It is almost impossible to think of a flourishing local arts community without one of its most ardent and passionate supporters — or a flourishing community, period, without one of its most engaging and vibrant personalities.
Such was Julia Frances Campbell Namba, a woman who gave generously to artistic endeavors, who believed in the power of art to transform lives for the better, and who believed in connecting with and befriending people from all walks of life, from politicians to trash collectors.
A loss, for sure. But, her friends insist, Julia’s passing on Dec. 2 at age 86 should not mean the end of what she stood for.
“Julia was a friend, a colleague, a mentor, and dedicated to serving others,” said Cathy Jean Butter, former president of the NAMBA Performing Arts Space in Ventura that Julia and her late husband Ben founded. “She appreciated the creative process, she knew the value and worth of a creative community, and she wanted to make sure it thrived.”
“She was one of a kind,” added Tamara Varney, current NAMBA president and board chair. “Yes, Julia was a philanthropist, who was vital in building the Ventura County artistic community, and was integral to the growth of NAMBA, the Ventura Music Festival, the Museum of Ventura County, the Rubicon Theatre and so much more. But more than that, she was very accepting of all people, no matter their race, gender, age, ideas or level of artistic talent. If you were an artist, that mattered to Julia.”
Indeed, nurturing talent, especially young talent, is something that came naturally to Julia, who served as an elementary and junior high school teacher and librarian in Arcadia and Ventura. She also owned Grandma Jelly’s Toys in Sierra Madre, specializing in handmade wooden toys and Folkmanis puppets, which Varney said spoke to “her commitment to play time.”
“She knew the importance of play,” said Varney, “especially in our society today. Her support for the arts is a manifestation of that belief.”
Embracing the arts
In 1997, Julia met Ben Namba, a retired businessman and fellow arts lover, and the couple soon became a philanthropic force in Ventura County. Julia served on the Ventura Music Festival (VMF) Board, was a patron of the Museum of Ventura County and the Rubicon Theatre Company, and in 2014 she and Ben launched the NAMBA Performing Arts Space in Downtown Ventura.
“She wanted to provide a space for teachers and performers, especially those up and coming, to develop their talent in theater, dance and music,” said Butter. “Her words were, ‘I want this space to be used,’ and she meant it.”
And Julia was not averse to taking the stage herself, said Michael Boyko, director of Joseph P. Reardon Funeral Home and a VMF board member.
“She’d do standup at a local improv place on amateur night — at age 85,” Boyko noted, laughing at the memory. “She had no fear. And just last year, she began hosting a Thursday morning Tai Chi group. Julia was outgoing, generous, interested in everyone and everything, able to discuss any subject under the sun — politics, religion, your electric bill, anything. And that kept her young and relatable.”
In recent years, Boyko and Julia met every Tuesday for dinner, sometimes with Ben before he passed in 2020 from the effects of Alzheimer’s.
“Julia was so caring and kind with Ben, but she was that way with everyone,” said Boyko. “She’d strike up a conversation in the restaurant with the people at the next table who she’d never met, and soon they were talking like old friends.”
Susan Scott, VMF executive director, recalled how, before Ben died, Boyko arranged a limousine to take Julia and Ben to see the great Yo-Yo Ma at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles.
“Alzheimer’s had already robbed Ben of speech, but not his love of music, especially Yo-Yo Ma,” Scott noted. “And the four of us enjoyed a glorious, emotion-filled performance. Despite his illness, Ben’s love for Julia was clear and her devotion to him was inspirational, all the more because she cared for him throughout with a lightness of being and even humor.”
Varney admired her friend’s loyalty. “Her care for her husband during his illness was inspiring,” she said. “We’d see them out and about in town, grocery shopping, at their favorite sushi bar. And making sure he could remain in care in their home was her goal.”
“There was no pretentiousness about her whatsoever”
Friends noted that Julia’s “playful nature” showed in her love for attending and hosting community events, many of them fundraisers for the artistic entities she supported, at her historic Hobson Heights home which she vigorously and happily worked at restoring to its original beauty.
“She wanted you to come and enjoy her home, to feel at home yourself,” said Boyko, who hosted a celebration of Julia’s life on Dec. 17 in the Chapel of the Reardon Funeral Home. “And there was no pretentiousness about her whatsoever. She cared for the arts and all of her community, which is why her passing is such a loss for us all. But she set an example of caring, support and generosity for all of us to follow, and that’s what she would want us to carry forward.”
NAMBA’s website (www.nambaarts.com) includes a link to Julia, a consummate educator and storyteller, sharing the story of “The Monk and the Rabbi.” It is, said Varney, “a tale of how simple encouragement can bring about hope and renewal. It is a great representation of how Julia nurtured us all.”