It’s hard to imagine a finer human being than Brenda Tipps. I do not use that phrase lightly: Brenda was a person one so rarely meets in one’s lifetime. We met twenty-eight years ago, and for me, the friendship born of that meeting has been life- changing.
Brenda was extraordinary. She was beautiful and classy but always in an understated way. I am sure that she was completely unaware of how her physical presence affected and captivated her circle of friends. Neither vanity nor jealousy of others ever wormed their way into Brenda’s life.
Those of us who had the good fortune to enroll in an OLLI class with Brenda know that she possessed a trove of literary information. She deeply loved and understood books and poetry and plays. She spoke never to demonstrate her brilliance or knowledge but only to contribute to the topic under discussion. Her comments were wise, considered, and often slyly witty. In her classes she was supportive and respectful of participants and she had the ability to respond to all remarks with insight and charm. When Brenda spoke, the class paid attention.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to co-teach with Brenda. Working with her was a joy. She was organized, she was inspired, she was funny, she was enthusiastic and most of all she was generous in sharing her skills. She believed in co–teaching in the purest sense of the word: she had no interest in being “THE TEACHER .” As her apprentice in the world of OLLI teaching, I learned so much from watching Brenda’s ways of engaging with class members and delicately and kindly nudging them through the course sessions.
Brenda was an accomplished actress who never sought center stage. Her voice was low and clear and perfect for the theatre. To hear Brenda read a poem was to hear the voice of a woman who could have chosen, in her words, “To tread the boards,” as her grandmother in England had done many years before. As an actress she had the ability to play serious roles, but her sense of humour and timing made her perfect for comedic parts. We were so lucky that she chose to share her considerable skills with us instead of the British theatre world.
She wrote wonderfully. Her poetry and stories took us to Mexico, introduced us to friends and characters from her life, and allowed us into her very English soul. Her writing reflected her person: it was clear and elegant and without pretension.
I realize that what I have written so far is a eulogy for Brenda – perhaps a piece for the paper in the obituary or a memorial page. I have not described the grief I feel at the loss of my friend: the remainder of this blog is an attempt to put into words how deeply Brenda affected my life.
Brenda gave me courage – courage to feel, courage to write, courage to share my work with others. I valued her opinion not only in my writing but in all matters that we discussed; she was never mean nor critical but always generous and gentle and wise.
Without Brenda’s encouragement, I doubt that I would have entered the world of OLLI. In those first few class sessions when I felt surrounded and intimidated by so many brilliant minds, Brenda was a steady presence and an example for me of how to communicate effectively and disagree with eloquence and wit.
Brenda and I came from the very opposite ends of England – she from the South and I from the far industrial North. Despite our very different backgrounds, upbringings and accents, Brenda and I immediately became friends. We discussed the experiences of our separate arrivals in America, we marveled at how open and welcoming American society was compared to the rule-bound, social etiquette-driven England we recently had left. We spoke of how we were stunned and thrilled by the vastness of America and sighed about how we missed the sheep-dotted, green dampness of the English landscape, the quintessential village pubs, and the small, friendly shops of our local towns.
We talked of English food: of the horrors of dishes like tripe and onions, and cold, wobbly blancmanges and the joys of Pimms and cider and scones and really good fish and chips. We shared the sadness of homesickness and of the ocean-wide distance from our English families and friends.
We recalled our school and college days and reminisced about foul school lunches and Dickensian teachers; we bemoaned the fact that we were both absolute failures in math and that numbers had, and would forever, terrify us. We confided that we had received so many similar disapproving comments on our school reports:
“If Brenda would only pay more attention in class,” or “Joyce could do so much better if she would try harder.”
Fortunately for me, Brenda had a wonderful sense of the absurd. We both shared a love of mimicry and were particularly fond of British regional dialects. Our conversations frequently became not just dialogues between individuals, but were peopled with the voices of teachers and shopkeepers and those ancient and peculiar relatives we remembered from our childhood family gatherings. We both had a fondness for vaudeville songs, and solely for our own amusement, we performed both the mawkish and the raucous numbers from the music hall repertoire. Brenda plonked out the tunes on the keyboard and I squawked out whatever words we could remember.
It drove our husbands spare.
Throughout her illness and especially during her final days, Brenda showed me how, in the face of uncertainty, to live with grace and stoicism, with amazing humour and resilience, and with patience for those whom she loved. I saw Brenda for the last time shortly before she died. She was tired and frail but not yet far away and we talked quietly about a film we had both recently watched. We spoke also of England and the war, of her family, especially her daughter, and we also laughed a little. It was a conversation akin to so many we had shared during our long time as close friends.
Brenda gave to me a friendship without rancor, without envy or pettiness: she helped me to trust in the strength of another person. We developed a relationship enriched by times of wonderful hilarity and release and also by times of quiet reflection, intimacy and candour. Most importantly for me, it was a friendship based on mutual support and respect, a friendship shared with the person I considered to be my twin soul and my so-much- better self. I will miss Brenda’s steady, touchstone presence in my life.
Responding to the muse of grief is difficult and painful and, yet, the need to write about Brenda has given me the opportunity to distill the essence of who she was and what she meant to me as a friend. I know, and I am comforted, by the sense that her influence and example of living will remain with me in the coming years.
Brenda once said with a smile and her unique touch of wry humor:
“ I like to read aloud because I suppose I like the sound of my own voice.”
I loved and will miss that voice.
In 2018, Brenda and Joyce taught an OLLI class called “How to Read Poetry Aloud for Inspiration and Fun”. You can see them “performing” one of the poems in this photo and enjoy its text here.
Brenda was scheduled to teach “Inconvenient Women:Three Plays“ with Joyce this Fall. The class will still take place, and Joyce will still teach it with Cath Mason.
Brenda at the 2013 Great Books conference in Sarasota
Brenda died on August 20. Joyce speaks for many OLLI members who knew and loved her. She has contributed several posts to OLLI Connects, and you can find them using the “Search” tool on our home page.
Her daughter, Emily, has created a Web page to honor her memory. Here is the link and her invitation to you– Editor
Hello to Brenda Tipps’s friends and family,
By now you’ve heard that Brenda passed away last Thursday. I have set up a site where those of us who knew and loved her can share our thoughts in words and images. Here is the link to the site:
It is fairly simple to navigate and post. If you click on “contribute” in the top right under her name, you will see your options for adding material. Please feel free to reach out to me if you are having any trouble. I believe that in our grief and separation, it will be a balm to have a place to express our loss and celebrate this incredible person together. It has already helped me tremendously over the last few days to talk about her with people who knew her. I will send this to more people as we continue to inform Brenda’s many friends, far and wide.
Emily (Brenda’s daughter)
Joyce Carpenter studied drama at college in England and has degrees in special education and social work. She joined OLLI-USF in 2010, has taken OLLI courses in literature poetry, history, improv, reader’s theatre and co-taught drama courses for OLLI. She is a member of the great books and the poetry groups.