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Monday, July 15, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sara Baird Jenkins, Activist, Grande Dame Of Seattle Opera

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Sara Baird Jenkins, mother of Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins and a lifetime volunteer activist in several cities, died yesterday in Seattle. She was 94.

Mrs. Jenkins had been widely regarded as the grande dame of Seattle Opera since her arrival here in 1985, when her son assumed the directorship. Until illness kept her away beginning last fall, she attended not only every performance of the opera but also every rehearsal held in the Opera House.

A familiar figure to opera audiences, who would flock to greet her in her regular main-floor seat, Mrs. Jenkins also built close friendships with the artists, staff and supporters of Seattle Opera, many of whom regularly sent her postcards from around the world.

At 88, Mrs. Jenkins appeared in her first Seattle Opera production as a supernumerary, playing the oldest nun in Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites." She also appeared in "War and Peace" as a dissipated aristocrat - a role most unlike her real personality, in which concern for needy children, social problems and community service were paramount.

From 1967 until 1985, Mrs. Jenkins lived in New York, the city in which she had previously earned her B.A. from Barnard College in 1922. She was appointed to the executive committee of the Community Council of Greater New York by Mayor Edward Koch in 1975, following her work in founding Early Childhood Development, a parenting program that became the New York Junior League's 75th anniversary project.

In her native Dallas, Mrs. Jenkins served as president of the Auxiliary of Dallas County Medical Society, president of the Women's Council of Dallas County, president of the Texas Council of the National Jewish Hospital, and chairwoman of the West Dallas Association. She was a member of the Garden Club of America.

Beginning with a 1924 tour of Europe, and up to a 1986 visit to China with her grandchildren, Mrs. Jenkins was an avid traveler who visited every continent except Antarctica.

During her travels, she was in Madrid when Alfonso XIII was overthrown in 1931 and she saw Adolf Hitler inaugurated as the German chancellor in 1933. According to her son, she "fled by camel a Harvard-educated caliph in North Africa who was too eager to show her his harem. She spent several nights in a yurt in Mongolia where she contracted pneumonia; was shot at in Addis Ababa as her party's plane was leaving; and had her fortune accurately told by a Tibetan in New Delhi."

A lifelong Democrat, Mrs. Jenkins resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1960s in protest of its policies toward African Americans.

She also was a lifelong optimist whose sunny disposition withstood every misfortune, even in her final months when she was no longer strong enough to attend her beloved opera.

"For me, every day is just like Christmas," she said last year. "I can't wait to see each morning what the day will bring."

In addition to her son, Mrs. Jenkins is survived by two grandchildren, Linda Leonie Jenkins of San Francisco and Speight III of Seattle; and her brother, Col. (ret.) Horace Baird of San Antonio.

Services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at St. Mark's Cathedral. Internment will be in Dallas.

The family requests that donations in lieu of flowers be sent to the Sara Jenkins Production Fund of Seattle Opera.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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