Carol Becker
Plant a Tree
Plant a Tree

Obituary of Carol Willard Becker

Mom died in her sleep on February 13, 2019 at 96 years old. She did not die of any illness; she reached the time when her body could do no more living.


Carol Willard Coe Becker was born in Chicago, IL, August 9, 1922 to Mildred Schoenfield and Oscar Emile Coe.  Her parents had little money and they lived with various family members in Chicago. She was an only child in a house full of adults.  In the summers, she often stayed with her great aunt Daisye Zemurray in Gadsden, Alabama. She attended high school at the Girl’s Latin Day School and earned a BS in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1945. She would say that as a child she wanted to learn everything with the idea that then she could understand the world. She married Elmer Lewis Becker, MD, PhD, in 1945. She earned a MA in French and Linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, working on it part-time during the late 1960s while taking care of a home and family.  She received her teaching certificate from Central Connecticut State University in the 1980’s. They lived in Chicago; Madison,WI; Park Forest,IL; Takoma Park,MD; Silver Spring,MD; Mexico City, Mexico; Cambridge,MA; Oxford,England; and Farmington,CT, following Elmer’s work as an immunologist. Carol then moved to Hartford,CT, and Cleveland,OH with Patt Needham. At age 91 she moved to Chapel Hill,NC, to live with her younger daughter Kathy and son-in law David Freeman, and finally to Chatham Ridge Assisted Living.


She was passionate, totally engaged with living. She was open and loving and welcomed everyone, especially those who needed her help, her love. Radiant, she lit up the world. With music, dancing, active sensing of textures, weight, smells, tastes, with food, making art, experiencing art, intensely aware of the body--its grace and movement, its wounds and healing, the natural world, people, places, buildings, the realness and beauty of others, the joy of learning, the joy of doing, working with your hands, the indignation at injustice and the ability to take action, to have principles, to right wrongs, to really believe that you can change the world and make things better, and to feel that need, duty, pressure, love to work to make things better, to help. Growing up, our lives were full with “smell this, look at that, taste this, feel that.”  The glaze of rain on tree trunks, the weight of rocks, the texture of a sweater, the smell of wool, of thick, heavy hair being brushed, the warmth of a shoulder being massaged, the smell of mangos, the sharp sting of lemon on the tongue, the collective “mmmm” of the first taste of dinner, the vibrations of a song in your throat and chest, the feel in your nose and the roll of your tongue speaking French, the supreme joy and release of family laughter.                                                       


Her parents were artists and met while students at the Art Institute of Chicago. As a child she took art classes there and learned from her parents, and the love of art and the skills and knowledge were always a part of her. Whenever she was in Chicago with us, her children, no trip was complete without a special day at this Significant Place, this magical and holy site; full of life and power, color, movement and emotion. Meeting the Seated Bodhisattva, created of stone but full of perfect rest, balance of movement, we entered sacred space, a place of transformation. She didn’t consider herself an “artist” although our house was full of material for art making and she loved the mess of creation. “The Messy Beckers,” one of her friends dubbed us. And her older daughter, Anne, who loved horses, could command her, “Mama, draw me a horse!” and she would. With a few strokes of blue crayon on paper a prancing, snorting horse would appear.


Fiercely intellectual, she taught a respect and love for learning, the power and glory of the printed word. There were bookcases overflowing with books in every room in her house and she knew where every book was, its content, and would often take a book off the shelf, flip through it to find a passage she wanted.  Perhaps to make a point or simply to revel in beautiful language, beautiful thought. She loved to read aloud and had a wonderful reading voice and delivery. Even her everyday talk was music, her voice like a bell that rang with the words of her heart.


She was not a caricature, not a cardboard model, not an icon, stereotype, nor archetype of the activist, fearless crusader.  She was actually a shy person. But she hated being alone, she loved being with people. She had to learn how to speak up, to speak out, to lead in groups of people, to act bravely even when she was most afraid.  


Moral outrage, righteous indignation at inequalities, injustice, cruelty, suffering, poverty, exploitation spurred her.  Disdain for titles, status, money, celebrity, authority, power over others allowed her to find her own strength. She was an volunteer in numerous local and national political groups, in charity and relief organizations. She campaigned against segregation, took an active role in civil rights protests and marches including the famous March On Washington, registered people to vote, worked and demonstrated against nuclear war, was deeply involved in the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, LGBTQ and immigrant support and rights. She lived these ideals, welcoming to her home African American parents of children integrating her children’s school, driving voters to the polls, going to the police station, despite a National Guard curfew, to help children taken into custody during the riots in Washington DC in response to Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, she participated in a needle exchange program before it was legal. She fed, clothed, housed, loaned money, employed, found jobs for those who needed it. She cooked healthy, organic food before it was popular and was “green’ before it became a movement. She was spontaneous and improvisational before these were popular.


Because she was an avid learner, she was the consummate teacher. She taught by example. While it was good to begin by looking in a book for ideas, instructions, recipes, she learned and taught by doing.  Her method: Let’s just try this. If it doesn’t work this way, we have good brains, we’ll think of another way. So even though our dad was the scientist, she taught us experimentation, which is the basis of resilience.  She always said that she grew up in the city and as far as she was concerned, food should come from the supermarket and be clean and ready to eat. She knew nothing about gardening but when she bought her first house with a big backyard, we planted a little garden with a limited amount of success but all enjoyed digging in the dirt, seeing the seeds sprout, playing with water.  She had never painted a house before but painted our house, choosing a particular green color filled with light and a touch of blue for the living and dining rooms so that it would feel like we were under the sea. The kitchen a bright yellow, our father’s study brown, our brother David’s bedroom a soothing blue. Anne wanted her bedroom to be red. But because Mom felt that a red room would not be restful she painted it a terrible rose pink. Later she did correct her misjudgment and repainted our room a pale yellow (the color of eggs yolks beaten with sugar) and made the perfect curtains of yellow and blue gingham, colors that made us think of the French countryside.  


She taught English as a Second Language throughout her whole life to children and adults. She always tried to learn some of each student’s language so they might feel more comfortable.  An opportunity to meet people was an opportunity to enjoy and love each unique individual. Through the group Big Heart, she taught tolerance to school children, to government workers, to business people. She planted trees for peace with the group Fruits and Nuts. She taught political organizing and social action, nonviolent resistance, supported and mentored immigrants, taught citizenship classes including how to negotiate the US system. She sang in the Common Woman Chorus in Chapel Hill, NC.  She sang with Bobby McFerrin at a chance encounter without knowing who he was. In Cleveland she took part in a production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” As a child she danced in a professional children’s dance troupe. She swam with dolphins. And finally she was a knitter. This she did as an artist. She got ideas from mathematics. She created her own patterns or worked without patterns to produce incredible geometries of fabric. She said she often woke up with an idea in her mind as if she had dreamed it.                                                                


Carol was loved by her family and friends all over the world, and truly made a difference. She is survived by her daughters Anne Becker and Katherine Freeman, son-in-law David Freeman, grandsons Matthew Kuzava, Daniel Freeman and his wife Nikki Boatenhamer Freeman, and Blaise Freeman and his wife Lydia Scheidler: and cousin Karen Ann Swenson and her children Erik, Glen and Nancy. And by her friend and caregiver, Laura, who loved her like her own mother. Carol was preceded in death by her husband Elmer Becker and beloved son David Alvin Becker.


A private green burial took place on family land two days after her death.  Donations in her honor can be made to one of the myriad activist organizations she would approve of.  Feel free to come up with one yourself, or for suggestions, a partial list follows below:


United We Dream

HIAS- Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

ACLU-American Civil Liberties Union

SPLC-Southern Poverty Law Center

Doctors Without Borders

Planned Parenthood

NOW-National Organization for Women

NAACP-National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Save the Children

War Resisters League

Z Institute for Social and Cultural Change

EDF-Environmental Defense Fund


NARAL Pro-choice America-National  Abortion Rights Action League

Peace Action

Ohio Move To Amend

Fresh Water Cleveland

CAIR- The Council on American-Islamic Relations

Cleveland IRTF-InterReligious Task Force on Central America

World Relief

Democracy Now

Equality NC

Environment NC

Human Rights Campaign

Witness For Peace

The Poor People’s Campaign

Engaging Schools (formerly Educators for Social Responsibility)

The Refugee Response- Cleveland

Centro Hispano Carrboro NC


Edward Said Public Library-Gaza, State of Palestine   (Also endorsed by Noam Chomsky)

SAIC-School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

American Friends Service Committee

Walker's Funeral Home of Chapel Hill has been entrusted to assist the Becker family.  Please express your condolences by using the tab below.

Share Your Memory of