Barbara Widdoes didn’t cotton to omens.
If she had, the inaugural year of the Three Rivers Arts Festival surely would have been its last.
During that four-day period in June 1960, a violent storm struck Point State Park, tossing 10 paintings into the river and damaging 50 others.
Known as “Babs” to friends, Ms. Widdoes was co-chair during the first years of the festival — which kicked off it’s 59th year on Friday — and she served as its executive director during most of the 1970s.
The 89-year-old mother of three died Monday, surrounded by loved ones at her Oakmont home, after a long battle with breast cancer.
“This would probably be the first year she hasn’t gone,” to the festival, said her oldest son, Jamie Widdoes, 64, an actor and director from Los Angeles.
Much of his family life growing up revolved around the festival, remembered her younger son, Bill Widdoes.
“Every year when the festival rolled around, I wouldn’t see my mother for about a month,” said Mr. Widdoes, 54, of O’Hara.
He and his older brother and sister would be enlisted to help set up displays, distribute programs and other tasks.
The festival owes much of its success to the hard work of Ms. Widdoes, who served on the executive board of the Women's Committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art, when it launched the festival in an effort to bring art to the city, said Alice Snyder, co-vice chair of the festival.
“It was Babs who truly built the festival into what it became at its peak,” said Ms. Snyder, who met Ms. Widdoes in the 1970s. “Her role was absolutely vital to the festival. She made it happen; she made it grow.”
Ms. Widdoes served in various leadership roles in the festival for 25 years, said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which now operates the festival.
“The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and advisory board of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival are grateful for Babs’ remarkable contributions, which have enabled the festival to grow, drawing millions of visitors and presenting tens of thousands of artists through the decades,” Mr. McMahon said in a statement.
Ms. Widdoes was a trailblazer in other ways, too.
When planners were seeking a new executive director after several male candidates didn’t work out, Ms. Widdoes suggested hiring a woman.
“He said to me, ‘A woman couldn’t do this job,’” Ms. Widdoes recalled about one of the search committee members, during a recent video interview. “I told my husband that remark, and he said, ‘Oh God, you’ll never be happy till you show them.’”
The encounter prompted Ms. Widdoes to seek the job, which she got. She served as executive director from 1971 until her retirement in 1978.
“She was ‘Me Too’ before there was ‘Me Too,’” said Jamie Widdoes about the recent “Me Too” movement, aimed at ending sexual harassment and assault.
Born in Manhattan to the late Ruth Yarbrough and James D. Landauer, Ms. Widdoes graduated from the Madeira School in Virginia in 1945 and earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from Vassar College in 1949.
She met W. Peirce Widdoes during one of her family’s frequent vacations on Nantucket Island, Mass. They married in June 1949 and were happy until her husband’s death in 2001.
The couple moved to Squirrel Hill in 1950 and raised three children, who said their mother’s interest in the arts wasn’t confined to just the festival.
She also sat on the boards of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and frequently provided a temporary home for young actors visiting the city.
“It was a very bohemian, artistic culture that was around us, which clearly seeped into me,” said Jamie Widdoes, who starred as fraternity president Robert Hoover in “Animal House” in 1978.
“She referred to it as ‘soft-core porn’ when she first saw it,” said Jamie Widdoes, laughing at the memory.
“When she walked into a room or drove up in my driveway, you knew you were going to laugh and learn,” said Ms. Snyder, who said she became “the best of friends” with Ms. Widdoes over the years. “She was a wonderful person in many ways. She was so innovative in her curiosity in the arts and bringing artists to the Pittsburgh scene.”
Bill Widdoes fondly recalled the time “Sidewalk Sam,” a visiting chalk artist, stayed with the family.
“She brought her work home with her, sometimes literally,” he said.
Friends and loved ones said they will miss Ms. Widdoes.
“I am so grateful to be part of the life she lived,” Jamie Widdoes said. “We were lucky to have her as long as we did.”
“To know her was to love her and to respect her,” Ms. Snyder said. “She was a powerhouse.”
Along with her sons, Ms. Widdoes is survived by daughter Bennett Widdoes Crocker, of Los Angeles, and five grandchildren. She was preceded in death by two sisters, Beverly Landauer and Barrie Estes.
The family suggests donations in Ms. Widdoes’ memory be made in support of the Three Rivers Arts Festival through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, 803 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org.