Rebecca Rhodes Stebbins

MOUNT DESERT — Rebecca Rhodes Stebbins, an independent, strong-willed woman of Midwestern, Yankee and English stock, died June 15, 2011 at Amesbury Village in Amesbury, Mass.

She was 99 years old and had lived much of her life in Seal Harbor, where she was born July 25, 1912.

Her father, Daniel Pomeroy Rhodes, was a man of independent means whose own father, James Ford Rhodes, made a fortune in the Ohio coal industry. An accomplished sportsman, the wealthy young bachelor met Rebecca’s mother, a British bluestocking named Bertha Harriet Johnson, while climbing in the Alps.

He took his British bride home to Brookline, Mass. and introduced her to Mount Desert Island, where his father had built a large summer home, Ravenscleft, in Seal Harbor.

The couple was renting the Penmans’ Craig Knowe cottage the summer baby Rebecca was born. Two weeks after her arrival, Rebecca met her future husband for the first time – 7-year-old Henry Stebbins.

“Becca’s older brother invited the Stebbins kids to come over and see the new Rhodes baby having her bath,” says Mrs. Stebbins’ daughter, Anne Funderburk of Seal Harbor. “So that was their first introduction.”

It would take 25 years, and some serious wooing before there would be a wedding.

Rebecca received her early education at the Park School and Beaver Country Day School in the Boston area. At her British mother’s insistence, she also attended the Hays Court School in Kent, and Kensington High School in London, England. She attended Smith College for a couple of years, but later transferred to the University of California-Berkeley; she graduated in 1934 with a degree in English and a socialist worldview.

Summers were always spent in Seal Harbor, where young Rebecca enjoyed hiking the trails in Acadia National Park, horseback riding, sailing, and playing tennis and golf. She and her six siblings also hung around with members of the Stebbins family, although Becca’s future husband was not usually part of her circle.

That changed the year she went home to Brookline after graduating from college. Henry, a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School, was taking his medical residency in Boston at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Becca’s mother invited him to dine from time to time. Before long, Henry was smitten by the handsome, leggy, athletic brunette and began wooing her in earnest. He was just one of three young men named Henry that Miss Rhodes had on her list of suitors.

“Actually it was very convenient dating three men with the same first name,” says Mrs. Funderburk. “Whenever a nosy sibling asked her who she went out with the night before she would just say ‘Henry’ and leave them none the wiser.”

Henry’s sister, Marcia, had once remarked that he was such a strong-willed personality himself that he should probably find a meek woman to marry. He ignored her advice.

He and Rebecca were married in June of 1937. Their honeymoon aboard a friend’s yacht was cut short, however, when Mrs. Stebbins started to exhibit signs of appendicitis. Her newly minted doctor husband not only diagnosed the problem; he also managed to get the boat into a harbor and his new wife to the hospital in time.

“You might say that was pretty typical of their nearly 60 years together,” says Mrs. Funderburk. “There was a lot of drama, thunder, and even some flying crockery in our house. But they always made it home safely. And it surely wasn’t dull.”

The Stebbinses settled in Marblehead, Mass., where they raised their four children, with summers in Seal Harbor divided between Cedar Cliff (the Stebbins cottage) and Ravenscleft.

In her middle years, Rebecca became a noted remedial reading teacher, working with dyslexic children on the North Shore of Boston. Even in retirement she continued as a volunteer teacher, working at schools on islands off the Maine coast. She also worked extensively with recovering alcoholics, facilitating group therapy sessions at the Mount Desert Hospital in Bar Harbor.

She continued to hike and play badminton, winning trophies well into her 60s. She celebrated her 70th birthday at 11,000 feet at Hurricane Pass in the Grand Tetons.

She and her husband retired to live in Seal Harbor year round in 1970, buying a boxy yellow house on Steamboat Wharf Road. When the Stebbinses weren’t in residence at “The Yellow Box,” holding weekly cut-throat bridge parties with their friends, they were likely on some world traveling adventure, visiting such places India, Turkey, Pakistan, North Africa, South America and Europe.

“They ran into a little trouble at the border of Morocco and Tunisia,” Mrs. Funderburk recalls. While they were waiting to get rental car papers sorted out another car tried to go through without stopping, despite the guard’s cries of ‘arret, arret!’ A shrill whistle pierced the air and the car came to a screeching halt. It was my mother whistling through her fingers.”

When Dr. Stebbins died in 1996, his wife decided she did not want to live alone in the big yellow house and she moved to a retirement village in a New Hampshire college town, where she felt certain there would be lots of stimulating conversation with retired scholars. But after just two months she called her youngest daughter, Linda Stebbins, complaining that her fellow residents were all rich Boston Republicans who only talked about the stock market. She wanted out.

For the next 12 years Mrs. Stebbins lived in an apartment she had built at Linda’s home in Kensington, N.H. looking out on horse paddocks, woods and gardens from four windows in her big sitting room. Mrs. Stebbins had a great love of the natural world, noticing unusual wildflowers, interesting rock formations, strange clouds and spectacular sunsets. She was very fond of animals and almost always had dogs and cats keeping her company.

She especially liked watching the great variety of birds at her many feeders. In her later years, when she could no longer hike the mountains she loved, she enjoyed being driven on excursions through the White Mountains.

Three years ago, at age 96, multiple physical issues resulted in the necessity of her being moved to Amesbury Village. After a difficult adjustment to such a dependent lifestyle, Mrs. Stebbins settled in and became a favorite of the staff there. She continued to enjoy frequent visits from her children. Just three days before her death she was laughing with her daughter Linda as they enjoyed strawberry ice cream.

Mrs. Stebbins is survived by her four children and their partners: Anne and Lance Funderburk of Seal Harbor; David Dows Stebbins and his wife Rose of Camden; Susan and Roger Ward of Becancour, Quebec; and Linda Stebbins and James E. Carter, Jr. of Kensington, N.H.

She was predeceased by all six of her siblings.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Open Door Recovery Center; P.O. Box 958, Ellsworth ME 04605; or, to A Safe Place, 6 Greenleaf Woods, Rte. 101, Portsmouth, NH 03801.

A celebration of Rebecca’s life is scheduled for Saturday, July 23, 2011 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish Hall in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Know when to pay your respects.