Obituary: Barbara Jean Ellenhorn

Beloved grandmother, social worker, volunteer

Barbara Jean Ellenhorn, a clinical social worker, museum docent, tireless homemaker, passionate gardener and loving wife, mother and grandmother, died peacefully in her sleep on January 21. She was 93 years old.

Her family includes her sons, Theodore (Kristy Ellenhorn) and Ross (Rebecca Wolfe); daughter Maureen; and grandchildren, Zael, Django, Max, Jasper, Stellan, and Louisa Clare. Her family also includes her beloved Alford cousins, nieces and nephews, and she remained particularly close with her cousin, Dorothy Walker. She was predeceased by her husband of 60 years, Lewis Jerome Ellenhorn.

Barbara was born on a subsistence farm in Elk Grove, California, where, for part of her childhood, there was no running water or electricity. Her mother rode a horse to teach in a one-room schoolhouse; her father worked the farm and sold milk from their cow. She had an older brother, Sherman, and sister, Donna (both deceased). In her teen years she packed plums (“Fun, and with a rough crowd,” she would say), harvested hops, and picked grapes (“awful”), and loved her time on both the decorating committee and tennis team in high school.

In young adulthood she held office jobs, including a year at the top-secret atomic weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, recording worker exposure to radiation. After moving to San Francisco in her early twenties, cousin Harry introduced her to Lew, a musician stationed with the ​Presidio army​ band. After three months of courtship they married and moved to North Hollywood​,​ where he worked as a studio musician and she a secretary. (Notably, they lived in the home of actress Georgia Hale, one of Charlie Chaplin’s leading ladies.) While working at a management firm, she met Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who hired her as their fan mail secretary, and for the next 10 years she worked for them, often from the couple’s home. Most any letter or autographed glossy of Curtis or Leigh — from 1957 to 1967 — were penned by her.

As she was raising her children and being a homemaker, she returned to college, first earning her bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona, then a Master of Social Work from USC. She also worked as a librarian at the Claremont Public Library, a job she relished, and as a volunteer at House of Ruth, a nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse.

Upon completion of her MSW, she was hired to be on the clinical staff at Cal Tech’s counseling center, then at Tri-City Mental Health, followed by a private practice in one of the mid-century buildings on Yale Avenue. In her mid-sixties she became a volunteer docent at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, a position she held for 15 years. She said of her time at the museum, “It was one of the great pleasures of my life. I loved it there.”

She loved hiking and camping with her family and later, with her husband, in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite. The two of them traveled extensively to East Asia, Europe, Mexico, Chile, Canada, Africa and throughout the United States. For a semester of one of his sabbaticals, the family made their home in London. When he worked for the Peace Corps in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the family lived in a logging camp at the base of Mt. Rainer in Washington, and spent a long summer in a Puerto Rican rainforest. She encouraged the creativity and artistic expression of her children, and, perhaps given her own farming background, was open to housing the many animals that found their way into the home: dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, frogs, newts, turtles, wounded pigeons and birds, ducks, rats, mice, and a single parakeet.

For ​the first half of their ​56 years in Claremont, Mr. Ellenhorn was a professor at ​Pitzer College​​. ​She formed long lasting friendships through this connection, but also with colleagues of her own, other parents, and peers. She enjoyed the company of these treasured friends and was a wonderful host to the many parties at the Ninth Street house, joyful events full of music, martinis, and good company.

Julie Albert was a ​dedicated and attentive friend. She also formed deep bonds with Al Schwartz and Jill Benton, and with the passing of their husbands, an ever-closer and loving friendship with Sue Rosen. Her nephew, Kent Harber, and niece, Deborah Russell, were ​thoughtful and loving family members, and particularly supportive following Mr. Ellenhorn’s death.

“Barbara lived with dignity and grace, an insatiable curiosity about the world, other people, and up until ​the day of her passing, a sense of humor; the ability to laugh about life in all its joys and absurdities,” her family shared. She was an avid reader of nonfiction, the Courier, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker.

“In her final days, she spent time with each of her grandchildren, and as was customary with Barbara, she did what she had always done; she inquired about their lives with her characteristic candor, attentive interest, and courage,” her family added. “One of her last conversations was with her friend, Sue. Barbara was barely hanging on, but when Sue called, she quickly brightened, asking about Sue’s upcoming trip to Egypt. Even in her final days she was curious about life and interested in the lives of others.

“The family asks that you remember and pay tribute to Barbara by staying curious, paying attention, and maintaining interest in both the natural world and the humans who inhabit it, always, and to the end.”


Submit a Comment

Share This