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A Life: Joanne Coburn ‘Knew the People and Didn’t Play Favorites’

  • Joanne Coburn aboard Aria, the 39-foot Alden Challenger Yawl sail boat that she and her husband, Peter, kept in Maine's Penobscot Bay. (Family photograph)

  • Joanne Coburn performs for Revels North in 1999. The man at right is unidentified. (Family photograph) family photograph

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/27/2016 12:31:37 AM
Modified: 6/27/2016 12:38:13 AM

Lyme — Joanne Coburn didn’t want anyone to know that she had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Not her friends, not her co-workers. Not even her daughter.

“Joanne was a proud and private woman,” said Peter Coburn during a memorial service for his wife at Lyme Congregational Church last month. “She did not want to be treated as terminally ill.

“So she faked it. Going to work when she could hardly stand; stopping her medication when she thought it might affect her singing with the Handel Society.”

After being diagnosed last October, Coburn kept her illness a secret from everyone except her husband for nearly six months.

Coburn, 71, died April 10.

Lyme Town Clerk Patty Jenks, who worked with Coburn for 30 years, was one of her closest friends. “I began seeing signs of her not feeling well last fall,” said Jenks, who noticed that Coburn lacked her usual zip around the office and her face had taken on a gray tint.

“Are you OK?” Jenks asked one day.

“Yeah,” Coburn replied. “I’m just a little anemic.”

Coburn served as Lyme’s elected tax collector for 30 years. On the surface, the job seems strictly bean counting — send out the annual property tax bills; keep track of the checks that roll in.

But Coburn brought a human touch to the job. “When someone was having a difficult time (paying their taxes), she tried to find a solution that would help them out,” Lyme Selectboard Chairwoman Sue MacKenzie said. “She did the job with grace, understanding and empathy.”

If an elderly resident missed a payment, Coburn would call to give them a gentle reminder. “She didn’t want them to get hit with a late-payment penalty,” Jenks said. “She was very sensitive to that.”

Coburn took calls at home and met with property owners at the town office during off-hours. Lyme, which has 1,700 residents, is a blend of working-class old-timers and wealthy newcomers.

“Joanne just had a handle on Lyme,” Jenks said. “She knew the people and didn’t play favorites. She was equally respectful to everyone who walked in the door.”

Coburn also knew how to have fun at work. Before moving into their new digs in 2009, town employees worked out of the library basement, where small creepy creatures were known to take up residence.

“Joanne knew that I didn’t like spiders,” Jenks said. “So she was forever hiding plastic spiders and snakes in my desk and under my chair.”

On a recent morning, Jenks opened a desk drawer, and within seconds pulled out a plastic spider. “See, what I mean,” she said. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

Coburn and her first husband, Paul Beisswenger, a physician, moved to the Upper Valley 40 or so years ago. Along with being Lyme’s part-time tax collector, Coburn was the business manager at Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. She retired suddenly in January, without telling anyone at the magazine about her cancer.

“I should have known something was up then,” Jenks said. “It didn’t make any sense. Joanne wasn’t the retiring type.”

She wasn’t the all-work, no-play type, either. Joanne and Peter, who were married in 1987, were avid sailors. They spent weeks at a time at sea, sailing up and down the East Coast aboard Aria, their wooden 39-foot Alden Challenger Yawl that they kept in Maine’s Penobscot Bay.

At Coburn’s memorial service, Denny Alsop, a family friend, drew a moment of laughter when he told the large gathering that Joanne was likely “the only collector of taxes to fling off her clothes and skinny dip, 100 yards from the New York Yacht Club.”

At home at the top of Pinnacle Hill Road in Lyme, Coburn spent many hours in her cottage garden that she filled with bee balm, irises, peonies, lilies and lupine.

“She tended her gardens carefully,” said Carol Barr, a close friend. “They were well thought out to give continuous color all summer long.”

Barr met Coburn through the Handel Society of Dartmouth College, billed as America’s oldest town-gown choral society. They roomed together on a half dozen Handel Society tours to Europe.

“Joanne was a very private person and didn’t like being the focus of attention,” Barr wrote in an email. “It was always hard to plan a birthday party for her.

“Her decision to keep details about her illness private is not surprising. She didn’t want to be seen in a state of weakness and dying. We accept that this was her way.”

At the beginning of his 20-minute eulogy, Peter Coburn took great care to explain what had gone on in his wife’s final six months.

“Joanne had a terrible disease,” he said. “We expected her to have more time, but her passing was the end of her suffering.”

Coburn suffered from Myelodyplastic Syndromes (MDS, for short), a cancer of the stem cells of the bone marrow, her husband explained. With MDS, the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells.

“Transfusions kept her alive for six months,” Peter said.

According to the MDS Foundation website, roughly 12,000 new cases are diagnosed a year. Television anchor Robin Roberts, of Good Morning America and ESPN, announced in June 2012 that she had been diagnosed with MDS.

“The biggest reason Joanne didn’t tell anyone was that she wasn’t ready to tell (her daughter) Rebecca,” Peter Coburn said during his eulogy. “She’d say, ‘It’s not right to drop this on her. I’m supposed to be looking after her. Not the other way around.’ ”

Looking back, Rebecca Beisswenger-Maxfield wonders how she missed the signs. “All of a sudden she was giving me my grandmother’s china and other heirlooms.”

Then there were the frequent naps. The mouth sore that didn’t seem to get better. The visits that became more sporadic. Rebecca and her husband, Todd, live in Danville, Vt. Until a few months before her death, Coburn had made a habit of making the hour drive on Tuesdays, her day off from work, to see her three grandchildren.

Coburn kept finding reasons not to break the news to her daughter. She wanted to wait until after Christmas. She didn’t want to spoil the family’s holiday season.

The secret stayed between Coburn and her husband. “Her illness brought us closer together than ever before,” Peter said in his eulogy. “That was a huge gift at a terrible cost.”

When February rolled around, and Coburn’s health took a turn for the worse, there seemed no more avoiding it. But then the family learned that Rebecca’s father, Paul, needed open-heart surgery.

Coburn didn’t want to add to her daughter’s burden. With him on the mend in late March, Joanne and Peter sat down with Rebecca and Todd, who is a psychologist.

“We were hoping that she’d have a couple of years, but it didn’t happen,” Rebecca said.

The day after they talked, Coburn was admitted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “She went in on her own two feet, but within a few days, she was too weak to stand,” Peter said. “The goal became not treatment, but to get her home and make her as comfortable as possible.”

On April 7, Peter brought her home. Rebecca and Todd set up camp at the house. Along with being Lyme’s tax collector, Coburn was known for her singing. For years, she sang alto in the Handel Society and performed with Revels North.

After learning that Coburn was in the final stages of her illness, a dozen or so her friends from Handel Society and Revels came to the house.

They stayed in the living room, singing some of Coburn’s gospel favorites including, In My Father’s House and Love Will Guide Us.

Coburn and her daughter listened from the bedroom. “You could see her body move with the music,” Rebecca said. “For her to be honored that way was amazing. She appreciated it so much.”

Abiding by Coburn’s wishes, the singers slipped quietly out of the house after their last song without seeing or saying goodbye to their friend.

Their voices in her head. A final memory shared between friends.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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