Pat Onion, a professor, writer, poet, colleague, friend, wife, mother and grandmother who relished going against the grain and who filled the space around her with intellect, creativity, humor and warmth, died Sunday at age 80. She was surrounded by her family whom she had nurtured, nudged and supported with an overabundance of love.
Pat was born in Auburn, New York, in 1943 to Hank and Pat Arnold. Growing up in Vermont, she was the eldest of three children, including her sister Debby and brother Kip. She was a vibrant force in her family and in school. She met her future husband, Dan Onion, at Rutland High School and their class voted the pair king and queen of their senior prom.
She played clarinet in band, acted in plays – and thrived in academics, particularly writing and literature. She earned a full scholarship to Connecticut College, majoring in English. She went on to Harvard University where she earned her Ph.D. She and Dan married in 1965; their first child, Fritz, was born in 1968, followed by Amanda in 1970 and Alene in 1980.
Wherever Pat and Dan lived (Seattle, Washington, Juneau, Alaska, and then settling in Farmington and Vienna, Maine) she formed fast, intense and lasting friendships and enmeshed herself in the community. In Seattle, she taught courses on women in literature at the University of Washington. She participated in marches for peace and for women’s rights and helped start up a women’s center and an affordable cooperative day care center.
The family moved to Farmington, Maine, in 1972, where Pat taught as a professor of English at the University of Maine at Farmington and then, in 1974, joined the English Department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She embraced – and was embraced by – the Colby community. Throughout her 34 years at Colby, she served as chair, co-chair and associate chair of the English department.
She taught a wide range of courses, including first-year writing, the works of the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, American Literature and Shakespeare. She later taught American Indian Literature and connected with and brought a series of Native American artists, writers and storytellers to campus to share their works. She eventually designed a program on American Indian Literature for the Maine Humanities Council. Pat was also constantly writing – collections of poetry, essays and long letters and emails – leaving behind a rich trail of her sharp, funny, provocative mind.
In Farmington and Vienna, she helped produce and acted in local theater productions, including the Mt. Vernon Christmas Revels. She presented lectures at local libraries, worked in the local food bank and served in leadership roles in her local lake stewardship association.
At home, she was a creative, quirky and loving mother. For birthdays, she’d create “monster cakes” – giant concoctions covered in frosting and candies. She sewed for each child a “big, fat blanket,” which offered essential warmth in the family’s drafty farmhouse in Farmington. In the summers, she’d break from her coursework to make lunch and read aloud to her children from major works, including The Odyssey and The Iliad.
Pat loved the season of Advent and Christmas, and took joy in singing carols and overstuffing stockings with gifts and chocolate for everyone to wake up to on Christmas day. Throughout her life, Pat found joy in giving – she was constantly showering those around her with attention, gifts and love. This is the love that was reflected back to her on Sunday, November 12, 2023, when her family gathered around her, played music and read her poetry together. Pat died at 3:52 p.m. – slipping away ahead of what she often described as the “dark dark dark” hour of dusk.
Pat was predeceased by her husband, Dan; and is survived by her sister, Debby Arnold; her brother, Hendrick Arnold; her children, Fritz Onion, Amanda Onion, Alene Onion; their partners, Susan Onion, Subrata De and Alan Chen; and her grandchildren, Zoë Onion, Sam Onion, Ellora Onion-De, Lyra ChenOnion and Otto ChenOnion.
A service celebrating Pat Onion’s life will be held on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 11 a.m. at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 396 Gilman Road, Yarmouth, ME. Those wishing to make donations in Pat’s memory are encouraged to consider the following organizations that Pat contributed her time to: Alene Morris Women’s Center and Maine Humanities Council.
Condolences, stories and photos may be shared at plummerfh.com.