Della Louise Brown Hardman, the artist and educator who enriched the Vineyard community as much by her gentle and gracious presence as by her far-reaching volunteerism, died Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital following a brief heart-related illness. She was 83.
Mrs. Hardman moved to the Vineyard in 1986 after spending three decades as an art professor at West Virginia State College. In the years that followed she immersed herself in the community, building an extensive network of friends and volunteering for organizations including the Oak Bluffs Public Library and the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, a nonprofit educational organization.
"When I retired I could have stayed in West Virginia, or gone wherever, somewhere, anywhere, but I chose to come here," Mrs. Hardman told the Vineyard Gazette in 2002. "And I didn't plan to come and sit. I planned to be involved. Wherever I am, that's the way I like it. Life is interesting."
Mrs. Hardman also authored the Oak Bluffs column for the Gazette for more than seven years, succeeding the late Dorothy West. Her warmth was evident in her writing style. She always turned a spotlight on the accomplishments of others, expressing respect and admiration for everyone from the children she encountered at the post office to the well-known authors and academics whose visits she reported in the summertime. She also wrote candidly and movingly about her own life, including her battle with breast cancer in 2004.
In her first column, published April 24, 1998, she signed off with the simple reminder to savor the moment. It was the guiding principle by which she lived.
Della Louise Brown Hardman was born May 20, 1922, in Charleston, W.Va., the daughter of the late Anderson Hunt Brown and Captolia Monette (Casey) Brown. Her mother died when she was 20 months old, after which her aunt, for whom she was named, helped to raise her. In 2001, when Mrs. Hardman was honored with the Inspirational Woman Award by the Zonta Club of Martha's Vineyard, she credited her aunt - a teacher who always encouraged her to pay attention in school, especially in history - and her father - a successful real estate broker and musician - as the two great influences in her life.
Mrs. Hardman attended Garnet High School and was graduated from West Virginia State College with a bachelor's degree in education in 1943. She continued her education at the Massachusetts College of Art and earned her master's degree from Boston University in 1945.
A strong believer in lifelong learning, Mrs. Hardman in 1994 earned her doctorate from Kent State University. She was 72.
In 1945 she married Francis C. Taylor, who predeceased her in 1978. Together they had three children, Andrea, Francis C. Jr. and Faith.
Mrs. Hardman worked for Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge from 1952 to 1954 before embarking on her career as an educator. She worked first as an art teacher in the Boston public schools, then in 1956 became an associate professor of art at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), a job she held for 30 years.
Mrs. Hardman traveled extensively throughout her life, visiting Europe, Korea, the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America and West Africa.
She retired in 1986 and married her high school sweetheart, Leon H. Hardman, in 1987. He predeceased her in 1995.
On the Vineyard, Mrs. Hardman was an inspiration to all who knew her. She gave lectures on art and history and taught art classes at a number of venues. She exhibited her own work in Island galleries including the Dragonfly Gallery. She had a gift for bringing people together, whether to work for a common cause or simply to enjoy thoughtful conversation.
"When I wrote about her several years ago in my book, I called her a Renaissance lady, and she continued to amaze me with her dedication to everybody and every cause and every activity that brought people together," said Oak Bluffs resident Robert C. Hayden, who included Mrs. Hardman in his landmark history African-Americans on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
"I've met a lot of people over the years, and she stands out in my life as a very distinguished person. She just gave her everything to life on this Island and always had such an uplifting spirit, kind, gentle. I never tired of sitting with her at home and listening to her tales, her reminiscences," he added.
The sentiment was echoed by many.
"She had an encyclopedic knowledge of events and people going back to her childhood, and it was always a joy to hear her recount any of the episodes," said W. Leo Frame, an Edgartown resident and longtime friend.
"We belonged to a group that we called Just Friends. We would meet once a month and just talk about things in general, and she always had a wonderful story to tell us about her family and where she had been and what she had done. She lived the greatest life I can think of," said Carrie Tankard, an Oak Bluffs resident and one of the architects of the African-American Heritage Trail.
Among the organizations for which Mrs. Hardman volunteered were Featherstone Center for the Arts, the Vineyard Nursing Association, Martha's Vineyard Historical Society and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber Music Society. She was a steady member of the board of directors of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars. She had been a member of the Oak Bluffs library board of trustees since 1996.
"Della was invaluable when it came to developing our new library. She was involved at every phase, went to all the meetings, sat on all the committees. Her input helped tremendously - she had an artistic bent and a clear eye. There were times when we said let's not vote on this until we ask Della first," said Joan Desautelle, chairman of the board of trustees.
The Vineyard NAACP awarded Mrs. Hardman its first Humanitarian Award in 1994 for her service to the community. Earlier this year, the Oak Bluffs selectmen declared July 29 as Della Brown Hardman Day.
Among other honors she garnered in her lifetime, Mrs. Hardman was named as an Outstanding Art Alumna of West Virginia State College in 2000; was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998; and was named Distinguished West Virginian by Gov. John D. Rockefeller in 1979. Governor Rockefeller also appointed her to serve as a commissioner on the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council from 1979 to 1987.
"She was one of the most inspiring women I've known," said Mr. Frame, who worked with Mrs. Hardman for causes including the Nathan Mayhew Seminars and NAACP. "She was always giving. I like to think of her as an ambassador of love, because she spread her warmth and love on all she came in contact with. She would promote you before she would even think of promoting herself."
"It was only a week or so ago that she prepared a sumptuous meal for myself and other friends while she regaled us with the latest accomplishments of her grandson - and we all marveled at her deep love of family, her zest for life and generosity of self, and how she lived and savored every moment," said Marie Allen, an Oak Bluffs resident and president of the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.
"I feel as though I've lost a treasured friend, a confidante, an inspiration and a bright light in my life. She made such a difference in so many lives with her gentle smile, her generosity of heart and her sweet demeanor that never changed and never disappointed," Mrs. Allen said, adding: "Although we mourn the loss, we celebrate the gift that we never would have had had we not known her."
Mrs. Hardman is survived by three children, Andrea L. Taylor of New York city, Francis C. Taylor Jr. of Los Angeles, Calif., and Faith Taylor Kinard of Atlanta, Ga.; seven grandchildren, Wole C. Coaxum, Kamara A. Coaxum, Francis C. Taylor 3rd, Kofi Coaxum, Taylor Solomon Kinard, Michael Taylor and Leon Romero Kinard, and a great-granddaughter, Quinn Coaxum.
A memorial service will be held Sunday, Dec. 18, at 2 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. Interment will be private.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in the name of Della Brown Hardman to the Oak Bluffs Public Library, 56R School street, P.O. Box 2039, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.