When her son approached her in September seeking advice about what to preach in his Sunday sermon, Izona Fripp paused before offering two words: “Be calm.”
She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but on this matter she was crystal clear, said her son, the Rev. James N. Fripp of Roxbury.
About two weeks later, Mrs. Fripp, who had worked for the state Department of Public Health for nearly three decades, died of complications from the illness on Oct. 7 in the Sherrill House Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Plain. She was 88.
A calm approach to life helped Mrs. Fripp rise from washing beakers in the agency’s laboratories to serving as a supervisor.
As she watched those she trained excel and get promoted, Mrs. Fripp began to wonder what kept her from climbing the ladder. Already a grandmother, she asked around and heard a straightforward answer. The others had one thing she lacked: a college education. So in her late 50s she went back to school, graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and returned to the department, diploma in hand.
“She was more a doer than a talker,” her son said.
The youngest of four children born to Willie Finch and Annie Bailey Finch, Izona S. Finch initially grew up on a family farm in Chambers County, Ala., and graduated from Lanett High School in Lanett, Ala.
Encouraged by her family to get a good education, she moved north to pursue dreams of entering the medical profession. During World War II, she lived in Boston, where her brother was a shipyard worker. For a while, she worked at the shipyard, followed by a stint at Raytheon Co.
She took the bus to work in Waltham with a group of women with whom she remained fast friends. They called themselves the “Raytheon ladies,” her family recalled.
She started taking college courses and wanted to become a radiologist, but a chance encounter altered her plans. While walking home one day, she met Josiah Fripp on a bridge. They married in 1946 and started a family while living in the South End, later moving to Jamaica Plain.
Mrs. Fripp started working for the state Department of Public Health at the beginning of the 1960s and gradually worked her way up to supervisor over the course of about 28 years with the agency.
“She was a very good listener,” said her daughter, Akosua Ali-Sabree of Philadelphia. “She analyzed a lot. She was a problem-solver.” It helped, her daughter added, that “she wasn’t ashamed to ask for help.”
When Mrs. Fripp went back to school, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Boston State College, which later became part of the University of Massachusetts Boston. She attended night courses in biology and African-American studies so she could work during the day.
Once in a supervisory role at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain, she often was a mentor to young female interns, hoping to spark their interest in the medical profession.
Mrs. Fripp had a way of keeping them on their toes, offering observations such as, “your grandmother would not appreciate what you are doing,” her family recalled.
“She was a very organized person,” said her longtime friend Lillian Garcia of Dorchester. “She was a fair person, and she would tell you what she thought. She would walk into a place and she would know everybody before she left.”
Her daughter recalled that one of Mrs. Fripp’s favorite expressions, which she quoted often to her children, was: “Birds that fly high need to come down to eat.”
She said Mrs. Fripp counseled that “just because you advance in status or education, do not forget where you came from. Never forget who helped you.”
Mrs. Fripp, whose marriage ended in divorce, retired in 1989 from the Department of Public Health and became a volunteer for AARP, lobbying on Beacon Hill for the organization’s causes.
She also had been a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and traveled often on cruises.
For many years Mrs. Fripp attended Concord Baptist Church of Boston, where she sang in the choir. She served as an usher into her 80s and had been active with the ushers’ auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention.
In recent years, Mrs. Fripp began working with others on “80 Years on the Christian Walk,” a history of Concord Baptist Church. As part of her research, she pored over state archives to document the church’s history and went about it in a very meticulous manner, her son said.
“She liked taking care of things now, not later,” he said.
Mrs. Fripp also was famous for using six sticks of butter to make a pound cake, her family said, and taught first aid courses across the state through the American Red Cross.
“What drew people to her,” he said, “is that she liked to laugh and she liked to cook.”
In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Fripp leaves eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
A service has been held. She was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan.
Her son said that whenever life became difficult for Mrs. Fripp at work or in her personal life, she often would hum or sing her favorite song, whose lyrics include the lines: “Please be patient with me, God is not through with me yet.”
“That song was helpful for keeping her joyful for being alive,” he said. “She could see the humor in that.”