Virginia “Toots” Rideout Obenshain died quietly Sept. 10 at home in Albuquerque, N.M., after a courageous two-year battle with pancreatic cancer with her loving family by her side.
Toots was born in Boston, Mass., May 12, 1937 to Virginia Stull Rideout and Richard Lunt Rideout. At age 4, she, her mother and sister left Boston and split time between Washington, D.C., where her mother worked for the federal government and the fledgling airline industry, and Buchanan, Va., where her mother had grown up. In the sixth grade, Toots moved permanently to Buchanan to live with her aunt, Mary Aiken (“Chugga”) Carson and her family.
Toots attended Radford College, where she met her future husband, Samuel Scott Obenshain, on a Baptist Student Union scavenger hunt. Scott was a student at Virginia Tech in his hometown of Blacksburg. They were married in Buchanan in 1959 and began their life together in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Scott was studying medicine. There, Toots began her teaching career teaching developmentally delayed students.
While in Winston-Salem, they welcomed their first child, Sarah Adair (“Dair”) Obenshain. During summer vacations, Toots worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which hired teachers to cover regular employees’ vacations. Two months sorting cigarettes paid as much as nine months of teaching.
The budding family followed Scott’s medical career across the country, from Cleveland, Ohio to Palo Alto, Calif., where their second child, Rebecca (“Becky”) Obenshain O’Gawa, was born. Scott then served two years in the Army at Fort Riley, Kansas. While there not only did they bring Samuel Stull Obenshain into the world, but also created some memorable stories that captured Toots’ spirit of fairness and advocacy for those facing challenges in their lives. One was the now “infamous” letter she wrote to President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 regarding the casually dismissive treatment by the Fort Riley Officers’ Wives Club of their Jewish members, which drew a quick and effective response from the White House and the Pentagon.
Scott, Toots, and family then moved back to Cleveland for Scott’s pediatric fellowship, where Rachel Scott Obenshain Landavazo was born. Toots continued her career teaching children with special needs, part of her legacy of fighting for those less fortunate. She had a reputation for unyielding compassion mixed with a sense of humor second to none!
In 1970, when Scott was offered a position in the Pediatrics Department at The University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Toots reportedly accepted the position and the family uprooted themselves once again and moved to the Southwest. Albuquerque remains the Obenshain family home to this day. While Scott settled into his work at the medical school, Toots revived her teaching career by working with students with special needs. As an educator, she spent years working with Albuquerque Public School students who required special attention, focus and patience.
She thrived on every tear-jerking and/or side-splitting story because of her uncanny people-smarts, love and (sometimes scandalous) humor. Toots, they say, got called to the Principal’s office more often than her students. Her work inspired her own children’s careers in innumerable ways, within and outside of the Albuquerque school system. Toots loved her students as her own, but consistently mentioned during the last few months of her life that she was most proud of raising four wonderful children.
A friend has written, “It’s hyperbole to say that the Obenshain family saved my life, but… to be honest, not by much… I’d never seen such a close-knit — and yet welcoming and ever-expanding — family; it was foreign to me and frankly pretty magical. To this day, the ‘Obenshain Compound,’ expanded with homes for the grown kids and their families, has some sort of ‘everything’s going to be OK” fairy-dust dome over it for so many.’”
As an advocate for underdogs, outcasts, and overlooked people of all stripes, Toots was unstoppable. She became president of ABQ Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) within a short time of her own daughter’s coming out. Toots marched with PFLAG and the Raging Grannies in ABQ’s Pride parade many a time and one year was the parade’s grand marshal, riding on the back of a convertible with her grandkids in her lap and her family strewn throughout the parade route cheering her on! Although the parades were a blast, Toot’s real advocacy came at the New Mexico State Legislature where she was a constant presence championing the rights of all. Later in her life, after retiring from APS, Toots joined the Albuquerque Assistance League and managed the Operation School Bell program, which bought school uniforms for almost 4,000 low-income children, making her again well known among Albuquerque schools.
Toots never met a stranger. She had a seat reserved at Thanksgiving and Christmas for anyone who didn’t have a place to go or a family with whom to celebrate. There are too many stories to tell about this amazing person who graced us with her laughter, smile, larger-than-life heart, and love for her family.
Toots is survived by her loving husband of 57 years, Scott; her daughter Dair and her wife Mary Ramos, their children Benjamin and Emily; her daughter Becky and her husband Mark O’Gawa, and their children, Richard and Daniel; her son Samuel and his wife Kory Obenshain, and their children, Carleigh and Teegan; her daughter, Rachel and her husband, Daryl Landavazo, and their children, Julia, Sami Jo, Jaime and Louisa, all in Albuquerque; and her sister, Nancy Parker of Annapolis, Md. She is also survived by an extended family of relatives and friends across the United States and the world who understand what it means to have Toots lodged deeply in their hearts forever.
A memorial service in Toots’ honor will take place on Saturday, March 18 at 1 p.m. at Buchanan Presbyterian Church, 19559 Main Street, Buchanan. A reception will follow the service