Border Crossing – Barbara Schmitt Leaver (1929-2017)
Born in 1929, Barbara Schmitt Leaver grew up in Minnesota and attended college on the East Coast.
Prior to moving to La Antigua Guatemala she spent the majority of her adult life based in Massachusetts, first in Lincoln and then Beacon Hill in Boston. She is survived by her four sons, Amos, Matt, Robert and Paul.
Barbara traveled the world, acquired a nursing degree, started businesses, raised children, and became a beloved member of the Antigua community. The sons most especially wish to thank Barbara’s devoted 25-year Guatemalan employee Rolando Garcia for his unwavering care of their mother. Rolando expressed his feelings about Barbara by saying, “She was my best friend, the best boss and advisor. Also, that to work for her for all of these years, it was the best experience I have ever had in all my life. She was a strong-willed, wonderful woman.”
Longtime Antigua resident Vey Smithers recently recalled meeting Barbara for the first time in 1990 when Barbara had been visiting Antigua. It didn’t take long for Barbara to become enchanted with Antigua and consider buying a home in this lovely town.
The evening prior to Barbara’s departure, Vey received a call from a friend who asked if she would show Barbara a house on 5a avenida, adjacent to the arch. Though not in the real estate business, Vey said “sure,” even though it was a rainy night.
Connections were made; Vey’s first impression of Barbara was that she was a woman on a mission. After a walk through the house, and mind you it was around 10 p.m., Barbara asked Vey if she knew of a skilled builder who could come over right away.
As improbable as it may seem, Vey called her neighbor, Ing. Roberto Hernandez, and within 30 minutes he and Barbara were discussing various modifications that could be made to the house. Barbara flew back to the U.S. the next morning, an offer was made, and she began the next chapter of her extraordinary life.
Within a few years, the Cloister, now both her home and a fashionable bed and breakfast became the preferred place to stay while visiting Antigua. Barbara was a gracious hostess; many of her guests returned year after year. One of them recounts his first sojourn at the Cloister. He relished the surroundings and most especially enjoyed Barbara’s wit and intelligence. At the end the week, while preparing to return to the U.S., he told Barbara: “If you ever get up to Tucson, be sure and look me up.” She casually replied, “I’ll be there in a week.” And thus began a lasting friendship.
Barbara was very active socially and made innumerable friends and acquaintances. A crowd would gather at the Cloister to celebrate many a New Year’s Eve party and other festive events. She organized lectures at the Cloister that included local residents who spoke on their various expertise as well as visiting archaeologists, writers and the like who were most willing to participate in the series.
She also inaugurated a Semana Santa Good Friday brunch. Cloister guests and locals gathered together with the scents of flowery alfombras (carpets) coming in from the street through the open windows.
During one particular Good Friday brunch in the mid-1990s, the conversation centered on a certain Antigua resident known by the nickname “Mr. Fix-It,” who had recently left town — but actually was a fugitive on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Mr. Fix-It has been convicted of multiple bank robberies and had escaped from a federal penitentiary in Idaho 11 years earlier. As you might well imagine, this caused quite a stir. Especially by one resident who proclaimed, “He repaired the combination lock on my safe!” In May 1996, Leslie Isben Rogge, aka Mr. Fix-It, surrendered to U.S. authorities in Guatemala.
So it was that the Cloister was a hub in Antigua, and not just for the then relatively small foreign national community. Barbara, who always had her finger on U.S. politics, also had her eye on the indigenous women who sold their wares in town. In her compassion and understanding of the harsh and challenging lives they led, she established a weekly lunch program. Ultimately, she and the Cloister kitchen staff provided nutritious and filling meals for hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous women and their children.
Barbara was most gracious, with a sharp, provocative wit, and sometimes she was blunt as only she could be. She didn’t hesitate to offer her opinions. In my case she was most concerned about my hair, often commenting, “You’ve got to get that out of your face!”
Barbara cut an elegant figure, always dressed beautifully, and always game for a laugh. Her son Robbie recalls, “She liked to say that her preferred exit from this life would involve a plunge into the lavas of Fuego, and she wondered who would be willing to take her up to the rim and give her a push. I assured her she would find a volunteer. That was her kind of humor, and she loved to laugh more than anything.”
As the years rolled by, the time came when the thought of scaling down her busy life became very appealing. Barbara decided to sell the Cloister with an eye on another very special home, smaller but with a rich history in and of itself. It had belonged to Louise Jackson, known affectionately and accurately to friends and family alike as the “Dragon Lady.”
Barbara, though not exactly a Dragon Lady, there could only be one, was well acquainted with Louise and her family. When she moved in, she came not as a stranger but rather as a rightful resident who carried on the tradition of strong and bold women.
Thank you to Robert Leaver for his collaboration on this article. Referencing Barbara’s wish to be tossed into the lavas of Fuego, Robert composed a song for her titled Viva La Doña.
The first time he sang it for her she wasn’t so sure but then she came to fully appreciate it.
Click below to hear it:
REVUE article by Terry Biskovich