Barbara Rae Russell Kunz passed away peacefully at home on January 20, 2023, at the age of 87. Barbara was a beautiful, elegant woman with a kind and gentle demeanor. She always took time to do things for others and showed her appreciation when people did things for her.
Barbara was born on May 28, 1935, to Raymond and Hildur Russell. She was an adorable little girl with blonde curls and the bluest eyes. Raised in Chicago, Barbara spent many summers on her beloved grandparents’ farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along with her younger brother Don and her cousins David and Wayne. Being the only girl, she would often escape to the outhouse for a quiet place to read.
Barbara met John “Jack” Kunz, her husband of 30+ years while in high school. They both attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, graduated in May of 1957 and were married in August of the same year. The newlyweds welcomed two babies (Brian and Karen) in less than two years, moved from place to place in Illinois and then to New Jersey where their third child (Bradley) was born. Jack’s job with the Bell System required the young family to move several more times over the next decade, from New Jersey, to Springfield, Illinois, then back to the suburbs of Chicago and finally landed in Millington NJ for 15 years.
Underneath Barbara’s elegant demeanor was a fiery, stubborn spirit. It wouldn’t surface often but it was evident in the choices she made after her divorce from Jack. Barbara moved away from friends and family in NJ to start a life on her own in Ft. Myers FL. This was the first time Barbara had ever lived alone. Her mom lived in the Tampa area, so she had family close by, but Barbara established herself in a new community and made new friends. She got a job at a high- end gift store, The Mole Hole, where she became a top salesperson. Barbara’s home was filled with collectibles from the shop, as are the homes of her kids.
Barbara loved to travel and take in the beauty of new and familiar places. She loved the peace and tranquility of the Rocky Mountains, the white sand and turquoise water of Sanibel Island, and the expansive beaches of the Outer Banks. She was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the birthplaces of her grandparents in Sweden, including the house her grandmother lived in. One of her favorite adventures was a cross-country road trip in her friend Phyllis’s convertible. They visited many of the National Parks in the West, survived a white-water rafting trip and camped on the riverbank, and experienced a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon.
Barbara was an amazing friend to many. She stayed in touch with people she knew from kindergarten through adulthood. She met up with her college friends (who called her “Arabrab”) at the U of I for Illini football weekends, she attended many of her high school reunions, and she made numerous solo road trips from Florida, to South Carolina, to New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois, just to visit her family and friends.
Barbara absolutely adored her grandsons Bradley and Nolan, and they adored her just as much. When Bradley first started talking, he dubbed her “Bonga”, and the name stuck. She loved the
name as she was pretty sure she was the one and only Bonga. Barbara attended both Bradley’s and Nolan’s college graduations and was blessed to be with all her family at Bradley and Leah’s wedding. When Barbara’s health started failing a few years ago, two of her primary goals were to still be around when her great-grandchild Marcelline Rae was born (July 7, 2021) and when Nolan and Sydney were engaged (October 14, 2023). And, of course, she achieved both.
There are so many things we will remember about Barbara: her generosity and humbleness; her love of books, Hallmark movies, and opera; her amazing home cooking and especially her baking; her stubborn Swedish demeanor; her graceful hands and impossibly slender fingers; her perfect penmanship; her gorgeous hair that never needed coloring; and how she never realized how truly beautiful of a person she was.
Barbara will be missed by many: her son Brian Kunz and wife Sakti; her daughter Karen Gilbert and husband Byron; her son Bradley Kunz and partner Kim Callas; her grandson Bradley Gilbert and wife Leah Moldauer; her grandson Nolan Gilbert and fiancée Sydney Ruggieri; her great- granddaughter Marcelline Rae Gilbert Moldauer; and many loving relatives and friends.
Barbara survived so many health battles over the past several years that her family held onto the hope that she might pull through this time, too. Her mind and spirit were still there at the end, but her body could no longer sustain her. When Barbara left this world, we lost a loving, caring, thoughtful human being. Whether you called her Barbara, Arabrab, Mom, Aunt Barb, or Bonga, she’ll be with us all in our hearts forever.
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Barbara’s memory to Friends of the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge, 973-425-9510: https://friendsofgreatswamp.org/donate/