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Rabson leaves legacy of activism

October 24, 2012 12:10 am


When Alice Rabson saw a wrong, she wanted to right it. The passionate activist died Monday at 92.



Alice Rabson could barely see out of her rearview mirror because of all the bumper stickers on the back of her purple Volkswagen Beetle, bold testament to her adamant support for a host of progressive causes.

Though the bumper stickers were a good start at announcing what she stood for, what they couldn't tell you was that Rabson had been an advocate for those causes--civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, human rights--her entire life.

Rabson died Monday morning while sitting at breakfast at Hughes Home in Fredericksburg. She was 92.

Wherever she went, whatever she did, Alice Rabson never shied away from expressing herself.

A retired Mary Washington College psychology professor, she was a co-founder and longtime counselor for the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence (now known as Empowerhouse).

She was a driving force in the effort to turn Mary Washington College and the University of Virginia co-ed in the early 1970s. She also was one of the first members of the local National Organization for Women chapter.

"I remember NOW working out of Alice's home for several months in the 1970s, lobbying for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment," said her longtime friend Becky Reed, a former Stafford County supervisor and attorney with Rappahannock Legal Services. "Alice had a number of causes that she believed in. But she didn't just believe in them--she got out and worked for them."

Fredericksburg blues singer Gaye Adegbalola remembers another moment from Rabson's early years in town--one that changed Adegbalola's life.

"My father and I were driving on Princess Anne Street by the Selective Service Board, which was in the old Post Office--what's now City Hall," she recalled. "And there, standing all alone in the pouring rain, holding a sign protesting the war in Vietnam, was Alice.

"Any time I have lacked courage to stand up for a cause," Adegbalola said, "the role model who comes to mind is always Alice Rabson."

Rabson was a firm believer in including her children, Ann and Steve, in political activities.

"We were always a very politically active family, and Alice was a great role model for a lot of people, including us," Ann Rabson said. "I was so proud of her. And my daughter was proud of her, and my daughter's daughter was proud of her. She was adventurous, and not afraid of anything."

Rabson's strong opinions, expressed over the years in letters to the editor, invariably prompted vitriolic responses. And, because she was not afraid of shaking things up where she worked, she was criticized by some of her colleagues for being "too outspoken."

After retiring from Mary Washington in 1985, Rabson joined the Peace Corps, serving as a health counselor in the Marshall Islands. She was 65 at the time.

Throughout her life, Rabson's greatest sources of pride were her children: Ann, an internationally acclaimed blues pianist, and Steve, who taught Japanese literature at Brown University until his retirement in 2006.

Steve Rabson moved to Fredericksburg last year to help care for his mother, who lived with Ann and Ann's husband, George Newman, the last three years of her life.

As recently as three weeks ago, Rabson was still having Steve drive her to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for her beloved Sunday Discussion Group, whose members debate the tough issues of the day.

"She led a full, productive life," Steve Rabson said. "She helped so many people personally and professionally. That's the most significant thing I learned from her--that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is to be able to help other people."

A few years ago, at a memorial service for friend Bill Lakeman, Rabson stepped forward to speak. The minister, the Rev. Jeff Jones, tried to lead her to the side of the pulpit where he thought it would be easier to step up on the dais. But Rabson insisted on going to the other side.

Jones tried again to lead her to his side, but Rabson insisted on going the route she had chosen.

Finally, someone in the congregation spoke out: "Alice will do it her way!"

The current UU minister, the Rev. Walter Braman, recalled that story yesterday.

"Six short words," he said, "that truly underscore her life and her person."

There will be a memorial gathering at the UU Fellowship on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 3 p.m., to celebrate Alice Rabson's life. All are invited.

Steve Watkins, professor emeritus of English at the University of Mary Washington, is a yoga teacher and award-winning author. He can be reached through his website, steve

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.