Katharine Osborne, poet, artist and philanthropist, dies at 81

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Elizabeth Cook
Salisbury Post
The title of Katharine Osborne’s first book of poems almost summed up her life ó “She Done What She Could.”
As news spread Thursday that the 81-year-old poet, artist and philanthropist had died, people commented on her generosity, her inquisitiveness, her talent and her caring.
Osborne, they said, did all she could ó for colleges, the arts, family, friends and beyond.
“She was a lovely person on the inside and outside,” said Anne Scott Clement, director of Waterworks Visual Arts Center, where Osborne served on the board for six years.
Dr. John Wear Jr. found in Osborne a supporter for Catawba College’s Center for the Environment, which he directs ó and an inspiration.
“She was such a bright person, and I don’t mean simply intellectually, but in everything she did,” Wear said. “She was just one of those people who contributes in many ways.”
Despite debilitating arthritis, Osborne was known for being active. She went to New York with a group from Catawba College in December to attend plays and see the Rockettes, according to daughter Jeanne Wurster of Gainesville, Fla.
Osborne also wrote occasional columns for the Post, sharing her experiences with aging and her outlook on life.
In one of her last columns, she said her doctor had ruled out a return visit to the Grand Canyon because of lung problems.
She found things to enjoy at home:
“I am appreciating the clouds, their variety, the sunlit edges, painted bright yellow from the morning rays,” she wrote. “Beautiful vistas are here in my own backyard to enjoy.”
A series of medical problems weakened Osborne over the past six weeks ó a hematoma in the abdomen, a perforated bowel, a lung embolism.
Wurster said the fourth problem that arose was insurmountable ó sepsis.
Osborne died peacefully Thursday at Rowan Regional Medical Center.
She stayed in good spirits throughout her illness, Wurster said.
The morning she developed the abdominal problem at home, her daughter said, the pain was too great for her to reach the phone, so she pushed her Lifeline button.
“When the First Responders got there, she asked for coffee and breakfast,” Wurster said.
Born Katharine Weisiger in Columbia, S.C., she grew up in Salisbury, where father Leslie Weisiger was president of Carolina Tractor. She graduated from Sweet Briar College in 1947, and taught for several years, first in Mount Ulla and then in Huntersville. She also worked from 1951 to 1953 as a communications analyst for the National Security Agency.
She married Albemarle native Robert V. Osborne in 1952, and they had three children ó Jeanne, Katharine and Bob. They lived in Silver Spring, Md., Asheville and Charlotte before moving to Salisbury.
Robert, who was a vice president at Carolina Tractor, died in 1987.
The Osbornes ate breakfast regularly at College Barbecue, and after he passed away, she continued.
“She had a zest for life,” said Patsy Reynolds, who was among the regulars Osborne met each weekday at the restaurant. “She never wanted to give up.”
She said Osborne talked about her children and grandchildren and the death of her son-in-law.
“We have shared good times and bad,” Reynolds said. “Sammie Post wrote that book, ‘Coffee Therapy.’ I feel like that’s what we had there.
“She really did love life. She was a community supporter. She was just a real treasure.”
Wurster said her mother always valued education, perhaps because her father, Leslie Weisiger, nearly attended secretarial school. “No, don’t do that,” Wurster said someone told her grandfather. “You’re smart enough for college.”
Weisiger did go to college, become a road builder and bridge builder, and went on to become president of Carolina Tractor.
Wurster said her mother knew what a difference education could make and that not everyone felt they could afford it.
“It’s been on her heart that things that are easy for some people are not so easy for others,” Wurster said.
Osborne was a supporter of Livingstone College and sponsored its Women in History event for several years.
She had been a member of Catawba College’s board of trustees since 1992.
That’s how Paul Fisher of F&M Bank said he got to know her, as a fellow trustee. She was, he said, “a gracious lady who had much to offer, one who cared, one who lived life until the Lord told her it was time to go.”
Dr. Robert Knott, Catawba’s president, said Osborne was a poignant writer and a thoughtful person. She very recently established a scholarship at Catawba, as she had done at Sweet Briar.
“Even in the last weeks of her life, Catawba College, which she served as a faithful trustee, was in her thoughts,” Knott said. “We are grateful for her service and loyalty to the college and her many contributions to the Salisbury-Rowan community.
“We are all better people for having known Katharine. She will be greatly missed.”
The family is planning a memorial service Monday.