Tribute recalls activist's efforts Memorial: Past, present leaders, co-workers and community members gather to honor life and work of Anita M. Iribe.

November 30, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The movers and shakers of Howard County past and present came to Wilde Lake Interfaith Center yesterday to bid adieu to Anita M. Iribe, a longtime activist with a model's face and a pioneer's grit.

A planner, political guru, civil rights advocate -- and, not least of all, a mother -- Iribe was remembered for using her intelligence and tenacity to serve her county. The crowd of 125 that gathered for a memorial service was a testament to her far-reaching impact and considerable charm.

Former Howard County planning director Thomas G. Harris Jr. sat near state Del. Robert H. Kittleman. A few rows behind them sat contemporary leaders of Columbia -- Columbia Association President Padraic Kennedy and council members Norma Rose of Wilde Lake village and Wanda Hurt of Owen Brown village.

Executive Charles I. Ecker and Councilman C. Vernon Gray were also there. State Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive, chatted with retired District Judge R. Russell Sadler. Howard countians like former state Sen. James Clark, whose family roots in the county go back 200 years, reminisced of the days before mega-shopping stores and houses filled the landscape.

Even those who did not know her long came to hear longtime residents honor her.

"You have to admire this woman," said Jean Moon, a community leader and public relations worker in Columbia. "She was the epitome of community activism."

Iribe died of cancer Nov. 16 -- her 70th birthday -- at her daughter's Highland home.

Planning issues

Iribe played an instrumental role in pushing for the county's charter, immersed herself in the planning of developer James Rouse's Columbia and helped ensure that the community's houses and open spaces were developed in a logical manner.

"If Jim Rouse was the father of Columbia, Anita Iribe was the mother," longtime Howard resident Helen Ruther said at the service.

Ruther was one of about 10 people who spoke, recalling stories of Iribe attending late-night planning board sessions, helping to organize civil rights events and encouraging people to register to vote.

Iribe, who came to Highland in 1954 with her husband, Paul, an engineer, sought to help save the county from the suburban sprawl that invaded neighboring counties. While the old guard of the county -- longtime residents and farmers -- quickly opposed Rouse's plans for a city, Iribe served almost as a mediator.

In the mid-1960s, about 36,000 residents lived in the county. Thirty years later, Columbia alone numbers about 85,000.

Harris, who served as planning director during Columbia's planning, told of how Iribe would call him at midnight after board meetings to reiterate her strong feelings on the city's zoning.

"She wouldn't just let things go," Harris said, recalling how she would often question him after meetings on the impact of development. "She would want proof of the adverse impacts new development would have. She wouldn't let up. She wouldn't give up at all."

Desegregation stalwart

A member and two-term president of the Howard County League of Women Voters, Iribe also fought to improve the social and political landscape.

When the county had only two high schools -- Howard High for whites and Harriet Tubman for blacks -- Iribe stood in the forefront of the effort to desegregate the schools. She ate with blacks in segregated restaurants in the county.

Her impact on the county is most noticeable, friends said, in documents that include the county seal, which features wheat, a plow and vegetables. While researching county records, Iribe found the seal designed by noted artist Edward Stables in 1840. It was officially adopted in 1973.

An avid reader, Iribe and her husband started the county's first book store, Page I, in Columbia's Wilde Lake village in 1969 and later moved the store to the mall in Columbia's Town Center. It closed in 1982.

Magazine model

At yesterday's service, her daughter, Elizabeth Iribe Trexler, showed slides of Iribe as a baby through her years as a model -- once for Cover Girl cosmetics -- from the age of 6 to 16. One slide showed her in a red cap and sweater on the cover of American Magazine. In another, she is on the front of the Saturday Evening Post.

One slide showed Iribe in 1984, pushing herself in a wheelchair lTC along a tree-lined path during a family trip to France.

Awards and citations were spread across two tables, black-and-white photographs of her childhood and pictures of her and her husband and their grandchildren.

Shown in a slide and as a framed picture was the most famous photograph from her modeling career, taken in 1937. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White covered a flood in Louisville, Ky., for Life magazine and took a famous picture of unemployed blacks standing in line for food in front of a billboard that declared "World's Highest Standard of Living. There's no way like the American Way."

The billboard featured a couple with their two daughters in a Ford automobile. Iribe was in the front seat.

When her daughter drove her to see a replica of the billboard standing behind a diner on Connecticut Avenue in Washington years ago, Iribe's reaction was: "Well, I'll be damned."

Trexler, 43, described how, in her final weeks, Iribe meticulously noted the medication she took and the time, not wanting to take more than necessary.

In the first minutes of her birthday, she could hardly move. Her family had celebrated with her the day before.

"When the clock turned midnight," Trexler said, "I told her, 'Now you are free. You made it. You can go. You can fly away.' "

True to her nature, Iribe disagreed, whispering, "Uh-uh."

"That was so typical of her," Trexler said. "Who was I to tell Anita Iribe?"

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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