Joan Riopel


Mrs. Joan Carol Riopel, wife of the late James Louis Riopel, passed away in her Earlysville, Va., home on May 18, 2023. Her children and her granddaughter Hanna were at her side. She was 88 years old.   

Joan was born in Methuen, Mass., to the late Clifton and Ruth Gibson.   She attended Bates College, where she met Jim and received a degree in mathematics. Joan and Jim moved to Boston, where Jim was attending Harvard University. She worked to support Jim through graduate school and also started a family with two of their three children born over those four years. The young family moved to Charlottesville in 1960, where Jim began his career as a botany professor at the University of Virginia. They bought their home in Earlysville, where Joan focused on supporting Jim and raising their three children.

It turned out that supporting Jim was a challenging and adventure-filled lifelong endeavor. Jim and his family were so fortunate that Joan was always there at his side as a strong and determined organizer, navigator, accountant, cook, and loving companion.

The family had many adventures and misadventures. The kids were taken out of school and sailed on an old wooden schooner to the Bahamas for eight months. They sailed in the Chesapeake Bay and up the coast to Maine several times. Joan got her captain’s license so that they could charter their second schooner, “Appledore.” There was the rafting trip in Idaho through challenging rapids on the middle fork of the Salmon River despite concern from locals and the ill-fated, unsuccessful attempt to take a 24-foot open Aquasport across the Gulf Stream to the Exumas. They went backpacking in Wyoming, canoeing and rafting through lakes and rivers in Canada, Maine, and Alaska, and hiking in the Swiss Alps. It was quite an adventure they all had together that would not have been possible without Joan’s guidance.   

Joan also assisted Jim with the improvements on their Earlysville property. They built three homes from the ground up. They used lumber from their property as well as lumber salvaged from an old Ivy train station and an Army barracks. Joan did a good portion of this work herself. She hammered many nails, helped put up Sheetrock, wired one of the homes herself and did much of the painting and sanding.

Joan and Jim would often go on hunting trips together. On several occasions, we are told, she would have to wake Jim when a deer came within range. After successful trips she would help butcher the deer and process the meat.

On one occasion, Joan and Jim packed a 20-foot square end canoe with Christmas gifts. Joan had fabricated a canvas cover for the canoe to keep the presents dry and the canoe from sinking while they motored it across the Chesapeake to surprise their son and his family at their Eastern Shore home.

Joan’s many talents, work ethic, grit, and toughness were an inspiration to her children and others.  Her toughness was needed in the final years of their lives.

In 2000 Jim was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Joan was his loyal and tireless caregiver, keeping him in his home until he passed away with his family at his side on May 30, 2014. She would not accept offers of assistance until the last few years of his life.

After his death Joan continued to live in one of the homes that they built on the property in Earlysville. She had a rather ill-behaved dog named Wilson who was her faithful companion. She had become a member of an Alzheimer’s support group and continued to be active in that group for years after Jim’s death, offering advice and support to other caregivers.

Joan attended as many family events as she could, often traveling great distances. She attended sporting events, weddings, graduations, and reunions. She would housesit on the Eastern Shore for her son. While there, she loved to launch the kayak by herself and paddle around Hungars Creek.

In 2019 Joan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Joan was predictably resistant to offers for assistance. Through it all she remained stoic and cheerful. She took on the last few years of her life with a brave face and frequently exceeded expectations.   She never complained. She loved hiking and would often hike the trails at Chris Green lake with her dog Wilson. Her caregivers often struggled to keep up with her.    

Joan is survived by her daughter Nancy and husband, Tom; son, David and his wife, Cathy; daughter, Amy and her husband, Howard; her grandchildren, Gordie and his wife Kermen,  Taylor and his wife, Brigit, Howie, Austin, Ali, Marina, Michael, and Hanna;  and her great-grandchild, Ayuna.

We all know that Joan and Jim are together now in one of their many special places. We love them and miss them so much.   

Any correspondence may be sent to [email protected] A family memorial gathering will be held in the fall of 2023.

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