Barbara (Kessler) Belkin passed away in late January following a rapid and unexpected decline in her health. We, her close family members, are writing this to say goodbye to our beloved wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother, and to tell a bit of her life story.
Barbara, the elder of the two daughters of Sylvia and Murray Kessler, was born on September 26, 1942 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country where Murray and his two brothers owned a ladies’ garment factory. Her father was warm and generous, and Barbara was particularly close with him. The sense of loss experienced by Barbara when her father died at a young age remained with her throughout her life.
After graduating from Lebanon High School, Barbara attended Penn State University for one year, but then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Medical Technology from the School of Allied Medical Professions. Barbara and her future husband Barry Belkin met as summer camp counselors in the Pocono mountains of northeast Pennsylvania. Following Barbara’s college graduation, she and Barry were married. Their shared deep affection for and commitment to each other marked their 57 years of marriage.
Barbara and Barry began their married life in Ithaca, NY, where Barry was a graduate student in mathematics at Cornell University and Barbara worked in a Cornell research laboratory on projects related to the development of a treatment for psoriasis and to the study of the effects of weightlessness on the body chemistry of the Apollo astronauts. Barbara was particularly proud of the fact that her laboratory work supported the early Apollo space program.
After Barry completed his graduate studies at Cornell, he and Barbara moved first to Bryn Mawr, PA and four years later to West Chester, PA. Their first son David was born in 1968 and their second son Richard was born in 1971. David was diagnosed at age two with Cystic Fibrosis at a time when a child born with CF was not expected to live past age 16. Keeping David out of the hospital was a huge challenge for both Barbara and Barry. Barbara was his primary care manager, a responsibility that she met with the dedication of a loving mother and the competency of a medical professional. Barbara’s ability to lead a life of fulfillment and meaning even while caring for her chronically ill son was a source of strength and inspiration for our family.
Once the boys reached school age, Barbara began a new professional career in the food business. She worked on locating food sources, in product quality assurance, and in new product development. In this work, Barbara combined a number of her strong interests. She had discovered during her years in Ithaca that she loved working in a lab. She also loved to cook. Finally, she loved to travel. Her career in the food business provided Barbara with the opportunity to pursue all three of these passions. To involve her family, she sometimes brought her work home. First Barry, and then David and Rich became her new food product taste testers. Barry and Barbara occasionally collaborated on math problems related to Barbara’s work, such as that of formulating meatballs to minimize unit cost subject to product quality constraints. Barbara’s later work in new product development included important contributions to the development of Steak-Umm and KFC’s Popcorn Chicken. While pursuing her career, Barbara was always fully present at home: up and out of the house every morning by 7:00 AM, but always there when Rich and David came home from school, and already in the process of cooking the family dinner. Barbara had achieved the elusive goal of perfectly blending a career and family.
While she was working for the Mrs. Paul’s division of the Campbell Soup Company, Barbara’s travel for work took her all over the world. In search of underutilized species of fish for Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks, Barbara traveled to Thailand, to the outermost Aleutian Islands, to the southern tip of Argentina, to New Zealand and to Korea. Eventually Barbara’s passion for traveling rubbed off on Barry and their travel together took them far and wide, including a visit to the bottom of an active diamond mine in Kimberley, South Africa.
When Rich and Liza Presser married, Liza became the daughter that Barbara never had. Barbara loved cooking and was well-known among friends and family for her culinary skills, particularly her baking. She and Liza spent many hours together in the kitchen, with Barbara sharing her favorite recipes, even her most closely held recipe – that for schnecken. After Rich and Liza moved to CA, Barbara would bring a homemade cake with her on the plane to celebrate special occasions. When the Santa Barbara family visited PA, berry picking at a nearby orchard would be followed by strawberry shortcake and berry pie making with Danya (granddaughter) and Ryan (grandson). Barbara fully understood the power of food to create family memories and lasting bonds.
As David approached the age of 30, his condition worsened to the point that he needed a lung transplant. David never received the lung transplant, and he died at age 30. The deep sense of loss felt by Barbara was in recent years accompanied by an equally deep sense of pride that Rich (now Dr. Richard Belkin, pulmonologist) now has adult patients who, with the treatments that have become available, can expect to live to age 60 or more.
Prior to the relocation of Barry and Barbara to Santa Barbara in 2015, Barbara had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, the likely precursor to eventual Alzheimer’s dementia. Participation for two years in a clinical trial to test a possible treatment failed to alter the course of the disease. While Barbara is no longer with us in person, her spirit is alive and well in each of those whom she loved and who loved her. The memory of this talented, elegant, and loving woman remains with us.