Life Story Celebration
Sunday, November 12, 2023
2:00 PM to 4:00 PM EST
Betzler Life Story Funeral Homes
6080 Stadium Drive
Kalamazoo, MI 49009
Where food, drinks, and stories will be shared.
Monday, November 13, 2023
11:00 AM EST
St. Augustine Cathedral
542 West Michigan
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
At the family's request memorial contributions are to be made to those listed below. Please forward payment directly to the memorial of your choice.
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
314 S Park
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
Family Health Center
Kalamzoo, MI 49007
Below is the contact information for a florist recommended by the funeral home.
Life Story / Obituary
Optimism was her calling card, and connection—connection with people, with nature, and with beauty in its many and varied forms—was what she sought throughout a life of nearly 93 years.
Barbara Atkinson King gave much during those years to the family she treasured above all else; yet, her love of people created around her an exceptionally large circle of friends. Her dedication to several Kalamazoo cultural institutions was a gift to the community.
Barbara was born on November 14, 1930, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Claude and Pearlie May Atkinson. She attended Lincoln Elementary and then Kalamazoo Central High School. Always energetic, while a teen, she worked as an elevator operator at Mahoney’s department store in Kalamazoo. Barbara saved her money from that first job and purchased a much-loved, brown mouton coat—an early declaration of her love of fashion. Remarkable to note as well was that Barbara had her eye on the man of her dreams, Dwight King, ever since her grade-school years. She and Dwight became “steadies” during high school.
After graduation in 1948, Dwight enlisted in the Air Force. Barbara fulfilled her ambition of becoming a nurse by enrolling at St. Anthony School of Nursing in Rockford, Illinois. Nursing school was an ambition shared by Barbara with her mother, who, for years, had taken in shirts to iron at 15 cents each to finance that education. Barbara chose St. Anthony’s because it was one of the first nursing schools in the Midwest to admit Black students, and a cousin was already a student there. Barbara returned to Kalamazoo and soon became the city’s first Black registered nurse, employed at Borgess Hospital.
She and Dwight were married on August 14, 1954, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Together, they raised three children: Dwight, Denise, and Douglas. The family enjoyed frequent gatherings with family, extended family, and friends. Many summer days were spent with Dwight’s parents, Schuyler and Dellas King, at their cottage on Paw Paw’s Eagle Lake. The family worked on school projects together, delighted in Saturday-morning breakfasts and conversation at their Hopkins Street home, and had fun on Sunday afternoons going for drives in their copper-colored Vista Cruiser station wagon.
Both parents set high standards for the King children and encouraged them to do their very best. Above all else, they instilled in them the value of treating all people with respect. Dwight and Barbara supported their children in their many educational and professional endeavors—and were always immensely proud of their many achievements, but most of all, their character.
Dwight and Barbara lived a life of “firsts.” While Barbara was Kalamazoo’s first Black registered nurse, Dwight was Kalamazoo’s first Black firefighter. Barbara was also the first Black model at Jacobson’s and at Gilmore Brothers Department Store in downtown Kalamazoo.
It could have been discouraging. It could have been exhausting. Instead, Barbara once offered this counterpoint: “My mother always said that if you are kind and smile, you can go a lot of places. You have to be positive.”
Not only positive, Barbara was understanding. A favorite saying was: ”Don’t say what you won’t do; just say what you haven’t done.”
She used those soft skills along with impressive nursing skills for 22 years as an occupational health nurse at the Upjohn Company (now Pfizer). Outside of work and while raising her children, Barbara was a founding member of the Dulcet Club, which began as a social club for young Black women but eventually became a civic organization that touched thousands of lives over the next five decades. She later served on the boards of the Plaza Arts Circle, the Hospital Hospitality House of Southwestern Michigan, and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
Throughout Kalamazoo, she was known for her love of fashion and her distinctive style.
Barbara and Dwight delighted in travel, with trips to Hawaii (twice), San Francisco, Nantucket, Washington, D.C., the Bahamas, and New York City. She loved trips to South Haven and Saugatuck, and even traveled to visit friends in the Leelanau Peninsula as recently as late September. In the travel sphere, shopping along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was perhaps Barbara’s most-prized activity. Collecting beautiful jewelry was her passion, and Chicago’s Tiffany & Co. was her ultimate “happy place.”
Yet, Kalamazoo was always her town. She loved to attend city parades—regardless of the weather. She was committed to supporting local businesses and was a regular at coffee shops, chocolate shops, candy shops, clothing shops, jewelry shops, boutiques, bakeries, the Saturday-morning farmers’ market, and her favorite restaurants—the Beacon Club, the Park Club, Food Dance, and Martell’s to name only a few. On her circuit, she always saw an old friend, or made a new one. She simply loved people and was forever curious about their lives, their joys, their struggles, their dreams.
Barbara’s mother was one of the two founding members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which was central to her early life in Kalamazoo. After attending Catholic nursing school, she converted to Catholicism as an adult. She enjoyed the rich traditions and beauty of the Mass. She was active in church life and was a faithful usher for years, many of them with Dwight, at St. Augustine Cathedral’s 11:30 a.m. Mass.
Barbara enjoyed being physically fit and practiced yoga for many years.
She and Dwight embraced their role as grandparents. They attended plays and dance performances and soccer games. They celebrated holidays together and took excursions around town. The Grandchildren were rarely denied an ice cream cone, as Barbara loved sharing her favorite treat with them—especially at the Plainwell Ice Cream Company. There, the difficult choice was always between a butter pecan cone and a hot fudge sundae.
Barbara was an excellent cook. A short list of her specialties included a sour cream coffee cake, potato salad, deviled eggs, the Sunday-afternoon roast, and for Thanksgiving, candied sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
She was a caregiver to Dwight in his later years, while always maintaining her positive attitude as well as her outside activities, including being a sought-after salesperson at Stein Mart in Portage.
In 2017, Barbara moved into a condominium at the Villas of Stonehenge, where she quickly made new friends. She often greeted neighbors from her front patio, typically sporting a trendy pair of sunglasses and her trademark hat.
The arc of Barbara King’s life was nearly a century long. Throughout, her sheer love of life was a wonder to behold—and a quality for us to emulate.
Barbara King, age 92, of Kalamazoo, died on Friday, October 20, 2023. She was preceded in death by her husband, Dwight. Members of her family include her children: Dwight King Jr. (Mary Hendriksen) of South Bend, Ind., Denise King of Richland, and Douglas King of Kalamazoo; six grandchildren: Elise King, Carmen Bevier, Matthew (Monica) King, Margot (Nathan) Solomon, Gabriel (Kaley) King, and Madeline King; six great-grandchildren: Skylar, Hayden, Miles, James, Langston, and Gabriel; two siblings: Donald (Lola) Atkinson and Joanne Webster. In addition to her parents and Dwight’s parents, Barbara was preceded in death by a sister, Claudia Griffin; two sisters-in-law, Lula Atkinson and Joyce Jefferson; three brothers-in-law, Lamar Griffin, Hugh Webster, and Frederick Jefferson; a nephew, Donald Atkinson, Jr.; and her beloved aunt, Eula Baggett.
Learn more about Barbara and visit with her family and friends on Sunday, November 12, 2023 from 2-4 p.m. at Betzler Life Story Funeral Homes, 6080 Stadium Drive (269) 375-2900. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on November 13, 2023 at St. Augustine Cathedral. Visit Barbara’s webpage at BetzlerLifeStory.com to archive a favorite memory, photo, and sign her guest book. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, or Family Health Center.