STOCKBRIDGE -- Under azure skies, graced by gentle Indian Summer breezes, a crowd of at least 250 admirers, friends and family members filled the First Congregational Church, U.C.C., on Monday to celebrate the life of Jane Pratt Fitzpatrick, who died Nov. 9 at her Prospect Hill home. She would have been 90 on Monday.
In song, stories, anecdotes and humor-laced reminiscences, the founder of Country Curtains, owner of the Red Lion Inn and donor to numerous arts and other organizations was portrayed as a formidable, occasionally intimidating leader and innovator who mellowed in later years but remained true to her vision and central role in the community and to her long partnership with her husband John "Jack" Fitzpatrick, who died in July 2011.
The Rev. Brent Damrow, pastor of the historic 1824 church whose congregation was organized in 1734, led the service, with hymns sung by the public and by members of the church choir led by Tracy Wilson, and a Schubert quartet played by Boston Symphony musicians.
Opera singer, cabaret performer and Stockbridge native Maureen O'Flynn offered the emotionally powerful World War II anthem, "I'll Be Seeing You."
"We are called to be truth-tellers," Damrow stated, "and if we are to be really truthful and really honest, we need to acknowledge that we come to this room with many and sometimes conflicting emotions.
"We come for the joy and the gift that Jane was to each and every one of us," he declared. "We come with sorrow, that we know we can no longer sit with her on the porch and chat. Each of us may hold some uncertainty about what her passing means for the town of Stockbridge and for the Berkshires."
In a light-hearted account of the family's frequent early moves and her mother's love for houses, Nancy Fitzpatrick described "her finest, most important moments helping people make their homes warm and loving, and also making warm and loving spaces for travelers."
She noted that her parents had lived in six homes before coming to Stockbridge 56 years ago, where they had two more, on Main Street and finally, in late 1976, "the party house" on Prospect Hill.
"It was the expansive outlook, the incredible view from that house that seemed to feed her soul," said her eldest daughter. "She often mentioned feeling comforted by the view of this church's steeple from the garden. She wouldn't have been able to take on so much if she hadn't had the solace of that nurturing retreat."
From their first white Colonial farm in Shelburne, Vt., overlooking Lake Champlain, to apartments in Brighton, near Middlebury, Vt., Syracuse, N.Y., New Bedford, and to historic houses in Whitman near Quincy, and West Townsend near Fitchburg, Nancy Fitzpatrick described her mother's devotion to ruffled curtains, crafts, cooking and baking "in her housewife years" as well as her abhorrence of living-room wallpaper and Venetian blinds.
Recounting the modest beginnings of Country Curtains at home in Whitman, Fitzpatrick remembered how "the fact that Country Curtains began with 80 back orders is something that haunted my mother for most of her business life and is still hanging over the head of people at Country Curtains."
The move to an imposing, elegant house on Main Street in Stockbridge with a formal staircase, a butler's pantry and "lots of windows for curtains," she said, was a "big deal" because "the curtains which now came in two styles and two colors would have their own room, plus it had seven bathrooms." To afford the house, which posted a "Country Curtains" sign in front, the Vermont farm was sold.
Soon, the mail-order business moved to its own office nearby before relocating to the Red Lion Inn, "my mother's most audacious and enjoyable project," said Nancy Fitzpatrick. "Finally, it seemed as if there was something that could really absorb all of her energy -- 100 bedrooms to decorate, unlimited places to put her antique-shop finds. It involved everything she really loved, from looking at wallpaper books to talking to strangers. She seemed to relax."
She also described her mother as "pretty intense and pretty fierce," recalling how she once "stormed downstairs in her bathrobe and curlers" at 2 a.m. to break up her husband's poker party by "throwing the men out. Imagine my father's reaction to that!"
"My mother was kind of prudish and uptight," Fitzpatrick recalled. "In those days, she didn't like to drink and she didn't like it when others did. You can imagine my surprise and my secret delight when one night, at a dinner party, I overheard her giggling and talking in a Southern accent."
Summing up her mother's determined self-assurance, she remembered how she "spoke with great confidence, in short, to-the-point sentences and she emphasized small things. There weren't many grey areas with Jane Fitzpatrick."
"To every house, she brought her positive attitude, good judgment, creativity and resilience," Fitzpatrick concluded. "Thank you mom, I'll always love you and keep you close."
Citing descriptions of his grandmother as "intense, fierce, stubborn," grandson Casey Meade Rothstein-Fitzpatrick acknowledged that "certainly, as a child, I was as intimidated as anybody. In recent years, I really felt that she became a lot sweeter she realized she didn't have the energy to maintain that intensity anymore."
"She maintained that critical eye but became more tolerant of the impurities around her, in her environment," he said. "She also never failed to miss an opportunity to tell me that she loved me and even that she liked my hair."
Recalling how Jane Fitzpatrick rescued the Berkshire Theatre Festival, starting in 1975, CEO and Artistic Director Kate Maguire, who arrived in 1995, said: "As you know, theater is a precarious business, so to say she only saved it in 1975 would be wrong. She was always saving it, always attending to it, as she did so many things always with an eye to making the world she lived in stronger and better."
Maguire saluted Fitzpatrick's contributions to the playhouse, the Norman Rockwell Museum and many other organizations.
When thanked for her generosity, Maguire remembered, Fitzpatrick's standard response was: "We just wanted everybody to have a good time."
In their own words
Among the recollections of Jane Fitzpatrick offered by speakers at her memorial service and celebration of life on Monday at the First Congregational Church in Stockbridge:
♦ Kate Maguire, CEO/artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group (including the Berkshire Theatre Festival): "She often told us: The customer is always right. Executives don't cry, Kate. Be honest and transparent with the numbers. Do not ever put anything in writing that possesses anger and resentment. As a matter of fact, don't hold on to resentment. It's a waste of time. Keep your eye on what needs to get done."
♦ Kate Maguire (describing a meeting with Jane Fitzpatrick at the Red Lion): "I had produced a full season of very serious dramas, provocative work. The audience was divided. Jane said: ‘Jack and I hated everything you did. We do happy endings. We just wanted everyone to be happy.' My name is Maguire, I'm half-Irish and half-Greek, we do tragedy really well. Happy endings, a new concept. Great lesson .It wasn't that she needed to see a season full of fluff and smiling faces all the time. She was a realist. ... Somewhere along the line, she determined she would create something that would bring an entire community a brighter, stronger, less chaotic life. She endeavored to lead us all to happiness. How lucky for us all!"
♦ Casey Meade Rothstein-Fitzpatrick (grandson): "All that intensity, stubbornness and ferocity which she exhibited in her life was rooted in her deep sense of caring for her community, her family, for the hospitality of visitors to the Red Lion Inn and the people whose homes were graced with her curtains. This is very inspiring to me."
♦ Nancy Fitzpatrick (eldest daughter): "Not everything was perfect. Something happened to my mother in New Bedford; she went into the hospital and when she came out, she told me that she couldn't have more children. I couldn't figure out why she was so sad and why [younger sister] Ann and I weren't enough for her. (Laughter)"
♦ The Rev. Brent Damrow, pastor, First Congregational Church: "Finally, there has to be gratitude, not just for what she did, but how she did it, and for who she was .Those of us who know Jane know that what she did was only part of the story. No less remarkable was how she lived and how she did it all, with determination and care, with fierceness and loyalty, with grace and hospitality, with attention to detail and unbounded optimism."
♦ Pastor Damrow: "Jane was full of grace and goodness, and I'm saddened that I no longer get to learn from her and sit with her. In some ways, it is indeed the end of an era. ... As we live, you and I will continue the era of Jane Fitzpatrick as long as we remember what she taught us. For everything, friends, there is indeed a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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