Palo Alto educator dies in Israel after making aliyah at 100

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When Fay Bauling was 100 years old, she decided to do something bold.

She made aliyah.

Bauling accepted the invitation of grandson Doron Svatim to come live with him, his wife and their five children in Israel. Seven weeks ago, she left her apartment at the Palo Alto Commons and flew to Tel Aviv.

One month later, on Thanksgiving, she died in her sleep in Yad Binyamin, Israel. She was 100 years old.

Fay Bauling

“The whole draw of Israel was living with these children,” said Alice Stiebel, Bauling’s daughter. During the month Bauling lived in Israel, “she played cards with her great-grandchildren, she checked their math homework, she read to them, they read to her. You cannot compare that to the sterility of life in a retirement home.”

Bauling, a preschool education pioneer who helped lay the foundation for the Head Start program in the 1960s, was buried in a cemetery in Yad Binyamin.

She dedicated her career to working with young children, and it seemed only right that she lived out  her final days surrounded by their laughter and energy.

Born Fay Curtis in Chicago in 1909, she began her teaching career in a kindergarten classroom in the 1920s. Her husband, Henry Bauling, worked as the chief financial officer of the Jewish Federation in Chicago, where they raised two daughters.

Her philosophy of early childhood education involved a learning environment based on imagination, play, storytelling, music and art.

Those tenets were made known by noted author and radio host Studs Terkel, who invited Curtis onto his radio show to participate in a debate after she called him to complain about an earlier interview he had conducted.

Shortly thereafter, in 1964, she was tapped to lead a pilot preschool program in Chicago that the Johnson administration took national a year later. It’s now called Head Start, and today the $7 billion program enrolls 1 million young children.

“She always respected children, and always thought about what would be best for them educationally,” Stiebel said. “As a mother, she never used her power over me or my sister … I always thought she was the best mother in the world.”

Bauling and her husband moved to Palo Alto in 1972 to be closer to Stiebel and her children. They lived one mile away. The Baulings joined Congregation Kol Emeth, and she also became involved in the JCC in Palo Alto, helping organize its summer lecture series.

Bauling played the piano and sculpted, working with stone. She took classes at Little House, the Roslyn G. Morris Activity Center in Menlo Park. She was a volunteer docent and loved giving tours to children.

In 1989, a reporter from KRON Channel 4 interviewed Henry and Fay about their 60th wedding anniversary. The reporter asked Fay, “What’s the secret to such a long marriage?”

“My grandmother grins and says, ‘Great sex,’ ” recalled her grandson, Michael Gaynes, of Moss Beach. “She had a way of just cutting through the bull with a sentence or two. She was absolutely fearless. If something was on her mind, she said it.”

Indeed, before she left for Israel, Bauling said to her younger sister, Rhoda Curtis, “I won’t be coming back, will I?”

“You could be shipped back to California and buried next to [your husband] Henry,” responded Curtis, 91, who lives in Berkeley.

“And Fay looked at me and said, ‘What for? It’s only dust,’ ” Curtis said. “She was very pragmatic. It was one of her guiding principles.”

Curtis said her sister also was very creative. When she was a young mother, for example, she would tell stories or fairytales to her children, nieces and nephews — then encourage them to act out the tales.

“So here she is, in Yad Binyamin, in Israel, all these years later with her five great grandchildren, and she is telling them stories and they are acting them out,” Curtis said. “It was absolutely fabulous for her to come full circle like that.”

Fay Bauling was preceded in death by her husband, Henry Bauling, and daughter Sylvia Lipcon. She is survived by daughter Alice Stiebel of Palo Alto, sister Rhoda Curtis of Berkeley, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.