Barbara Riley dies at 79
'A force of nature with a huge heart'
One of the area's most beloved former residents has died in Massachusetts.
Barbara Jo Riley died July 29 at her home in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
She was 79.
Riley was a generous philanthropist lending her support to a wide variety of organizations and entities in the area as well as throughout the United States and beyond.
But it was in Manchester and Dorset where she spent considerable time for about three decades and became one of the area's most prolific and generous donors.
In the Northshire, many organizations benefited from her giving including Riley Rink, the Riley Center for the Arts, The Dorset Playhouse, Burr and Burton Academy, Long Trail School, the Northshire Day School, and the Southern Vermont Arts Center.
Born on New Year's Day
Riley was born on New Years Day 1941 to Edwin and Gladys Riley in North Kansas City, Missouri.
An interior designer, she owned the Barbara Levin Interiors design firm in New York City, often landing on the pages of Architectural Digest and other publications.
She married Gerald Levin, the former CEO of AOL-Time Warner, in 1970 and the couple kept a home in Dorset for about three decades before divorcing.
She later moved to Stockbridge.
She also had residences in Santa Fe, Key West, and New York City.
Over the years, Riley made good friends in the area and many have been sharing memories following the announcement of her death.
One man, however, said he worked with Riley and became close friends for many years. Bill Daiek worked with Riley in his role with the rink, but he and his wife, Donna, became close friends with her and they ended up helping her achieve whatever goals she set her mind to.
Daiek worked with Riley so much many thought he worked for her. But he was just helping a friend, he said.
"We became best friends and we remained best friends for many, many years," Daiek said. "She had all these ideas and it was my job to make it happen."
He and his wife accompanied her to Key West, Florida, and New York City.
He said she was as comfortable with a burger and beer as she was rubbing elbows with Jane Fonda, and Daiek was there to experience it for years.
"She allowed my wife and I to expand our horizons and see and do things we never thought we'd do in our lifetime," Daiek said. "We met a lot of celebrities."
Others said they valued Riley for heart-to-heart talks.
Susanne Dickmann, who lived in Manchester at the time but now lives in Germany, said the pair bonded after she gave Riley a golden retriever puppy.
A mutual friend had connected the two when her goldens had a litter and Dickmann decided to give a male puppy to Riley to honor her for all she had done for the community.
She ended up naming the puppy "Riley," not after herself but the skating rink she loved so much and it became the unofficial mascot of Riley Rink for many years.
"What a special lady, a true force of nature with a huge heart," Dickmann said.
The one thing most people will associate Barbara Riley with in Manchester is the hockey rink that bears her name.
Daiek was the first general manager and executive director for the rink for seven years and grew close to Riley over the years.
But, his first job was to manage the town's new skating rink.
"She would always tell us when she came in, she'd say, 'the CEO is here, the meeting starts in 5 minutes,'" Daiek remembers.
That came because without Riley's donation, the rink may not have gotten off to such a great start.
Daiek said Riley was one of the two top donors to the fundraising effort and the rink would have built anyway, but her donation made it more successful more quickly.
Many of the people who worked at Riley Rink in those early days remember Riley with great fondness for how much she cared. Riley would show up at the rink and sometimes just hang out with the employees for hours.
With Riley Rink in place, the next step was to develop a hockey league.
Daiek said the key to any rink is hockey, but it's an expensive sport to get started in with hundreds of dollars in equipment as well as fees.
"Hockey was relatively new to the area and hockey is not a cheap sport," Daiek said.
The Jonathan Levin Youth Scholarship Fund made sure every kid who wanted to play hockey could play.
"It allowed numerous children to get involved in hockey," Daiek said. "We could help with their equipment and registration fees. She made sure nobody was shut out of anything she was involved in."
Riley, in addition to giving to organizations big and small, was also known for bringing big-name concerts to Manchester in the early 2000s known as the Riley Summer Concert Series.
For three years she paid for all costs for the concerts as a gift to the community and as a fundraiser for Riley Rink.
The concerts were big acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Buddy Guy, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr, Lyle Lovett, Alabama, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson among others.
Local musicians Bob Stannard said Riley "just really, really loved music."
The concerts that came to Manchester were among the best anywhere, he said.
"There were a couple of years that we had the best music in the country in Manchester, Vermont, and it all happened because of one person," Stannard said. "We had these amazing shows in Manchester because she underwrote them. I asked her, 'why are you doing this?' and she said, 'I love the music and I love sitting in the front row.'"
Her generosity also extended to local musicians. She made sure local musicians were included, and Daiek found himself negotiating with top acts to get permission for local bands to play a set in front of a big crowd before the main act.
One of those local acts was Stannard and Chris Kleeman.
Stannard used to run a lawn service and Riley was a client.
He said he remembers exactly how "I got sucked into the vortex of her life."
"She said what are you and Allison doing on Saturday night," Stannard said, then before he could answer, she said, "Whatever it is, cancel it. I want you to come to a cocktail party with some friends of mine. It wasn't an invitation, it was a demand. I'm thinking, I'm not in that circle, but we decide to go."
Stannard said she didn't know he was a musician, but before you know it, Stannard and Chris Kleeman were playing some tunes and ended up getting themselves invited to play the next night with BB King, sitting in with his band for a few tunes. Then there was an invite to play four nights at BB King's club in New York City and they were asked to play at the Montreux Blues Fest in Switzerland.
Riley helped cover the expenses for the trip.
"It was the musical trip of a lifetime for me," Kleeman said. "Bob and I could never have done what we did in those years without Barbara's support and friendship. I will always be grateful to her for helping to make a dream come true on that trip to Switzerland."
Stannard agreed with how big of a moment it was.
"It's a life-changing experience for me because I mowed this woman's lawn," Stannard said. "It was such a door opener that she laid on me because she liked the music. I'm indebted for all time to Barbara Riley."
Cowboy Canyon Parties
The epic parties would have 150 guests and were usually held the night before a big artist hit the stage.
Catered by the Perini Ranch out of Texas, the tractor-trailers would roll in with a small Texas ranch in the back and serve barbecue from a full chuckwagon.
The Perini Ranch catered events for President George W. Bush in Texas and Washington, but with Riley in charge they were known to include a lot of local people and always included the workers who Riley had hired on her property, at the rink, whatever, and they'd be rubbing elbows with major corporate CEOs and celebrities.
Daiek remembers meeting Arnon Milchan, an Israeli billionaire who has produced more than 130 movies including some huge hits.
They were touring Riley Rink the night before the concert and Milchan casually asked Daiek, "what do you need?"
Daiek told him they were hoping to get astroturf to play indoor soccer but at $100,000 they couldn't afford it yet.
"He said you'll have the check next week," Daiek said. "She'd bring [celebrities] there and we'd get another donation. Not only was she extremely giving but she was a promoter for the place."
Leaving a Legacy
Many local organizations got a boost from Riley.
At Burr and Burton Academy, Riley's contributions continue to benefit students.
Headmaster Mark H Tashjian said her passing is a loss for the arts and a loss for the entire Manchester community.
"Barbara gave so generously to Burr and Burton Academy, turning the tragedy of her son's untimely death into an opportunity for BBA students to study media arts in the Jonathan Levin
Center, and providing a transformative home for BBA's phenomenal creative arts programming in the Riley Center for the Performing Arts," Tashjian said.
Tashjian said he was one who saw her love for animals.
"The first time I met Barbara told me everything I needed to know about the size of her heart," he said. "Along with her love and care for the community, she had nine dogs in the back of her car. She filled those dogs with love, and she lived a life of spirit and generosity and love for those around her and for the many people whom she would never meet but nonetheless would benefit from her time on this earth."
Another organization that benefited from Riley's generosity is the Northshire Day School.
Steve Burzon remembered that he was working with Leslie Keefe to raise $4 million for the construction of the new facility on Main Street.
"Leslie recruited Barbara as a key component of the school's development plan," Burzon said. "Barbara opened not only her purse, but her contact list, her home, and her heart to the project which resulted in the successful completion of the plan."
He said he remembers the night at her home as they were getting close to their goal.
"We were close to the end [and] she exhorted the crowd in attendance at the party to 'give just little more' to reach the goal," he said. "And they did."
He said working with Keefe and Riley remains one of the highlights of his time in the Northshire.
Other organizations benefited as well.
Long Trail School in Dorset received financial support from Riley, as did the Southern Vermont Arts Center and the Dorset playhouse, which at the time needed expensive repairs.
John Nassivera, who was a co-founder at Dorset Theatre Festival, posted on Facebook that Riley had helped with the restoration of the aging playhouse in Dorset.
"Without Barbara Riley the Dorset Playhouse wouldn't have been restored," Nassivera wrote.
Under the radar
Stannard said that the big-ticket donations overshadowed the many smaller contributions she made.
"What she did for this community — Manchester and Dorset — most of it we can see, but there was so much other stuff, under the radar, that she did," Stannard said.
Daiek agreed. It wasn't all big parties, music stars, movie moguls and six-figure checks.
A lot of what Riley did was never known outside of a small number of people involved.
Daiek said she loved art and wanted to attend every art opening and businesses events she could.
He said she made it a habit of always buying something significant to give the artists, gallery owner or business owner a boost to get started.
"She was just a very kind soul," Daiek said. "She cared about everything."
Another thing she did not a lot of people knew about came during the concerts.
Not only did she cover the entire cost of putting on the shows, but she would tell Daiek to take 100 tickets and make sure people who couldn't afford to attend got to see the show.
"She wanted to make sure those people got an opportunity," he said. "We did things in a small community that would blow people's minds."
Daiek also remember the excitement that would come at the Vermont Antique Dealers Association annual show and Antiques in Vermont show held at the Riley Rink.
He said she'd go in before the show opened and walk through the show picking out items.
"She'd walk through and say, I want that, I want that, I want that, for two hours," Daiek said. "She'd put a jolt of excitement into the show."
He said for some of the vendors their entire show could be made a success just by having Riley stop by their booth before it even opened its doors.
"She was someone who only comes along once in a while," Daiek said. "For those years she made such a difference in so many people's lives. She's that person you're never going to forget for what she did."
Riley was preceded in death by her sister, Patricia Ann McClendon of Clington, Missouri.
She is survived by her sister JoAnn Elio and her husband, Ciro, of Mineola, New York.
She is also survived by her son, Michael Levin and his wife, Dana, of Irvington, New York, and her daughter, Anna Nicholson and her husband, Peter, of Manchester Center.
She leaves behind grandchildren Joe and Sam Nicholson of Manchester Center, and Julia and Theodore Levin of Irvington.
She also leaves behind her two dogs, Willy and Paco.
A private burial will take place at Maple Hill Cemetery in Dorset.
A celebration of her life will be announced at a later date.
Memorial gifts can be made to Second Chance Animal Shelter or the Animal Medical Center, or any of her charitable causes.
Arrangements are being handled by Brewster-Shea Funeral Home in Manchester Center.
Contact Darren Marcy at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell at 802-681-6534.
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