Lisa Hoffman leaves legacy of activism and inspiration

Sep 25, 2019

Lisa Hoffman holding her dog, Orlando.
Credit Susan Hoffman

Lisa Hoffman lost her eyes to a rare form of cancer when she was 14 months old. That shaped her life in many ways, and for the better.

"She lived life to the fullest from the day she was born," said Susan Hoffman, Lisa's older sister. "She never let her blindness stop her at all."

It was cancer which ultimately ended Lisa's remarkable life on Monday. She was 54 years old.

Lisa's parents, according to Susan, wanted to make sure her sister had every experience a child should have and Lisa dove right in. She had a passion for theater, art, and music. She studied the violin, country dancing, and learned to hone her extra sensory perception. 

"You always hear that individuals who lose a sense, pick up another sense," Susan said. "Her hearing was just incredible, and with her touch, she could tell the difference between light colors and dark colors."

When she was in high school, Lisa demonstrated her ESP skills on a national television show called "That's Incredible." Susan said Lisa "mind traveled" to a house in California that she had never visited and described in detail the entrance to the home and a U-shaped clock sitting on a mantle.

"The house was the producer’s house," Susan said, "When they went back to California, it was almost identical to what Lisa was describing."

For all of her talents, it's Lisa's enthusiastic advocacy for the visually impaired that is her lasting legacy. Lisa established programs at Geva Theatre and the Memorial Art Gallery to enable visually impaired people to experience theater and art through audio descriptions -- narratives on a piece of art, or the action on a stage. She also set up a business to train other people how to create those narratives.

Judy Weidenborner, who is visually impaired, credits Lisa with igniting her interest in art and theater.

"I thought, before I went to the art group, 'Oh, art. That's such a visual thing,' " Weidenborner said. "But when you hear the descriptions of the paintings and you get to touch the sculptures ... especially the last time I went, for some reason, it struck me. The art ... it's like, alive."

Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss is the former head of the Memorial Art Gallergy's education department.  She worked for years with Lisa to make MAG's collections accessible to all people.

"Her gift to this community was her incredible insistence that we approach everyone first as the full and wonderful human being that they are," she said.

Another lasting gift from Lisa Hoffman is a structure that thousands of drivers pass every day: a pedestrian bridge that spans Interstate 490, providing a path from downtown to the Monroe Avenue area. 

Susan Hoffman says her sister helped design the bridge so it would be safe and functional for people with impaired vision.

"Everytime I drive under it, I'm like, 'There's Lisa's bridge!' " her sister said, laughing.

Mary Worboys Turner was Lisa's Braille teacher starting in the 1970s, and was one of Lisa's best friends over the last 40 years. She says she'll always remember Lisa's spunk, vitality, joie de vivre and her laughter.

"She saw through her heart and her mind what we might not see ourselves because we have actual vision," she said. "But she saw people's abilities and gifts through her own heart and worked to lift others up."

Lisa lived cancer-free for 47 years until 2012, when a sinus tumor close to her brain was discovered and surgically removed.  By November 2017, the tumor was back.  About a month ago, Lisa's medical team, despite all efforts, encouraged the family to help Lisa focus on her quality of life.

"She immediately said, 'I want a party!' And we were planning on one," said Susan Hoffman. "Unfortunately, God needed her in heaven sooner than we could get the party planned, so we're gonna have a big party and she's going to be there, looking down on us."

Lisa was a member of WXXI's Community Advisory Board from 2000 to 2006.

Lisa's day of celebration is being planned by her family. There will be a Mass at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, at St. Mary's Church in downtown Rochester, followed by a party at Geva Theatre.

This story was produced by WXXI’s Inclusion Desk, focusing on disabilities and inclusion.