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Barbara Sisson, retired teacher active in arts

Three weeks before she died, Barbara "Baba" Sisson decided to attend her 65th class reunion at Vassar College. Determined not to let poor health or lack of a traveling companion get in her way, Mrs. Sisson, a retired teacher and a longtime resident of Lincoln, drove her Saab nearly 200 miles to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the celebration.

Upon returning home, she assured her children, " 'I was good; I didn't go over 80,' " according to her daughter Wendy of Harvard.

"She had this boundless energy, a sense of independence," said Elizabeth Ahern, a friend of Mrs. Sisson's and her art instructor at DeCordova Museum. "She had a great appreciation for the joy of life."

Mrs. Sisson, a longtime member of the DeCordova Museum's Board of Trustees and a director at a community theater group, died June 30 of heart disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. She was 86.

Born in New York City to Frances and Lydia Blagden, Mrs. Sisson graduated from Vassar in 1942.

Mrs. Sisson met her husband, John, at a friend's wedding. They married in 1943. In 1952, after John, who later served for many years as a physician at MGH, returned from service in World War II and completed his residency, the couple moved to Lincoln with their three children.

Wendy Sisson said her mother never saw herself in the role of suburban housewife. Soon after moving to Lincoln, Mrs. Sisson pursued a master's degree in English at Wellesley College.

"She was a natural feminist, but not because it was her politics," Wendy Sisson said. "Those were women running the schools [she attended], so the world she was in was run by women."

After earning her degree in 1957, Mrs. Sisson took at job at Abbot Academy, a boarding school for girls in Andover. During her tenure, she served for several years as chairwoman of the English department. She retired in 1973, when the school became part of Phillips Academy, Andover.

Mrs. Sisson had a lifelong love of the stage that stemmed from her participation in high school and college theater, and in 1954, she began directing plays with the community theater group the Lincoln Players.

With a keen visual sense and passion for a good story, Mrs. Sisson put on countless plays, musicals, and cabarets until 1995.

"She had an ear and an eye for the whole thing, down to where to be on stage, how to project your voice, down to what makes acting believable," Wendy Sisson said. "Her specialty was making the whole thing work."

Mrs. Sisson helped to put on festivals and pageants and raise funds for the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln as an overseer and trustee. After her husband died in 2000, she continued to pursue her love of art and travel, spending time in Italy and Greece, where she expanded her knowledge of painting.

"In terms of making art, many people hold back. They are fearful of doing something wrong," said Ahern, who instructed Mrs. Sisson for many years. "Barbara never did; she'd just jump in and produce and would encourage others by her actions."

Mrs. Sisson was a longtime member of the Boston Parliamentary Law Club, an all-women debating group.

Marnie Wengren, a longtime friend and member of the club, said Mrs. Sisson gave passionate arguments, and on several occasions, delivered her speeches in rhyming verse.

"She always had a light touch to anything she did," Wengren said. "Barbara believed in getting things done. If it was a cause she believed in, she would wholeheartedly give her support."

Mrs. Sisson gave generously to many charitable organizations, said her daughter Emilie Osborn of San Francisco. Among the many causes Mrs. Sisson supported was prisoner rights. She mentored prisoners at MCI-Norfolk through the Partakers program, which allows inmates to take classes at Boston University.

"She was a whirlwind, a force of nature," Osborn said. "She was a real inspiration for all of us to always seize the day and live life fully."

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Sisson leaves a son, John of McClellanville, S.C.; four grandsons; and three granddaughters. A memorial service will be held 2 p.m. Saturday in the First Parish Church in Lincoln.

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