BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer email@example.com
Margaret Ann "Dickie" Wilson was a well-known public health and school nurse in Kern County who died July 7 of cancer at age 81.
A master gardner, inveterate cross-stitcher and eternal optimist with a sweet alto voice for choirs and three-hour phone conversations with friends, she was the single female in the Kern County Department of Health Services sent on days-long trips to the county's corners while the married nurses stayed home with families.
Of all her surgeries, none was more transformative than her months-long stays at the San Francisco Shriners Hospital as a pre-school girl. Her hands were severely burned on a stove when she was about 2.
Stanford Nursing School graduate with a master's in public health from UC Berkeley, she never married. She loved her border collie Molly and preferred the nickname "Dickie" given by her father. He'd been hoping for a boy after two girls.
In the weeks following her death, her life was distilled into three newspaper death notices totaling 44 words.
While a surface rarely hints of content, the patina of Wilson's life matched its depth. With little family, her life was spun among friends in patterns as intricate as her embroidery.
In 1984, Anne Hutton was running stitching classes from her Bakersfield home. Her new class featured sashiko stitching, a type of Japanese decorative embroidery.
A woman she'd never seen named Dickie Wilson showed up for the class. Hutton casually mentioned her surgery the next week in San Diego. Wilson not only offered to accompany her but spent two weeks there helping.
They clicked. Both were control people, both very social, both single. They traveled often -- to see Christo's "Umbrellas" installation, to L.A. for monthly voice lessons, to San Diego for sightseeing. Shopping trips were mixed with church along with occasional weekends at Wilson's Tulare County cabin above California Hot Springs.
"We were very much alike," said Hutton, 71. "She once described me as never having met a stranger, and I don't think she ever met one either."
There were arguments, of course, but the friendship never faltered. When macular degeneration dimmed Wilson's vision, Hutton's career as a vocational rehab counselor for the blind with the state Department of Rehabilitation proved useful.
Beginning in 2005, Hutton served as chauffeur. Trips to the grocery store now required Wilson to use an electric shopping cart. At times Hutton would frantically search the aisles for her friend who had puttered off. She'd find Wilson surrounded by people, making new acquaintances.
The first time the man everyone knows as Rockwell met Dickie Wilson came when he was sent by a contractor in 2005 to fix items in the house of a "sweet little old gal."
At her La Entrada Court home, Rockwell found cabinets without counters, outlets without caps and a fuse box of melted breakers.
Their friendship began slowly; Rockwell was 35 years her junior. But as he fixed her home's initial problems and then continued to upgrade it on his own, she opened up, sharing stories about her ancestors -- Joseph Parker of Parker Pass fame in Tulare County, for instance -- and her fourth-generation roots around Porterville, where she grew up on a dairy farm.
He told about caring for his paralyzed mother, about his grandmother the nurse, about growing up in Sonora, about working with local legend Vern Hoover at Trout's. The common threads slowly became the fabric of a friendship.
"She was never invasive but she'd ask questions that would make you pour it out," Rockwell said.
Soon they were conversing all the time; Dickie would call at 2 a.m. to talk about Obamacare or UFOs. He contacted her from the top of Mt. Whitney. Wilson shared her famous shrimp cocktail recipe. He ferried her to doctors. She confided her favorite smells were horse sweat and cow manure.
Rockwell gradually became Wilson's primary chauffeur and advocate. She reciprocated by helping him financially, prompting clucking tut-tuts from some.
But there was no question in Wilson's mind: Friends help friends.
THE FROLICSOME FOURSOME
It was their Friday ritual: a corner booth at a Mexicali restaurant starting with margaritas for three of them. Dickie would order her standard J&B scotch neat, ice on the side. The servers knew them by name, took the order and left them alone for the next four hours. On rare occasions they'd have a second drink. They called themselves the Frolicsome Foursome.
Bee Barmann, 80, and Lydia Zimmerman, 84, were longtime friends, and Wilma LaPerle, 83, had been at Stanford with Barmann.
It was Barmann who met Dickie Wilson first, at a 1985 rehearsal of the College Heights Congregational Church choir. Soon, Wilson was accompanying Barmann's Sandrini Elementary School chorus on trips, where she earned the title of "Shusher" for her effectiveness at keeping order.
The four knew everything about each other. In Dickie's case, it was her lonely stays at the Shriners Hospital; her sulfite allergy; the two times she came close to marrying; the secret of her meat casseroles; her seat on Clinica Sierra Vista's first board of directors.
On excursions to The Vintage Press in Visalia, Dickie nursed her J&B while the other three shared wine. For the hot return trip, she had packed cold water and iced towels.
Despite numerous surgeries and ailments, her natural optimism never waned, her cheerfulness never diminished. But she disliked needing help -- offering an arm for balance or suggesting a wheelchair would infuriate her.
When the bone cancer was found in her hip, her first radiation visit coincidentally made her the first patient at the AIS Cancer Center at San Joaquin Community Hospital. She liked that.
Dickie was admitted to the hospital in late June. In early July while preparing to return home she had a stroke and died.
Seven weeks later, "the Frolicsome Foursome minus one," as Barmann called them, gathered to ponder the depth of their loss and the value of friends. They decided Dickie loved them for who they were.
"She would see the positive side of life and had such an enthusiasm for it," Barmann said. "And she inspired that in everybody."