February 1, 2012

Poet Irma Wassall carried herself with style, grace

There was no escaping Irma Wassall’s sense of style and grace and sometimes quirky sense of humor.

There was no escaping Irma Wassall’s sense of style and grace and sometimes quirky sense of humor.

The woman who founded the Wichita Society of the Classical Guitar and was an award-winning poet died last Thursday. She was 103.

“I first knew of Irma because I would see her walking her Afghan hounds through Riverside Park,” said friend Connie “Jane” La Foy. “She was exotic. Stunning. She had the posture and grace of a dancer. She was elegant.”

A celebration of Mrs. Wassall’s life will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Garden Room at Piccadilly Market and Grill, 7728 E. Central.

Irma Baier was born Sept. 23, 1908, in New Mexico before it was a state.

Her mother taught her, at age 4, to read. Soon she was writing. She loved poems and the sense of living an artist’s life.

At 18, she came to Wichita. She enrolled in Wichita High School’s public speaking program, then the Municipal University of Wichita, wrote poems and began working at various jobs.

She surrounded herself with some of Wichita’s and Kansas’ most notable artists of the day — painters Blackbear Bosin, Bill and Betty Dickerson, Birger Sandzen, and actress and director Mary Jane Teall.

In that circle, she met her future husband, artist Fred Wassall. They married in 1930.

While he worked creating display windows at the Walker Brothers Department Store in downtown Wichita, she worked in a series of jobs. One was at the city engineer’s office, where Wassall Street in southeast Wichita was named in her honor.

In 1956, she founded the Wichita Society of the Classical Guitar and arranged for artists such as Rey de la Torre, Oscar Ghiglia, Michael Lorimer and Andres Segovia to play in Wichita. She became involved in the Kansas Poetry Society, the Kansas Author’s Club and a local dance troupe.

“She wore her dark black hair in a bun and had very vivid jewelry,” La Foy said. “She worked hard and was secretary for three different mayors. She knew all kinds of people.”

In her lifetime, Mrs. Wassall published more than 1,000 poems in newspapers and magazines throughout the nation, including the New York Times and The New Yorker. In 2001, at age 93, she received the Kansas Governor’s Award for individual artistic achievement in the literary arts.

Her works included poems such as “Zebra Sky.”

“Skylong stripes of white cloudfur

And black velvet showered with starglitter

Make of the night sky

An incredibly enormous circus animal

Towering above the earth,

Filling all the night.”

One of Mrs. Wassall’s last jobs, when she was in her 80s, was working for Helen Galloway at the First Place.

“She was just darling and so sharp at that age. She would make me laugh,” Galloway said.

Galloway recalled Mrs. Wassall’s unique sense of fashion style and humor and how Mrs. Wassall — in her 80s — wore a string bikini while swimming at a local apartment complex.

“That was so Irma. She marched to many different drummers and we just loved her. She was a survivor who always managed to take care of herself.”

A memorial has been established with the Kansas Authors Club in care of 400 S. Pershing, Wichita, KS 67218.

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