in the 1970s on the educational charity A Better Chance and served with her on several committees at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College. “If the conversation became quasi-heated, she was always someone who could bring it back … to what it should be about.”

Nor did Blough ever seek the spotlight. “She was never interested in getting to the top of the heap. She wanted the group to work out,” said Blough’s son, Charles (Chip) Blough, who lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Many of the stories in his mother’s memoir were new to him and his two daughters, Sonia and Marina Blough, to whom the book is dedicated, Chip Blough explained. “She wasn’t someone to come in and announce all the great things she had done that day,” he said. “The book, when she gave it to us, was sort of a revelation.”

If she was humble and self-effacing, Blough was not weak. After going back to school and earning her masters degree in the fledgling Master of Arts Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth in 1974, Blough took a full-time job at what was then known as Dartmouth Medical School. As the founding director of alumni affairs, she raised funds for the school, created the alumni magazine and started the school’s first alumni program — all of which required passionate, persuasive outreach. The medical school awarded her 15 years of service with a conference room in her name, and she counted those years among the happiest and most fulfilling of her life, her family said.

Blough also had strong opinions and was not shy about sharing them when she felt the need. She wrote impassioned letters to the editor about topics such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Diana Blough said, and as patient as she was toward those around her, she had a feisty streak.

“She was discouraged with people who didn’t show compassion and a willingness to find solutions,” Diana Blough said.

Blough also loved words and knowledge. She watched Jeopardy every night, devoured crossword puzzles, dominated in Scrabble and faithfully attended her book club. “I remember her saying that for fun sometimes she would read the dictionary,” Sibley said.

Blough’s sharp mind, her kindness, generosity and resourcefulness all remained vigorous even in her latter years, friends and family say. After retiring from Dartmouth Medical School in 1991, she threw herself into a second wave of volunteer activities, working at the Pink Smock Gift Shop at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, serving on committees at the Montshire Museum, helping to found the Outreach House, a residence for seniors in the Hanover community, and making generous financial donations to causes she supported.

She and Foster, who died in 2008, were named Outstanding Community Ambassadors for Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 2010.

A few years after Foster’s death, Blough found yet another way to give back to her community, by founding a widow’s group at her church. “We realized that those of us who are widowed share a particular bond and that it would be of value to be supportive of each other and to have a good time as well,” said Sibley, one of about 30 members of the group. “It’s been a very meaningful group.”

People continued to seek Blough out for advice during the last few years of her life as well. Jackson, who attended church with Blough and was in her book club, remembers running into Diana Blough at a local store a few years ago and mentioning that she needed to ask her mother if she had any good tips for connecting with local veterans. Diana was delighted that people were still consulting her 90-year-old mother on professional matters, recalled Jackson, who lives in Norwich.

In the months before she died, as Blough became increasingly frail and uncomfortable, she still managed to steer attention away from herself, her children said. “Even at the end, she had so many people coming to visit her, and she would always say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ and then ask how they were,” Chip Blough said.

Diana Blough thinks the last paragraph of her mother’s memoir best sums up the philosophies that governed her mother’s life: “So let me end these remembrances as I began them, with my recipe for a happy life and a happy family: love a lot and laugh a lot, and remember that we share this life and this planet with many other remarkable human beings. Make friends with as many of them as you can.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.