When Barbara Risling was asked two days before her death, what she would most like to be remembered by, she thought a moment and replied, “For my work behind the scenes with [husband] Dave, as an artist, especially figure drawing, as a good cook, and a seamstress.” As a mother and grandmother she was and is regarded as the best, but she was much more than all of these things. By the end of her life, she had touched thousands of lives. Her greatest legacy can be summarized by the most common remark by those who knew her, upon learning of Barbara’s death, “She was the nicest person I ever met.”
Born February 9, 1924 in Oroville, California, she was the first child of Donovan John (“D.J.”) Phelps, an English immigrant who worked for the local power company, and commercial artist Katherine Varien Richardson. For Barbara and her little sister Audrey, childhood quickly became a travelogue as the impacts of insecure employment, the Great Depression, divorce and remarriage, and other events kept their location and caretaking in a state of flux. Life moved from rustic to urban, West Coast to U.K., and points between. While attending Hoopa High School on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, Barbara met her future husband, and love of her life, David Risling Jr. After high school they parted to continue their education – Dave at Cal Poly, Barbara at art school in San Francisco. The onset of World War II deepened their relationship.
They married in 1944. After the war’s end Dave finished college and they started a family that eventually grew to four children – Katherine (Kathy), Margaret (Peggy), Carolyn (Lyn) and Kenneth (Kenny). Dave’s career teaching agriculture took them to Caruthers and then Modesto, during which Barbara devoted herself to the tasks of motherhood and homemaking. She also stayed involved in creating and competing in the art world, taking classes, and writing. But no matter what endeavor either undertook, Barbara and Dave decided to work as a team. When Dave began working with others to improve the lives of Native Americans, Barbara joined with passion. In 1970 – hearts and minds in harmony – they moved to Davis to start UCD’s unprecedented Native American Studies program. While Barbara saw herself as “behind the scenes”, putting her skills to work whenever needed, such as brainstorming, co-writing speeches and publications, artwork, transcribing, note taking, and cooking for lots of people- she was truly an integral and equal part of the team. Barbara shared a mission with Dave, to improve the lives of others. He often stated, publicly, that he could not have accomplished the work he did without Barbara.
Not always easy, Barbara’s life brought her into contact with all kinds of people throughout the world. She seemed to touch the hearts of everyone she met with her kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and sense of humor, as well as by lending a helping hand, a listening ear, and much more. After Dave died, in 2005, right up until the day she herself passed away, Barbara carried on as she had before, offering hope, care, camaraderie and laughter to those she cherished. She continued to love art and music. And chocolate.
Barbara is survived by her sister, Audrey Jackson; children Peg Murray, Lyn Risling, and Ken Risling (Kathy Wallace passed in 2020); and generations of offspring. A “Celebration of Life” is being planned (the date and exact location yet to be determined). To be added to email list for contact about the event, send email to: email@example.com.