Obituary: Marilyn Bates / Teacher, poet fought diabetes 60+ years

Nov. 1, 1939 - Oct. 29, 2013

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Marilyn Bates, a retired teacher and poet known for her feisty, caustic wit, lost a lifelong battle with diabetes on Tuesday.

She recently published a book, "Bloodwork: Married to Diabetes for Six Decades," a sardonic memoir of her experience in dealing with the disease since her diagnosis as a young girl growing up in Steubenville, Ohio.

She had watched her father lose his legs to diabetes, and she knew the disease would someday claim her.

"After the amputations, and to this day, I live with the memory of my father's legs," she wrote, "and the longer I live, wonder when the same misery will befall me, our genes mixed in the same sugar-thick blood."

As the years passed, she lost most of her sight and all of her toes, and on Tuesday she died of complications of the disease at St. Clair Hospital. She was 73 and lived in Scott.

Ms. Bates, known as "Bobbie," published poems in mostly free verse and belonged to a variety of local poetry groups.

"Her poetry was autobiographical and had a cutting edge," said Michael Wurster, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange who met Ms. Bates at a reading two decades ago. "She had a sense of the absurdities of life."

In prose and poetry, she wrote about her failing health and her strained relationships with men -- she was twice divorced -- with an eye for the telling detail.

She was always frank. In "Bloodwork," she said she married her first husband, whom she met while studying at Carnegie Tech, to bolster a sense of self-worth that diabetes had eroded.

"The truth was, all I wanted was a ring, a symbol to show others I was worth something, even though I thought I was flawed," she confided.

A former English teacher in the Mt. Lebanon School District, she was a fellow of the National Writing Project at the University of Pittsburgh and was once an invited reader at the Library of Congress.

The title poem for her first book, "It Could Drive You Crazy," was a finalist in the Parnassus on Poetry contest.

She also wrote a one-act play about breast cancer, "Life Without Nipples," produced in 2007 by the Pittsburgh New Works Theater Festival.

"She was easy to love," Ann Curran, a fellow member of the Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop, wrote in an email. "Always spoke her mind and was so damn cranky that it was fun to listen to her go on."

Ms. Bates was born in Steubenville, and the gritty nature of that city never left her.

"Steubenville's a tough town and she's a tough lady," said Fred Peterson, past president of the Pittsburgh Poetry Society.

After attending a Catholic high school and graduating from Carnegie Tech and Duquesne University, she moved with her first husband to New York, where he had taken a job as a petroleum engineer with Gulf Oil. The couple relocated to Erie, where their son, Brooke, was born in 1967, and later settled in Monroeville. They divorced in 1977.

Ms. Bates met her second husband at an art gallery in Pittsburgh; that marriage also ended in divorce in the early 1980s.

By then, Ms. Bates was teaching English at Mt. Lebanon High School and writing for various publications, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which published her poetry and essays. She made little money from writing, her son Brooke said, but she loved the craft.

Much of her personality, and her writing, was shaped by diabetes. In "Bloodwork," she even included a picture of her amputated toes.

"She dealt with it every day of her life," her son said of the disease. "She fought with it every day."

She also sparred with the people around her at every turn and rarely held back an opinion. Her memoir lambastes both of her husbands, bashes her father for his drinking and philandering and takes many in the medical community to task for how she was treated over the years in one hospital after another.

"She liked to fight with everyone -- especially those that she loved," her son said. "You always knew that her heart was in the right place."

As the diabetes worsened, she could no longer work and retired in 2000. She continued to live independently in Scott even though she was nearly blind.

"She would have loved to know that when she died, someone would write about her," her son said.

"She would have loved that recognition."

In addition to her son, Ms. Bates is survived by a sister, Linda Opfer of Chicago.

A Mass was celebrated Saturday at SS. Simon and Jude Church.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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