Elizabeth Potter Atkins
September 13, 1924–August 19, 2019
Elizabeth Potter “Libby” Atkins died on August 19th in Concord, MA, at age 94 after a brief illness. Libby was born in New York City, the second of 4 children of Warwick Potter and Harriet Amory Potter. She spent her childhood in New York and Greenwich, CT, and enrolled in Bryn Mawr College. During a visit to Washington DC in 1942, where her father was stationed with the Navy, she was introduced to Elisha Atkins, who was at Quantico with the Marine First Division before heading to the South Pacific. They were married in 1944 after he returned from the war, and they moved to Rochester, NY, where Elisha entered medical school and their two oldest children – Ruth and Elisha – were born. After six years in St. Louis, where son Warwick and daughter Natasha were born, they settled in Woodbridge, CT, when her husband joined the faculty at Yale Medical School. During their time in Woodbridge, Libby had her fifth and final child, David.
To describe her time in Woodbridge as that of a homemaker doesn’t do justice to her range of interests. She was an inveterate reader, traveler, volunteer, lover of music, and natural historian, and she encouraged all of these interests in her children. The kitchen table was often covered with her children’s art supplies, terrarium projects, and the occasional taxidermy effort. An early follower of “eco-gleaning” pioneer Euell Gibbons, Libby sometimes served up steamed day lily pods alongside her casseroles. She oversaw a menagerie of animals, from a procession of dogs, a vocal mynah bird, and a series of hamster escape artists to the occasional captured snake or field mouse. In 1963 she packed up the family for a sabbatical year abroad in Oxford, England, and again (with her two youngest children) for a year in La Jolla, CA, in 1969. Politically active in liberal causes, beginning with canvassing for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, she joined Another Mother for Peace during the Vietnam War. Their march on Washington in 1967 was one of the first, led by the first elected female Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Her interest in politics led to a life-long activity in the League of Women Voters, which continued up through her 90s in the town of Belmont, MA.
Summertime was often spent in South Dartmouth, MA, in their rustic cabin at the saltmarsh edge of Buzzard’s Bay. There she taught some of the kids to drive on the old family jeep, tried without much success to turn them into sailors, and urged them to explore the marshes and mudflats. It remained a favorite place for both quiet weekends and boisterous family reunions until her death.
As her children grew up, she returned to complete her BA at University of Bridgeport. She was a volunteer teacher and tutor in New Haven schools, and she served on the boards of Hopkins School in New Haven and the Mountain School in Vermont. In 1975, she and her husband took up residence at Yale as Master and Mistress of Saybrook College, one of 12 residential colleges at Yale. For 10 years, they served as surrogate parents, hosts, entertainers, mentors, and confidants to Yale undergraduates. They were known for their intimate gatherings where prominent writers, actors and artists—including Dick Cavett, John Updike, and James Earl Jones—would meet with undergraduates in their living room. Libby remained committed to community service in New Haven, and in 1985 she received the Cornerstone Humanitarian Award for her work at the Cornerstone Halfway House for people with mental illness.
In 1986, they returned to Elisha’s childhood home of Belmont, MA, to take the helm of the Habitat Environmental Institute. Libby served as teacher, art exhibit coordinator, and naturalist, and together she and her husband led bird and tree walks around Mt. Auburn cemetery, until Elisha’s death in 2005. She remained closely involved with Habitat after it was incorporated into the Mass Audubon sanctuary system.
A prolific reader with wide-ranging interests, Libby belonged to many reading groups. In 1988 she and Elisha founded the Natural History Reading Group at Habitat, which combined their interests in the natural world and literature, and she guided the group for the next 30 years. She was also a long-time member of the 130-year-old Thursday Club, who gathered weekly to read aloud from “works of lasting value.” One of the last books she read was Ron Chernow's 1,100-page biography of Ulysses S. Grant, whose inauguration was attended by two of her great-grandfathers: Grant’s fellow Union general Robert Brown Potter and Hamilton Fish, Grant's Secretary of State.
Libby put her prodigious energy and literary knowledge into helping manage the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge, one of Boston’s last remaining used bookstores. Founded by alumnae and run by volunteers, the bookstore has raised more than $1 million for scholarships to Bryn Mawr College. Into her 90s Libby could be found sorting donations, making recommendations to visitors, and at the computer listing their inventory online.
Libby leaves her brother William Potter and his wife Kay Cowan of Alexandria, VA; her children, Ruth Atkins and her husband Timothy Quartly-Watson of Oregon House, CA; Warwick P. Atkins and his wife Geraldine Atkins of Lexington, MA; Natasha Atkins and her husband Scott Wing of Arlington, VA; David Atkins and his wife Laura Stone of Arlington, VA; and her daughter-in-law Maureen Colton of Cambridge, MA. Libby will also be missed by her grandchildren Kirsten Colton and her husband David Issler, Siobhan Atkins and her husband Leo Henke, Erik Wing, Gabriel Pannell, Nicholas Wing, Micaela Atkins, Eli Atkins, Lara Atkins, and Garrett Atkins; by her great-grandchildren Ava and Dylan Issler; and by her many nieces and nephews. She is predeceased by her beloved son Elisha H. Atkins and grand-daughter Elizabeth S. Atkins, and by her brother Warwick Potter and sister Amory Glenn.
The family will hold a private service. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a gift to the Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, 10 Juniper Rd., Belmont, MA 02478.