For years, Libby Siegel had been telling her family that when she turned 60, she would travel to Africa. “I thought it would be a [leisure] trip,” recalled her son, Bill Siegel. But instead, his mother enrolled in an international studies program through the University of Minnesota, studied Swahili, then spent a semester in Nairobi, Kenya, working for the National Council of Churches.
That wasn’t the last of her late-in-life adventures. Six years later in 1995, she boarded the “Peace Train” and traveled across Europe and Asia to the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.
“She did a lot of things other women her age wouldn’t have considered — going on a train with a bunch of people you don’t know, to a country you’ve never been to,” recalled Carolyn Light Bell, a longtime neighbor and friend. But that was Libby, an independent spirit with a deep interest in global affairs and women’s rights. “She was way ahead of her time,” said Bell. “She was trying to figure out where she could make a difference.”
Siegel died at home in Minneapolis on June 19 at age 88. She was born in Minneapolis to a Russian immigrant father and a Finnish mother, and attended Washburn High School and then Antioch College in Ohio, where she met Richard Siegel, her husband of 60 years. She began a career in education, teaching at Burroughs Elementary School in Minneapolis and earning a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota before starting her family. In an era when most women with children stayed home, Siegel was determined to resume her career. “She was a feminist before we knew what that was,” said her daughter Janet Ha.
In 1968, when the youngest of her four children entered kindergarten, Siegel returned to work, teaching second grade at Northrop Collegiate School, a private school for girls. “She was trying to find ways to help young women maximize their potential,” said her daughter Margie Siegel.
In 1974, Siegel became lower school principal of the newly co-educational Blake School, where she butted heads with those who opposed the merger of the boys’ and girls’ campuses, her son recalled. Still, “she relished the challenge of being on the ground floor of something exciting — the transformation of the old boys’ network into a co-ed culture,” he said.
While at Blake, she also advocated for more inclusive policies, holiday schedules and celebrations with respect to religion, said Light Bell. “She helped create an atmosphere where Jewish children found a place.”
Siegel was opinionated and passionate without being overbearing, said Light Bell. “She didn’t rant.” But she also didn’t back down. “She was always out there on the cutting edge.”
And she was a role model for activism. “She taught me about challenging the status quo,” said her son. “Not to be a rebel but to fight for a more just, fair world.”
After she left Blake, Siegel ran the legal resource office at Chrysalis, a Center for Women, and co-founded M.Y. Options, a support and education group for middle-age women. Later she completed training as a counselor in the postgraduate program in Bowen Family Systems Theory in Washington, D.C., and began a private counseling practice that she continued into her mid-80s.
Siegel had a large network of friends and belonged to many groups, including multiple book clubs, an over-80 group and a “miracles group” of women who shared an interest in healing and spirituality, said daughter Margie. She also had a mealtime ritual she called “attuning” — holding hands around the table to share energy and love. “She brought us all along on her journey.”
She is survived by her daughters Ellie T. Siegel, Janet Ha and Margie Siegel; her son, Bill Siegel; eight grandchildren, and her brother, Arnold Epstein. Services have been held.