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Barbara Newcombe (1923-2022) helped start the Friends of the Cleveland Cascade. Credit: Courtesy Ellen McAmis

Walking around Lake Merritt, you may see the popular Cleveland Cascade—a place where Oaklanders run the steps, work out on the plaza, and sit to enjoy the views of the lake. However, you may not know that the recent revival of the Cascade was led by a 90-year-old grandmother—my grandmother, Barbara Newcombe. Anyone who knew Barbara was completely unsurprised that she had spearheaded a volunteer group at that age. She had been a spitfire from the start. 

The incomparable Barbara Tripner Newcombe passed away on April 15, 2022. She was 98.

Barbara Tripner was born June 17, 1923, 24 hours after her parents moved by car from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles. They clearly had automobiles on their mind when they wrote this birth announcement: 

Tripners’, Inc. beg to announce the introduction of their 1923 model at Los Angeles, California. This model bids fair to displace all similar models in the same class. It is known as the Barbara Ann Tripner – Speedster.
Beautiful illustrated catalog upon request. 

Barbara never really stopped moving since that day. She attended Pomona College and got a master’s degree from UC Berkeley. While at Pomona, she met Jack Newcombe, an enlisted service member. After Jack got back from the European theater of World War II, they were married in Los Angeles. Their family took off, and so did Jack’s career. Along came Laura, Scott, Tod, and Polly, and also a move to Rye, New York, and eventually London as Jack became an editor at Life Magazine.

At 61, after the birth of her first grandchild, Barbara retired and moved to Oakland. That’s when she really got started. She began volunteering at the Center for Investigative Reporting and found that there was not a sufficient guide to public record-keeping in California. So, she wrote it. Paper Trails: A Guide to Public Records in California (1991) provided guidance to the Oakland task forces charged with writing the Sunshine Ordinance that created a more open government. In between all this, she regularly attended A’s games and helped with her two grandchildren in Oakland, Scott and Ellen, and welcomed two others on the East Coast, Kyle and Emma.

Her focus after the Center for Investigative Reporting was the Public Ethics Commission. She was appointed to a three-year term on that civilian board and turned 80 at the end of it. She attended every Oakland City Council meeting, often with her granddaughter in tow. She was passionate about participation in government, ending her speech at her 90th birthday with, “And remember to VOTE!”

Barbara Newcombe as a young woman in 1945. Credit: Courtesy Ellen McAmis

At a neighborhood meeting in 2004, Barbara helped start the Friends of the Cleveland Cascade organization, a volunteer effort that worked on the staircase south of Lakeshore. This historic staircase, which once had a waterfall flowing through its sconced bowls, was built in 1923 by landscape architect Howard Gilkey. It eventually fell into unlit, dingy disrepair, and became little more than a set of dirty steps. 

The Friends group met every Saturday to clean and plant and gradually transformed the stairs into a bright, beautifully planted gem. As their work flourished, so did the community around the stairs. People began using them for exercise and recreation, and the volunteer network expanded. Today the stairs are a vibrant passage to Lake Merritt, a testament to the determination of one neighbor to make her community better. 

In the last year of her life, Barbara was at the Chaparral House nursing home in Berkeley, where she was visited by family and friends. The incredible staff and nurses cared for her until her last minutes. We now know that she truly did “displace all other models,” and had a grand old life to prove it.

Editor’s Note: Countless remarkable lives are lived in Oakland. At The Oaklandside, you’ll start to see more obituaries like this one, written by community members to honor their loved ones. Soon, we’ll make it easy for readers to get in touch with us about sharing a remembrance. Hats off to our sister site Berkeleyside, which has provided this valuable service in Berkeley for 10 years.