Long time Guerneville entrepreneur, children’s specialist, thespian, singer and cultural force Wallie Kass died during Thanksgiving week just past. These highlights of her life are condensed from her son Larry’s account of his remarkable mother.
Wallie was born Ethel Rabb in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Miki Rabb had immigrated as a baby from Russia, and her father, Joe Rabb was born in New York City to parents who had immigrated from Belarus. Wallie and her younger brother, David, grew up at the western the tip of Brooklyn. Their house and yard was frequented by neighborhood kids, who would gather for funny songs or scary stories from Joe, or to get an electrical shock for one cent from David. The Rabb family loved the ocean and spent as much time in and on the Atlantic as possible. Joe was always repairing one boat or another, and the family, including aunts, uncles and many close cousins, would hop aboard any craft that achieved marginal seaworthiness, even one named “Blood and Guts.” According to Wallie, she was the fastest runner in her elementary school. Through middle school and high school Wallie was known for being smart, but also strong — so strong that her brother made money by betting kids they couldn’t beat her up.
In 1954, Wallie graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Early Childhood Education. After teaching briefly in Brooklyn, she ventured west to UC Berkeley, where she worked with Thelma Harms at the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center, earning her MA in Child Development in 1959. Wallie then got a job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, working on a collaborative study to determine the causes of mild brain damage in infants and toddlers. This was one of the early studies to establish a link between maternal cigarette smoking and premature birth.
In 1961, Wallie headed to UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute to work with Professor Ivar Løvaas on autism, especially regarding how parenting behaviors can influence outcomes for infants and young children. Wallie’s parents and brother moved to the Los Angeles area during her many years there. Wallie’s brother, David, became an early innovator in children’s fitness, opening Dave Rabb’s Gym for Children, catering to all kids, including those with autism, physical disabilities and motor skills challenges.
David introduced Wallie to an LA City College friend of his, Alby Kass. They hit it off, and in 1970, settled down in Venice Beach and started a family. They soon started searching for a cleaner, calmer place to live and raise their two sons, Larry and Jonathon. In 1975, they moved to Guerneville and bought Riverlane, a small resort on the Russian River. In addition to managing the resort with Alby, Wallie worked as a reading recovery teacher at Guerneville Elementary School, directed parent-infant workshops at the Russian River Health Center and tested infants one day a week at the San Francisco Family Development Center. Wallie volunteered as a docent for Armstrong Woods State Reserve, leading school children on tours, and served as a board member for Gov. Jerry Brown’s innovative California-wide daycare program.
Wallie and Alby settled quickly and deeply into Guerneville community life, joining Sonia Tubridy’s newly-formed River Choir, helping found the Russian River Jewish Community and acting with the River Repertory Theater and other local groups. Wallie’s most famous roles were Golde, and then Yente, in the many productions of Fiddler on the Roof, where Alby always played Tevye. She played many other theater roles, both on-stage and off, sometimes arriving early to a performance to brew gallons of coffee and jumping off stage at intermission to sell concessions she had baked to benefit the theater. Wallie also became famous along the River as a writer and performer of tribute songs to celebrate everything from birthdays to the dedication of Guerneville’s public restroom. (When my wife retired from teaching, some of the lines Wallie wrote and sang to the tune of “Morning Has Broken” go like this: Who do we turn to / When we have a yearn to, / Wonderful Arlene / Teacher supreme.)
Wallie’s childhood love of the ocean and of boating blossomed again along the Sonoma Coast and on the Russian River, where she canoed at every opportunity. One of her original compositions, a round called “The River” has been sung for decades by the River Choir, as well as by generations of local school children.
Riverlane Resort was the perfect setting for Wallie to exercise one of her great gifts ... convener of family. She loved to invite all the cousins and nephews and nieces and friends, prepare great feasts with Alby, organize outings and kids activities, and celebrate Jewish holidays with loose references to the biblical traditions. Wallie deeply enjoyed these gatherings and had boundless energy to make them happen.
Wallie added “Wawa” to her title in 2007 with grandchildren Natalia and Elan, and again in 2009 with Isaiah, and 2011 with Stella. Wawa connected with her grandkids like no one else, year after year, digging and building in the sand, telling stories and listening to their stories. Even as Wawa lost her memory of more mundane things, her instinct of how to meet the kids where they were never faded.
Wallie spent the final two years of her life at Primrose Assisted Living in Santa Rosa. Music, always one of Wallie’s major outlets for expression and connection, became even more central to her life here, as dementia made other avenues more challenging. Wallie fought off COVID-19 in early August with no severe symptoms, but the battle left her much more fatigued than before. Throughout Wallie’s journey at Primrose, Wallie’s heart shined through — strong, generous and graceful as ever.