Libby was one of those people who did so much, and touched so many lives: She was the pebble in the pond, from which the circles expanded on and on. She was a friend to almost everyone she met. And if you knew Libby, then you know she could make you feel like you were the most important person in her world.
Raised in tiny Youngsville, North Carolina, she grew up loving nature and outdoor adventure. In the early 1980s she was an Outward Bound instructor and a counselor at a wilderness program for at-risk teens. Out in the woods for a month at a time, she helped kids overcome physical, mental, and emotional challenges and learn skills that would directly translate to their lives at home.
Libby was intelligent, decisive, straight-talking, kind, and funny. She had boundless energy and could focus it in many directions at once. For 23 years she was a recreation therapist and director of therapeutic recreation here at the Rehabilitation Institute (now Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital). There she helped patients with traumatic, life-changing injuries adapt things they loved to do to their physical limitations. In other words, she taught people how to have fun. And having fun was serious business to Libby.
“She was the best of teachers,” said Melinda Stavely, vice president of the Rehabilitation Institute. “Libby always compelled me to listen, to learn, to try a different approach.” Her reach went far beyond the walls of Rehab. So many of her patients didn’t merely adjust to life in a wheelchair and learn how to enjoy tennis, golf, kayaking or yoga again – they went out and accomplished much more, often with her ongoing support. She was so proud of her patients. They, in turn, inspired her to climb higher and dig deeper whenever she faced a challenge of her own.
Local Eddie Tuduri was a professional drummer before his 1997 accident. During rehab he found that making rhythms was very healing and he soon had an entire “band” of patients playing along with him in the hospital. Libby noticed the positive effect these drum sessions were having on the attitudes of the patients and encouraged Tuduri to expand them beyond the institute. She lent her expertise to help him launch a non-profit program with real therapeutic merit. Eddie said that “Libby inspired, planned, and worked tirelessly with me to create the basis for what has become The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP), today touching thousands of lives in six countries. In effect, she helped create my life’s work and a purpose to go on living enthusiastically after my accident.”
Leading by example, Libby was a persuasive advocate for the handicapped. For many years she volunteered with Jodi House, a day center that provides supportive services for traumatic brain injury survivors. Libby was instrumental in helping the organization establish its first permanent center on Veronica Springs Road in 1994, and served two terms as president of their board of directors.
In 2008 she became co-director of the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp. When that program was threatened with closure, Libby was both out front and behind the scenes fighting for it to continue. Whether it was addressing the City Council, writing letters, finding donors or working with Rehab to take over the program, Libby, in her typical fashion, just plowed ahead until a solution was found. The camp has survived and thrived largely due to her efforts, and you can see her legacy at UCSB each summer as 35 or 40 kids in wheelchairs have a blast playing tennis, volleyball and climbing the rock wall.
You couldn’t help but push yourself to the limit when Libby was around. That was true for her friends as well as her patients. She could get people to do most anything. Just when you thought your plate was full, she would ask you to help with one of her pet projects and you found yourself on board before you had even thought about it. She challenged us all to do things outside of our comfort zones, like running a marathon or riding a motorcycle. Often the thing that Libby introduced you to became your passion. She was everybody’s recreation therapist.
Her greatest adventure was her 26-year marriage to Jack Whaley, whom she originally met at East Carolina University in 1977. Boisterous and brimming with southern wit, generosity, and a constant stream of outrageous stories, he is a huge part of the puzzle that was Libby. Jack was her “rock,” her perfect foil, protector, feeder of her rock-and-roll side and her soul. They traveled a lot — often back home to visit family, but also to Europe, India, Vietnam, the South Pacific, Alaska. Wherever they went they got off the beaten track, and were sometimes lucky to get back. They rented a houseboat in Srinagar, visited remote island villages in Vanuatu, and motorcycled through tribal mountain areas in Thailand. They frequently pulled friends and family along for the ride, especially on trips to their second home in Los Barrilles on the east cape of Baja, California. There they could relax and little Libby could reel in the big fish.
Libby and Jack lived by the ocean for most of their time together in Santa Barbara. Their house on Shoreline Drive was always wide open to a multitude of friends and family. In the mid-‘90s they began hosting a small annual holiday chowder party. More and more people came each year, from all corners of their lives. The annual fête continued after they moved to San Roque, and the soup pot grew so big that Libby could literally fit inside it. Last Christmas they (unbelievably) ran out of chowder. With so many friends, it was time to find a bigger pot.
Libby loved to hike, bike, and kayak. She was an avid motorcyclist and an experienced rock-climber. In 1992 she led a first ascent up Hermit Rock off East Camino Cielo. She was so excited that day, and named the 5.8 climb “Wind Beneath Her Wings” for her dad.
She always had a beautiful garden and spent hours enjoying what the earth had to give her. She was also an artist and a precision craftsperson. She would paint places she had been and imagine those she would go to. She studied writing, painting, glass fusing and a variety of jewelry techniques. Her friends and family wear “Libby Made This” items proudly.
Even after 27 years on the west coast, a big part of Libby’s heart remained in North Carolina, where her sister, Debbie, brother Tony, and most of her family still lives. She stayed in close contact and made it a priority to get back there often. She especially loved the annual Sykes Family beach reunion, which kept her connected with aunts and cousins on her mother’s side long after Millie was gone. Her nieces – Rachel, Katie, Shelley, Laura Neal, and Leslie – were precious to her. The 3,000 miles between them did nothing to diminish their closeness. She loved having her nephew, Jackson, living nearby in Santa Barbara, and she was so very proud of his accomplishments.
Libby had breast cancer for a long time, but she never “battled” or “fought” against the disease. She simply adapted, drawing on the strength of her patients to think and live beyond illness or injury. She was a friend and inspiration to many survivors and was co-chair of the local Making Strides against Breast Cancer events for 2010-12.
She often wrote poems for special people at special times in their lives. This is a line from “Iron Man Dick,” which she wrote when her climbing pal Dick Saum passed away in 2000:
“Yet in my dreams we walk, and in my dreams we climb,
And we talk about plans for our next peak in time.”
Libby lived her life with intention, and she was always planning for the next peak, or project, or trip. There was a lot of living in Libby’s life, and she will be sorely missed.
A memorial celebration for Libby will be held on Friday, May 18 at 3:00 p.m. at Elings Park.
Donations in her honor may be made to Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, and sent to the Libby Whaley Slush Fund, c/o Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation, 2415 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara, CA 93105. The CRHF will use the funds to support therapeutic outreach programs, such as the Jr. Wheelchair Sports Camp.