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ITHACA - Barbara Morrell Mai died on Friday (December 16, 2005) after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Barbara was born in Montclair, New Jersey on June 24, 1917. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Delaware, majoring in Chemistry and minoring in English. After moving to Ithaca in 1940 to do her graduate work in Foods and Nutrition in what was then the College of Home Economics at Cornell, she married William F. Mai in 1941.

Barbara and Bill remained at Cornell following their graduate work. Bill was a professor in Plant Pathology at the College of Agriculture and Barbara taught Food Chemistry, first in the College of Home Economics and then at the College of Hotel Administration.

Barbara was the epitome of the “Renaissance Woman”. She had pioneering spirit, she was intellectually curious in all endeavors and accomplished in many. She believed in the power of knowledge and approached life with the conviction that she could master any task if she accessed the right information. Throughout her life she remained politically well informed and committed to social causes. Her day was not complete without the New York Times and she actively supported the Public Library by working for the annual book sale and by managing a program to supply books to the inmates at the Tompkins County prison.

Barbara was independent and self-sufficient at a time when many other women were not. She would rather camp outdoors on the ground than stay at the Four Seasons. She was a Master Chef with a two burner Coleman stove and a reflector oven next to the campfire. She would not purchase the highly processed commercial bread available in those days, so every Sunday morning she made all of the bread, rolls and English muffins for the family for the week. An accomplished seamstress and tailor, Barbara began making costumes for theater productions in high school and college, and later created designer dresses for her daughters, tailored sports jackets for Bill, and upholstered furniture and drapes. Once she even dismantled an old down sofa to make down sleeping bags for the family’s trips West in the 1950s.

Barbara had a special love of the American West. In the late 1930’s Barbara and a friend teamed up with a young female professor at Harvard in the first women-led archeological expedition for what is now the Denver Museum of Natural History. The team worked for three years excavating and documenting the ruins of Native American Indian cultures in the Four Corners region of the American West. Barbara taught herself photography, ultimately serving as the photographer for the expedition and photographing many of the pictographs located high in the cliffs throughout the region

Barbara was an avid ornithologist, and an active participant at the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory at Sapsucker Woods. When, during the Breeding Bird Survey one year she broke her big toe, she simply cut the front out of her hiking boots and kept going for the rest of the summer. She loved the adventure of travel and was ready to go anywhere on a birding expedition. In her seventies, she went on a birding trip to Surinam where she was delighted to sleep in a hammock in the jungle for two weeks.

Throughout the decades Barbara and Bill followed all Cornell sports, but Barbara became an especially avid Cornell hockey fan, camping out with the faithful to get seasons tickets, and after she stopped teaching at Cornell, she tutored many of Cornell’s finest hockey players helping her “boys” master the complexities of chemistry.

Barbara is survived by her husband, William F. Mai; two daughters, Virginia Austin Mai (Lloyd) Abrams and Elizabeth H. (Edward John Gobrecht III) Mai; a son, William H. (Maria Birkas) Mai; two granddaughters, Elizabeth Abrams (Robert L.) Rich and Laura Morrell (Christian K. Correa) Abrams; two great-granddaughters, Quinn Katherine Correa and Alexandra Mai Rich.

Barbara was staunchly loyal and devoted to her family and friends. We will all miss her. Gifts in her memory may be made to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology at 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca. A Memorial Service celebrating her life will be planned at a future date.


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