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Balinski, singer, translator, dies

Posted on Monday, June 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Rebecca Howell Balinski (Sept. 8, 1934 – May 26, 2013) is almost certainly the only person to have both sung at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and translated the work of leading French theologians into English.

The daughter of Charles Reece Howell, Jr., and Emily Smith Howell, Rebecca, “Becky”, was born in Memphis where her father was looking for work during the Great Depression, but she grew up in Fayetteville, in the community of Howell Hill that had been home to her family for generations.

Becky was a top student – she was awarded membership of the National Beta Club – and her singing talent was recognized early. Already as a high school student, she had her own request show, “A Journey in Song” alongside Miss Ruth Ray at the piano, on WEKR.

In 1950, at the age of 15, Becky entered Vanderbilt University where she became president of the Women’s Student Government Association and received the Lady of the Bracelet Award, the highest recognition given a female undergraduate. She also continued to perform, among other things, singing on national television in the precursor of “America’s Got Talent”, Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.

After receiving a master’s degree in education at Goucher College in Baltimore and working summers at a Presbyterian mission house in San Francisco’s Chinatown and at the Sleighton Farm School for Girls in Pennsylvania, Becky moved to Princeton, N.J. to take a job as a fourth grade teacher at Miss Fine’s School. It was on a blind date that she met Princeton University mathematics doctoral student Michel Balinski. Theirs was a whirlwind romance. Within nine months, they were married, and for the next 11 years – from 1957 to 1968 – the Balinskis made their lives in Princeton. The arrival of her two daughters, Maria and Marta, was the joy of Becky’s life.

As Michel commuted into Manhattan to work at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Becky was civically engaged, most notably attracting New York Times coverage (“Jersey Mother Leads Vote Protest”) of her campaign to encourage Democrat critics of the Johnson administration not to abstain, but to vote for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.

In 1969 the Balinski family started what would turn out to be 12 years of moving back and forth across the Atlantic. France, Switzerland, France, Austria and France again – in all of them, it was Becky who would make a secure home for the family. In the years where the family was in Princeton, Becky returned to teaching.

It was after their final move to Europe in 1980, as Rebecca learned more about the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, that she took the initiative to translate some of his homilies into English. This was the beginning of her career as a translator of theology and philosophy – not only the work of Lustiger, but also of books by Henri de Lubac, considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, and the political philosopher Pierre Manent.

In 1996 Rebecca moved (by herself – she had divorced several years earlier) from Paris to the village of Cour-sur-Loire near Blois. It was here on the banks of the Loire River that she found, in her words, “her world” and great happiness in a community that appreciated her openness, generosity and hospitality and loved her deeply.

In 2009, Rebecca was diagnosed with a rare case of melanoma of the eye. When the cancer spread, she courageously refused treatment and died peacefully with her family and friends around her.

Rebecca is survived by her brother, Charles Reece Howell, III; her two daughters, Maria and Marta; her sons-in-law, Wojtek and Karel; and granddaughter, Lucy.