Barbara Nelson Topping of Sagaponack died on January 8 at her home. She was 101.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1907, she was raised with all the privileges and pleasures of a Southern belle. But family members said, her enthusiasm for volunteer work made her a familiar and beloved figure in the local community, and her taste for adventure made for wildly enthralling stories.
Mrs. Topping was known to regale her grandchildren with tales of her childhood travels in the family Studebaker touring car. After a day of traveling over roads only recently paved, she and her mother would sleep in a hammock hung in the car while the men pitched a tent for themselves by the roadside.
In 1924, she was sent to be educated at the Bennett School in Millbrook, New York. After two years of study there, she enrolled in the Gardner Institute in Manhattan and was awarded a diploma for academic achievement and “ladylike deportment” in May 1926. She spent the rest of the year traveling in Europe, taking advantage of her stay there to purchase a dress for her debut, a formality expected of her as a cultivated young woman from a prominent Memphis family.
She was in Paris when Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo trans-Atlantic flight and was among those who witnessed the hero’s greeting Parisians gave him in May 1927. The European trip was an auspicious introduction to world travels that would take her to the far corners of the world.
In 1935, she embarked on a freighter to the Far East with $700 she earned on the stock market, visiting Singapore and traveling extensively in Japan and China, where her sojourn coincided with Mao Tse Tung’s rise to power. As a woman traveling alone, she took the precaution of carrying a horse crop for protection. To overcome language barriers, she had hotel managers write out her destinations on cards she gave to her taxi drivers. Later, she revisited Japan on a round-the-world trip that also took her to Kashmir, Nepal, India, Thailand, Iran, Greece, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In 1936, she married Price H. Topping, a Sagaponack native, and settled in Larchmont, where she began volunteering in the local community. Survivors said that her contributions there quickly earned her a reputation as one of the region’s most dedicated volunteers and in 1972 when it became known that she would be moving to Long Island, the local paper lamented the loss, noting that “Barbara Topping has for 25 years taken an active part in the civic life of her home town and her county.”
Among the many charitable and environmental organizations that benefited from her energetic support, the article noted that her work on behalf of the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine of New York University Medical Center was particularly close to her heart. For many years Mrs. Topping worked very closely with Dr. Howard Rusk, the Institute’s director, organizing benefits that took in more than half a million dollars over 31 years for the rehabilitation of the handicapped.
In Sagaponack and its surroundings, she immediately immersed herself in volunteer work. She was a member of the Hampton Library’s Women’s Committee and, when that group evolved into the Bridgehampton Association, she was instrumental in establishing its second-hand book store, the Book Bay. She devoted her time and energy to the South Fork Family Service League and the Study Club in Southampton, serving as president from 1983 to 1985. She was a member of the Bridge Hampton Historical Society and the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society, serving on the board of directors and volunteering for the society’s fair and other events. In addition, as a member of the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, she served as a trustee, a member of its Pastoral Nominating Committee and was instrumental in creating the Topping family tribute garden at the church.
According to survivors, one of her most effective roles was as guardian of the gates at the VIP tent at the annual Hampton Classic Horse Show. Survivors say that because of her grandmotherly appearance and sweet, Southern-tinged speech, it was clear that she was not to be trifled with—as many a would-be gatecrasher discovered. She performed numerous other invaluable services for the Classic until she was well into her 80s.
She is survived by a son, Price H. Topping Jr. of Sag Harbor; a daughter, Marriett Campbell of South Carolina; two grandsons, Craig Andrew Campbell and Curtis Price Campbell; two granddaughters, Emily Morrill Campbell and Laura Nelson Campbell; and four great-grandchildren, Jarom Price Campbell, Isaac Gilbert Campbell, Quentin Troy Campbell and Colbie Campbell. Predeceased in 1986 by her husband, Price H. Topping, she was also predeceased by a grandson, Christopher Bennett Topping.
Funeral services were held on January 10 at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, with the Reverend M. Elaine Rhodes officiating. Interment followed at Edgewood Cemetery in Bridgehampton.