Dibbell’s vibrance, positivity are remembered

file photo by Ian Gratz
file photo by Ian Gratz

With a fiery and compassionate spirit – from the hems of her colorfully flowing tunics, to her spiky white-blond hair, laughing blue eyes and altruistic tendencies – recently retired University of La Verne Associate Professor of Theatre Jane Reilly Dibbell consistently demonstrated purity of heart.

A woman who committed herself to family, education, the arts, pacifism and the circle of faculty and friends she gained in more than 20 years as an essential member of the campus community, she died Oct. 3 at 68, after a long battle with breast cancer

Initially diagnosed in 1982, Ms. Dibbell underwent a mastectomy and was in remission until October 1998, when her oncologist informed her that the disease had returned.

She continued teaching while enduring intensive bouts of chemotherapy but was forced to go on an indefinite leave in 1999, when side effects from the treatment resulted in congestive heart failure.

Given a prognosis of only four weeks to live, she unexpectedly prolonged her life for seven years, returning to the University. She slowed the progress of the disease through alternative methods of recovery structured around positive energy, hormone-based therapies and the support of loved ones.

“Jane was an amazing human being; a very talented actress, an inspiring teacher and a very loving and devoted friend,” said Steve Kent, director of theatre. “She was surrounded by people all of the time, touched everyone that she came into contact with and has left a very profound ethical and artistic impact on her students.”

A New York native, Ms. Dibbell was born on June 23,1938 and was active in performing arts and theatre throughout her life, most notably playing a significant role in the film adaptation of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” She received her bachelor’s degree in theater from Fordham University in the Bronx and her master’s degree in communications from Cal State Fullerton, teaching kindergarten within the Chino Unified School District for 10 years before coming to ULV.

David Flaten, chair of the theater arts department, first brought Ms. Dibbell to the University in 1985 as a part-time faculty member in the acting studio. She was recognized as the first part-time professor to receive an Excellence in Teaching award in 1989, accepting a full-time position in 1990. She participated in countless productions, bringing under-represented and multicultural works such as “Blues for Mr. Charlie” and “Real Women Have Curves” to her students. She also developed both “Stories Alive,” a children’s theater program, and an annual high school festival, now named the Jane Dibbell High School Theater Festival.

Though Ms. Dibbell never returned to her full health after her second cancer diagnosis, she chose to take control of her life, reaching a point in her illness that enabled her to find vitality and acceptance in her numbered days. Along the way, she served as a blessing to all who had the chance to experience her tranquil presence.

She lent insight to times of heartache and pain before leaving on sabbatical seven years ago with a one-time performance of “Wit,” a play by Margaret Edson about a professor who maintained a sense of humor and academic charm throughout her struggle with metastasized ovarian cancer.

Ms. Dibbell’s portrayal of Vivian Bearing was captivating; playing a woman so much like herself, her energy and talent belied her sickly appearance. Sitting in a wheelchair with oxygen tubes running across her face and a feminine pink cap covering her bald head, her ability to perform while weak conveyed her willingness to overcome obstacles to achieve greatness, or merely to give others the experiences she thought they should have.

“When you went to a theater production with Jane, she made it a more engrossing evening because she brought such love and insight to the production,” said Bill Cook, professor of English. “When she began chemo and realized just after a couple of treatments that she was losing ground, she wanted to express the value of life the best way she knew how—through a play.”

In fall 2005, Ms. Dibbell’s doctors informed her that the cancer had again spread, and running out of options, she decided to forego treatment and make the most out of the time she had left.

She taught through spring 2006 with her usual vibrancy and decided to retire in the summer.

Refusing to attend any sort of somber retirement dinner, she agreed to a goodbye roast.

Held on Sept. 21, friends and faculty, along with old and new students, gathered in the Cabaret Theatre to pay their respects to a woman viewed as both a teacher and a leader; an extremely approachable and, in one word, “fun” individual. President Stephen Morgan took the opportunity to dedicate the theater to her, renaming it the Jane Dibbell Cabaret Theatre.

She reached a turning point in her illness shortly after the roast, and her health quickly declined. Knowing Ms. Dibbell’s time was limited, her daughter Dominique arranged for a small “army” of friends and family to provide her with 24-hour hospice care. She was surrounded by those she loved in her home of 27 years in Claremont at the time of her death.

“She will be remembered for her loving spirit and, in terms of her career, for how much she inspired everyone she taught, how she changed their lives, as well as for her peace activism, which was very important to her in the last few years of her life,” Dominique Dibbell said.

Known for such “Janeisms” as “Just breathe!” “What are you looking forward to about today?” “Let’s meditate!” “All is well and all will be well,” and “Lighten up!” as well as for the effortless grace with which she spread happiness to all around her, she experienced life to the fullest.

“When I think of Jane, I think of someone who sought to live her life in the moment,” said Zandra Wagoner, general education program director. “Even when she was dying she was experiencing what it was like to die and she gave so much joy to everyone around her.”

Extremely committed to peace efforts, Ms. Dibbell regularly met with friends Debbie Roberts, campus minister, Steve Kinzie, Learning Enhancement Center coordinator, and Dan Merritt, former professor of biology, for weekly meditations, doing all she could to voice her opinions and welcoming colleagues to follow in her footsteps.

“Jane invited a positive spirit; she was a life-giving force that encouraged us to see the glass as half full instead of half empty,” Roberts said.

No effort was too small, as long as it provoked change and helped to foster cooperative relationships of solidarity.

In a typical example of Ms. Dibbell’s inner need to promote world unity, Kirsten Ogden, associate professor of English, said they had both recently embarked on a short drive to distribute pamphlets advocating change.

This mission for peace moved her to configure a class around the concept and to dedicate a section of the fall issue of Prism Review to Ms. Dibbell’s memory.

“We were driving around putting peace pamphlets in different locations and Jane said ‘This is so hard because army recruiters have all these wonderful money bonuses and all I have is this little pamphlet that says there’s another option for you,’” Ogden said, referring to herself as a “student of Jane” in an untraditional sense.

“Just the fact that she was driving around the city putting these little pamphlets out that talked about how to live through peace and conflict resolution had an impact on me and really inspired the class,” she added.

Wagoner, who co-taught “Women Playwrights and Feminist Theories” with Ms. Dibbell also said she had learned a wealth of information about constructing community in the classroom from two semesters of the course and years of friendship.

“Learning through one’s body and one’s heart came so naturally to Jane and that’s definitely influenced my teaching,” she said.

Kent, who shared an office with Ms. Dibbell for six years and began working closely with her during her sabbatical to co-author a book on the idea of conscious acting, said she had a way of making people feel appreciated and a personality that made people aspire to become more like her.

“I don’t know anyone in the world who met Jane and didn’t just love her,” Kent said. “There are certain places that people carve into our lives that will never be filled, and we are all confused as to how to go on without Jane.”

An altar was set up in Ms. Dibbell’s honor at the ULV chapel and a memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 29 at the Dailey Theatre Mainstage.

Contributions may also be sent to the Jane Reilly Dibbell Scholarship fund, established through University Relations.

Ms. Dibbell is survived by her three older brothers; daughter, Dominique; son, Julian; and granddaughter, Lola.

Jessica Bell, Web Editor for the Campus Times, contributed to this story.

Kady Bell can be reached at rzezna65@yahoo.com.

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