Two inseparable spirits live on

Posted: February 14, 2013

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

After my 48 years of blessed marriage to Jean Barth Toll, pancreatic cancer swept her away in 1999. For all those years, and ever since, I have been a one-woman man. At the core of it was the appeal of her warm, gentle, and unpretentious spirit, with its unfailing kindness, deep friendships, and boundless capacity for our singular love.

She had another delightful self. Although she could dress as tastefully as a conservatively clad fashion model, she enjoyed clothing that was not only old but beat up. She often wore a sweater in which her elbows poked out of holes in the sleeves. Always a gentle soul, she was most often soft-spoken, yet, when she whistled with two index fingers in her mouth, she could sound like an oncoming steam engine.

Her sense of humor was delightfully offbeat. For example, although she was intensely physical - with skillful passions for swimming, tennis, skiing, sailing, canoeing, hiking, vegetable gardening, fishing, and clam digging - she often said she believed in the conservation of energy. That was her excuse when it came to revolving doors. She always waited for someone else to give a starting push before slipping in.

Her deep interest in children's education drew her into leadership roles in Lower Merion's public schools and library system. Her childhood study of the violin became a lifelong love of the instrument and classical music. Well before their college years, she encouraged our four wonderful daughters' formation into a string quartet of two violins, a viola, and cello. That led her into a fortuitous trusteeship in Philadelphia's New School of Music, which eventually merged into Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance.

Jean was a skilled book editor and historian , and her gifted application of those disciplines produced Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations, with her co-editor Mildred Gillam. Twelve years in preparation, the book has histories of hundreds of organizations, which were written and edited by volunteers. In 1996, Mayor Ed Rendell presented Jean and Mildred with the a citation for that "monumental work ... the great new civic resource you have produced."

Not all of Jean's literary skills were that serious. She was an incurable punster who also wrote exquisitely sensitive poetry and doggerel. In 1991 her two-in-one gift to me for Father's Day and our anniversary honored my sole hero - Mozart. It was a CD collection of Alfred Brendel's brilliant performances of the piano concerti, accompanied by Jean's handwritten verse:

"There is the sweetest dearest Pappy

"Whose wife lives in luxury's lappy

"A Mozart fan

"You are my Man

"You always make me happy."

Our inseparable spirits live on, and they will continue to do so long after an outgoing tide in Maine joins my ashes with hers in the ocean close to our house.

Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author. E-mail him at

comments powered by Disqus