Wednesday, April 21, 2021
11:00 AM to 1:00 PM EDT
Betzler Life Story Funeral Homes
6080 Stadium Drive
Kalamazoo, MI 49009
Food and refreshments will be served.
Life Story / Obituary
A strong, tough but never hard woman with the heart of a dancer – that is how we will remember Gail Landberg. She loved people and didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was intelligent, open-minded, and charming. She was a hard worker, and a good organizer and planner, who would work well with anyone who respected her. She was more popular with folks than she would admit to knowing, just as she was prettier than she thought she was. She lived a wonderful, varied life and it was a blessing just being in her company.
Gail’s story began on April 16, 1945 in Cleveland, Ohio as the first child of Wilbert and Catherine Landberg. Wilbert was a well-respected master tool and die maker. Catherine was a registered nurse and respiratory therapist, who put herself through college once her children were of school age. Gail was a bright, active child, living for her first five years with her grandmother, uncle, and parents in the West Park neighborhood in Cleveland, a highly German-American area, near Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, which everyone attended. In 1950, Gail’s brother Ken was born, completing the Landberg family.
When Gail was five, the family moved to a new suburban development in Parma Heights into a home her father helped to design. The new neighborhood was ideal for a young family, providing an endless stream of playmates for the children. Gail was friendly and outgoing and as a result, she made many friends. She attended Pleasant Valley and Parma Park Elementary School but sadly, she was stricken with numerous bouts of pneumonia over a period of several years. She missed the entire year of first grade because of this and even though she kept up her studies at home, she felt isolated and missed the company of her many friends. Gail’s doctor recommended exercise and she chose to enroll in dance classes, beginning with tap and jazz, and then moving on to ballet. Little did she know at the time what an impact this choice would make on the rest of her life.
Gail’s love of dance was evident from the beginning. As a child, she would organize impromptu musicals featuring her dancing in the backyard with her brother and friends. She continued with her classes at Charlotte Braun Dance Studio, becoming quite a star at ballet.
Gail attended Parma High School until the school was split in 1961, and finished up at Valley Forge High School, graduating in 1963. Her passion would lead to her first career. While taking classes at Charlotte Braun Dance Studio, she was hired as a teacher as well as a dancer. She was a natural at working with the younger dancers.
She was particularly known in those days for the Russian solo in The Nutcracker, which featured waist high kicks. She was extremely supple and could extend her long legs up above her head against the wall. She continued to dance at a number of places around Cleveland with her Braun troupe, and, she, along with two others, was invited to apply to American Ballet Theatre in New York.
She was accepted at ABT after passing five auditions, two in Cleveland and three in New York. She was placed in the second class, just below the chorus level, and studied from 1966 to 1968, training with George Balanchine. This made a great impression on Gail, and she viewed it as the height of her life. She had teachers like Jacques D’Amboise, Edward Villella, and danced with Peter Martens, later the head of ABT. Gelsey Kirkland was a contemporary and a friend of Gail’s. She made just below the main company’s chorus level, and would have made it if she had stayed for longer. She had to stop because she couldn’t afford to live in New York, and at 5’9”, 120 lbs. she was apparently too heavy for Balanchine! She danced with the Robert Joffrey troupe for a while, tried out for the Rockettes, and briefly danced for another company in Los Angeles.
After returning to Ohio, Gail attended Cuyahoga County College, and then Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, majoring in education. During her time at Baldwin Wallace, she took several practical positions teaching primary school, one in Cleveland schools, and a second one at St. Ninian’s school in Stirling, Scotland in 1973. She taught the equivalent of American first, second and fifth grades. Under the tutelage of Renee Johnson, Gail learned a much more holistic educational method than is generally done in the U.S., and one that demanded extra creativity. Done right, this method is very effective – and Gail did it right. American teachers were not unknown at that time in Scotland, as there was a teaching shortage, and Americans often filled in.
A chance encounter in Scotland would prove significant years later. Gail and two women colleagues ventured to Edinburgh to see the movie “The Sting”. While there, they visited Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, a 500+ year old pub in the center of the city. A group of three young men was also there on a “birding expedition”. The two groups ended up sharing a meal together. One of the men, Paul, who had just begun his graduate work at University of Edinburgh, was under the impression that all of the women were married, and was too shy to participate much in the conversation. Though their meeting was brief, Gail and Paul were destined to meet again.
Gail grew to love living in Stirling, an old, pretty town in the center of Scotland with a tremendous castle, close to the beginning of the Highlands. She stayed in “digs” with a kindly old landlady, and adapted to and grew to love a different culture, a love of which she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
Gail returned from Scotland, and was inspired to teach what she had learned, and influenced her in all her education-oriented courses. She was a natural teacher, and was very strict but fair and compassionate when that counted. She taught for years at the Dorothy McGinnis Reading Clinic, helping develop reading and writing skills in her students. Later, when pursuing her doctorate, her dissertation was a study on how best to develop these skills among college-age students using “whole language” methods.
In 1974, Gail came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University, receiving two Master’s degrees, one in photography and the other in education. In 1993, she received her doctorate in education from WMU.
Gail began teaching at Western in 1974, starting in the School of Education, then the School of General Studies, and finally in Arts & Sciences. Additionally, while working on her doctorate, Gail taught at Illinois State University, Olivet College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She also shared her love of dance, teaching ballet at Kalamazoo College for a number of years.
In 1989, years after their first brief encounter, Paul and Gail would be re-introduced when Paul began teaching at Western. They began talking and found that they had both spent time in Scotland. When Paul brought in photos from Scotland, Gail recognized a couple of familiar faces from their first meeting in Edinburgh!
Gail asked Paul out for this fortieth birthday to Bill Knapp’s and that’s where their relationship began. Both had been in relationships before, and Paul had been married and divorced while living in Scotland but the two just clicked. They played off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Like all relationships, they had their ups and downs, but they just plain got along. They happily married on May 29, 1993.
Gail was a strong woman and a strong feminist, and at some point, taught every course women’s studies offered. This became her main work, keeping up with how the field evolved over the years, first in the College of General Studies until 1994, then in Arts and Sciences.
She developed several courses herself, including Gender Issues in Education, which looked at how girls and boys are educated in the classroom and what could be done to make things gender equitable. She developed exercises and projects to dovetail with her students’ own interests and their practicum.
Unfortunately, she was a part-timer technically her whole career except for one year teaching writing in the Haworth School of Business in 1990-91. Ironically, she often taught more hours than Paul did as a full-timer. Gail supplemented her income any way she could, teaching at KVCC and at off-campus sites for Western, going to St. Joseph, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Muskegon, all on a part-timer’s salary. When the opportunity came to start a part-timer’s union, the PIO, she was one of the early organizers and did a lot to begin the union and plan how it would work, including canvassing for the elections, and helping organize them.
Even as a part-timer, Gail did have some leeway to do what she wanted. She and Paul organized four six-week “Spring in Scotland” courses for Western students, twice at the University of Stirling for twice at the University of Edinburgh. Gail was the main person liaising with the Scottish instructors for education. These were very successful and most of the students enjoyed the chance to go to England and Scotland and learn about the culture, history, literature, and educational practices.
Gail and Paul shared many common views and interests. They loved traveling and enjoyed going to movies, shows and concerts ranging from ballet music to Chicago blues. They took every opportunity to see ballets, whether at Western, the Harris Theater in Chicago, or on one of their trips to London and Toronto.
In 2012, Gail retired from Western. Sadly, a few years later, she began to show signs of dementia. It was difficult for Paul to watch such a strong, beautiful, independent woman who made a living with her brain decline so quickly. She entered Vibrant Life Memory Care in August 2019 and they were excellent to her; she was to them too, placid but with enough personality left so they could see it. During her stay, she was known as the Ballerina. Paul brought in ballet and other classical music CD’s that she had collected and these were played for everyone.
The day before Gail passed, Paul visited her, the first week in months he could visit inside because of COVID. She looked like she was sleeping most of the time, and she hadn’t spoken in two weeks. But on this day, she looked straight at him and smiled with her eyes. It might have meant “I’m about to go”, but it said “I love you, Paulie” as she’d always done. And, for 31 years, he had loved Gail and showed her that. She knew it.
Gail Landberg passed away at approximately 12:30 pm on April 7, 2021 in Kalamazoo. She passed quietly, with no suffering. Let’s all celebrate her life now. She had a good run, even if taken away too soon.