Former Altoonan remembered for contribution to the arts

Sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes life seems to imitate art.

Mary Lipple, 40, an actress and playwright who grew up in Altoona, was diagnosed with brain cancer two months after performing a play she wrote about a woman dying of breast cancer who records a video for her young daughter.

Lipple died last week at her home in Churchill, near Pittsburgh.

“She loved theater,” Dr. Roy Smetana, Lipple’s husband, said. “I think the plan was really once our kids were a bit older, she would have liked to been part of a theater company.”

While a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s daughter, Josephina, 6, and son, August, 4, she wrote the one-woman play, “Blackbird Pie.”

Smetana, a psychiatric resident at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, UPMC Pittsburgh, said several factors influenced Lipple when she was writing the play.

“Part of it was her aunt, who was also something like a mother figure to her, was a breast cancer survivor. She also was engaged by the Randy Pausch story,” Smetana said.

Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, learned he had pancreatic cancer in September 2006. After receiving a terminal diagnosis, he gave an upbeat lecture titled “The Last Lecture Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

The lecture included wishes for his friends and family.

He died of complications from pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008.

“Blackbird Pie,” though not written for her children, is a part of Mary Lipple.

“Even from its earliest stages, the piece ‘Blackbird Pie’ had courage and honesty, which were traits that Mary had in her life – humor and emotional profundity,” Kyle Bostian, the director and producer of the play, said.

He worked with Lipple on the play, which had a three-week run in a Pittsburgh theater in October 2011.

“I couldn’t put it [the play] down. I was laughing and sobbing in my living room when I was working with her,” he said. “There is a lot of Mary in the play. The whole kind of ironic twist of fate of the play is [the character is] trying to leave a message for her kid. .. After I read it for the first time, it felt so personal I asked her if she was actually sick.

“The piece, while fictional in its creation, drew on a lot of her own real life stories and a lot of relationships of things in her life,” Bostian said.

It shows the kind of person Mary Lipple was, he added.

Smetana said, “There are so many things I think about Mary … The one thing, more and more, is just how strong a person she was. It’s like you don’t want the past 18 months to speak about her entire life, but when it comes to the challenges that she faced, and the way in which she fought … It was remarkable how strong she was.”

Her father, Thomas Lipple of Altoona, said his daughter was full of life and had a great sense of humor.

“She was just kind-hearted and a bubbly personality, and she was always the kind of person that, if she would have something to say, she would say it,” he said. “She was a really good mother, a good wife. She loved the two kids.”

Jennifer Homan Hoffer met Lipple when they were in the eighth grade – Hoffer at McNelis Catholic and Lipple at Mount Carmel – and they both went to Altoona Area High School from 10th to 12th grade.

Hoffer, of Harrisburg, said the two remained close.

“She always kept a positive attitude. Nothing seemed to knock her down. She kept fighting and fighting. She was amazing. She loved people. There was nothing fake about her. She was genuine.”

Bostian remembers her as “an amazing artist and person … She would defuse or make people at ease through her humor, even in the ability to handle her own illness and situation.”

Lipple had a bachelor of arts in theater from Penn State, studied theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago and earned a master of fine arts in acting from Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.