Some who knew her say Gertrude “Trudy” Taylor’s greatest achievement was the five children she raised.
Indeed, Taylor, who died Oct. 10 at her Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., home a month shy of 93, was proud of her musical progeny that included singer-songwriting sons James and Livingston. Yet she’d tell you she was much more than a mother who never discouraged, but filled the world of her children with a sense that anything was possible.
Fiercely independent, she was an adventurer, twice sailing the Atlantic on small sailboats, trekking the Himalayan mountains and five times visiting peasant villages in China, the first in the mid-1970s with Mao’s Bamboo Curtain barely cracked open.
She was a “foodie” long before the term was coined – a master gardener and masterful painter, weaver and knitter.
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And as wife of the UNC-Chapel Hill medical school dean from 1964 to ’71, she pushed for women and blacks to be admitted and played hostess to more than 10,000 medical students, doctors and visiting dignitaries.
Last week, her daughter Kate, also a singer, told me she was headed to Chapel Hill to perform a benefit Thursday. While there, she plans to spread some of her mother’s ashes at some of her favorite spots in town such as the Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus and the garden that she first coaxed from the unfamiliar red clay where she and husband Ike built their modernist home in the early 1950s. Proceeds from the benefit will go to a medical school scholarship that honors Ike Taylor.
“She thought that raising her kids in the South was a gift, especially in Chapel Hill,” Kate Taylor said. “I think it’s appropriate to leave some of her there. She loved and admired the culture and traditions of North Carolina.”
A sense of justice
Her mother grew up in a different world, on the Merrimack River in Newburyport, Mass., the daughter of a boat-builder and fisherman.
At graduation ceremonies at Newburyport High School, Trudy stood on stage to sing and watched as her classmates marched in double-file. In the back, by himself, was Frankie Cousins, her class’ only black student. She was appalled. “In my head, I took Frankie with me wherever I went,” she told then-vice UNC medical school Dean Etta Pisano in a taped 2010 interview.
“That incident gave her a sense of justice,” Kate said.
After high school, Trudy studied voice at the New England Conservatory in Boston. At a dinner party there, she met Isaac M. “Ike” Taylor, a Harvard medical student from Morganton.
They married two years later at the end of World War II in a town hall wedding in Salisbury. After visiting his family in Morganton, they returned to Boston and did their part for the postwar baby boom.
Ike was chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital when he was offered a teaching job at the UNC medical school.
By then, he and Trudy had four children – Alex was born in 1947, James in ’48, Kate a year later and Livingston in 1950. Ike accepted the job, and he and Trudy moved their family into a rented farmhouse outside Carrboro in 1952. Soon a fifth child, son Hugh, arrived.
There, Ike joined a flood of young doctors and researchers as the medical school expanded from two years to four.
An independent woman
For Trudy, it was a strange new world. “North Carolina seemed like a foreign country,” she told me for a 2000 story about son James’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While Ike worked long hours, Trudy oversaw design and construction of an 11-room contemporary house on 30 acres of forest and pasture. In 1954, they moved in.
She first used architect George Matsumoto, an architecture professor at the then-fledgling N.C. State design school who designed dozens of modernist houses in North Carolina. But Trudy didn’t like his ideas, according the nonprofit website North Carolina Modernist Houses, and switched architects.
Shortly after that experience and others, Matsumoto swore off designing houses because he didn’t want “to work with the wives.”
A year later, the Navy drafted Ike and assigned him as a medical officer to Operation Deep Freeze near the South Pole. He spent 18 months on the ice, with little opportunity to reach his family.
“I felt proud that my dad was part of this small expeditionary force in the Antarctic; he hadn’t just gone to Baltimore on business,” James told me in 2000. “But it was different, strange. He had left a wife new to the South and five young kids. It was hard on all of us. We felt very isolated.”
Son Hugh recalls their mother embracing independence at that time. “She was the imperial matriarch of the premises,” said Hugh, a Vineyard innkeeper. “She was braced to be this independent, self-reliant woman and forced to be that way when our father went off to the South Pole. I don’t think she ever gave that up.”
In Chapel Hill, Trudy filled the house with music: classical symphonies, Woody Guthrie, show tunes, Harry Belafonte.
As she prepared her exotic meals, her children played instruments and sang for her in the kitchen. By the time Ike returned, his children had taken up the cello, violin and piano. Evenings, they’d gather for “kitchen concerts.”
Summers, she’d pack her children and their dog Hercules in the family station wagon and drive to Martha’s Vineyard and the family cottage overlooking Stonewall Pond. They sailed and fished and at nights gathered on the beach for sunsets, cookouts and singing.James and Liv began playing in local coffeehouses. Ike came up in August.
“When it looked like summertime had set in solid in Chapel Hill, after it got hot and damp, Trudy got antsy to go north,” Hugh said. “It was a Yankee homesickness thing, a desire to go back to the seaside that she knew well.”
New England integrationist
Soon, the children saw less of Ike as he climbed the medical school ranks and was appointed dean in 1964, a difficult time in North Carolina and the South. Trudy became the school’s official hostess, throwing dozens of parties over the years that often drew hundreds.
At one party, she arranged for the marching band at the all-black high school to perform in one of the fields.
She detested segregation, the lesson she learned from Frankie Cousins. She worked to integrate Chapel Hill schools and encouraged her children to get involved in marches. She also prodded the medical school to expand access to care in rural areas.
“She essentially ... came south with her husband and spoke out against racial repression,” said UNC historian Bill Ferris, associate director of the university’s Center for the Study of the American South. “She was engaged with the civil rights movement, and her children took their cue from her.”
Ferris said Trudy hosted the first fundraiser for Howard Lee, who would become Chapel Hill’s first black mayor and the first African-American mayor of a predominantly white, Southern city in 1969.
‘Frankie Cousins moments’
Trudy and Ike divorced in the early 1970s. With her children gone from Chapel Hill, she decided to move into the family summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.
There, when winter arrived, she’d set out for the world – always taking Frankie Cousins with her “in my head.”
About 10 years ago, she told son Livingston about that incident on her graduation day. He urged her to call Cousins and tell him how badly she felt. She did. Cousins was moved and told her that no one had ever apologized to him. “He was so grateful that Trudy would call,” Kate said.
Trudy wrote Cousins a long letter, again expressing her disgust that he had to walk alone in the graduation march. At Cousins’ funeral, his family read the letter.
Want to go?
Kate Taylor will perform Thursday night at the Back Room at Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St. in Carrboro. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. for the 8:30 p.m. concert. Proceeds will go to the Dr. Isaac M. Taylor Medical Student Scholarship Fund.