Barbara Rea Pearson, a dancer, choreographer and educator, who was a mainstay of the Lehigh Valley arts community for more than 40 years, passed away on July 9, 2018, after suffering from cancer. She died with her loving husband Victor Willems by her side. Pearson had extensive training in classical ballet, modern and theater dance, and was an authority on Renaissance, Baroque and other early dance forms. She was a featured performer at Bethlehem’s Musikfest in its earliest years, created a long running Renaissance pageant at Lehigh University’s Packer Memorial Church and served as an Arts-in-Education consultant in schools around the country. Her specialty was teaching core curriculum through the use of dance and the arts.Pearson moved to the Lehigh Valley in the early 1970’s when her first husband, John Haskew Pearson, became the head of the drama department at Lehigh. In 1976, Pearson’s husband died suddenly, leaving her to raise three small children on her own. It was then Pearson moved the family to the house she would live in for the rest of her life in historic downtown Bethlehem.The following year, Pearson and several of her late husband’s students formed The People’s Theater Company in Bethlehem. It performed family oriented shows at street festivals, parks, schools and other venues. Early productions included “Petrushka,” inspired by the Stravinsky ballet; “Cats,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem; and the fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” The group also performed the annual Renaissance pageant, “Christmas Revels.” It featured elaborate costumes, a sword fight, and live music and dance, all meticulously researched and choreographed by Pearson. In the 1980’s, Pearson founded a dance school with more than 100 students, served as an adjunct professor teaching Movement in Early Childhood Education at Moravian College and Northampton Community College, and completed numerous residencies in public schools with programs designed to integrate movement into the teaching of math, science and language arts. She was also a founding director of the Arts in Education Coalition of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. Pearson was born in Montreal, Canada, on October 29, 1946, to American parents. She was raised in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her father, Samuel A. Rea was the President of the Rea Magnet and Wire Company. Her mother, Eleanor Appel, was a visual artist and art teacher.Growing up, Pearson developed what would become lifelong passions, swimming and sailing at her parents’ summer cottage in Leland, Michigan, vacationing with her large extended family — and especially dancing. Her sister Polly Rea remembers attending a production of the ballet the Nutcracker when they were children. She says Pearson exclaimed, “I want to do that!”Pearson attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and spent her junior year at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She remained passionate about French language and culture for the rest of her life. Later, she obtained a Masters of Liberal Arts at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut. In 2006, Pearson married Willems. Together they began an exciting new life together that included biking and long walks, entertaining friends, visiting family, and beloved annual trips to Paris. Their love for one another and enthusiasm for the life they shared was obvious to all who knew them. Willems cared for Pearson throughout her illness, until the end of her life, with steadfast devotion.In addition to Willems, Pearson is survived by her mother, Eleanor Golden; her sister, Polly Rea; her two half-brothers, Scott and James Rea; her step-siblings, Catherine Golden, Charles Golden, Ann McCann, Beth Raymond, and Bob and Chip Zimmerman; her sister-in-law, Wendy Thompson; her three adult children, Vincent, Arthur and Mary Pearson; her daughters-in-law, Sara Beszterczey and Jane Pearson; her four grandchildren, Haskew, Samuel, John and Evan Pearson; her step-daughter, Hunter Pearson Silides and children, Stephen, Christian, Grace, and Hope Silides; her step-daughter, Ingrid Willems and children Chloe, Erike, and Olivia Cusano; and her niece, Sarah Rea. She is predeceased by her father Samuel A. Rea and her brother Samuel A. Rea, Jr. Friends and relatives will remember Pearson as an extremely energetic and creative force, who was passionate about music, art, history and above all friends and family. She was not a solo performer. She wanted everyone to join the dance.
A memory from Carolyn Chalmers ’68I was Barbie’s roommate at Carleton in 1965-66, our sophomore year. She was known as Barbie then. In the mid-60’s, as a nineteen year old, Barbie was arty and very cool. She was sophisticated–studying modern dance and French. She was physically beautiful and emotionally vibrant, as she remained throughout her life.We lived on second Gridley, an old wooden building just off the bald spot on the women’s side of campus. On the stroke of six, the ‘house mother’ would lead the women residents down to the dining room in the basement of Gridley where we would all sit down for supper at the same time. The men’s dorms were on the other side of the bald spot. Men could only come into our dorm on Sunday afternoon—and our dorm room doors had to be open.Barbie and I were generally good girls. But as this anecdote illustrates, we were capable of bad judgment that got us into trouble. Or at least I was. I wanted to learn how to smoke cigarettes. She knew how to smoke and agreed to teach me. In Gridley, smoking was only permitted in one room on the second floor– the smoking lounge. I didn’t want my lessons to be observed so we decided to practice smoking in our room. At Christmas break, when the cleaning staff found an ashtray we had left under our bed, we were busted. We had to go to a student-run hearing where we were lectured by peers whom we knew were more rebellious than we. Our punishment was social probation for a year (not academic probation, because in academics we were smarter). Barbie went to France the next year and I stayed behind and minded my ps and qs. Happily we graduated in good academic and social standing, both having wised up to the risk of inadvertently burning down Gridley.Fast forward nearly 50 years. It was our 45th reunion at Carleton, 2013. I had talked to Barbara about coming and she decided to. It was the first reunion she attended: classmates were very glad to see her. They asked her to do a program for the class on her life since Carleton and she agreed. It was a wonderful show. She used dance and music to demonstrate how she taught science curriculum to children. She got 20 of us up in front—half moving about the room to demonstrate blood flowing out of the heart and half moving throughout the room as the blood coming back to the heart. Then she choreographed a similar demonstration for the synapses in the brain. We were miming electricity. It was simple but brilliant. She talked of bringing Victor to the 50th reunion so he could share this part of her life. Unfortunately, she was too sick.Barbara’s vitality, resilience and love for Victor and family are my clearest memories from our last visit.
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