The View from 98: Camille ‘Mickey’ Nichols

By Joy Conklin June 15, 2010 16:41

Mickey Nichols/Photo by Stephanie Eaton

“I was a happy-go-lucky girl.”

Mickey Nichols is relaxing into the story of her 98 years. Orioles are visiting the feeder outside her living room, and she’s comfortable in an easy chair. Her memory is excellent, so there’s a lot to tell. It’s a surprise that the stories she chooses are not always happy and not all lucky.

She was born Camille Barbara McLaughlin on September 9, 1911 – a bit early, and far from home. Her parents were on a trip to Salt Lake City, buying woolens for the family’s Denver tailor shop. When she was 4, her Irish-born father, Arthur, died of complications from injuries he received in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

“He used to bring me chocolate and put it under my pillow where I would find it when I woke up in the morning,” she recalls. “That’s about all I remember about him.”

Camille was the middle child of three, between older brother Arthur and younger brother John. In 1917, the family watched the Denver funeral procession of Wild West showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, whose casket rested on a buckboard pulled by a mule team. It left an indelible impression.

“Buffalo Bill’s horse had no rider and walked behind the caisson. Buffalo Bill’s boots hung backward from the stirrups,” she recalls. “His wife and family followed behind in a carriage.”

The following winter, Arthur died in the flu pandemic. Camille herself became so desperately ill that, 94 years later, nightmarish images from the delirium remain clear in her mind. After surviving the raging fevers, she had another close call on a fishing trip with family friends. When the wind blew her hat off, she reached for it and fell from the riverbank.

“I remember the silty water of the Platte River rolling over my head like I was tumbling, over and over, but Mr. Ellis hooked my dress with his fish hook and reeled me in,” she says. “My mother  held me in her arms all night.”

Camille’s mother, Martha Ernestine Hoffmaster, married a second time, to Lewis Granville Burgess. The family moved to Sonora, where a relative lived, in the summer of 1918 after Arthur’s death. Over the next 10 years, five brothers and sisters joined Mickey and Johnnie: Evelyn, Albert, Lewis Jr., Elmer and Martha. Everyone worked, tending cows, chickens and a large garden at their home on Sonora’s north side.

“I had a lot of friends at school,” Mickey recalls, “but at home I worked. ‘We need butter,’ my mother would say, and I would get the cream and the churn. I had small hands that could fit in the canning jars, and I washed a lot of them. I also changed a lot of diapers.”

Soon after moving here, 7-year-old Mickey started second-grade at Sonora Elementary School’s Dome campus, a 10-minute walk from home. Completed in 1909, the Barretta Street school “looked like a palace to me” compared to the two-room school she’d attended in Colorado.

Her mother had named her Camille after a heroine in a book. At the Dome, she was renamed by older students who loved to play house at recess, with Camille as the baby. “Mickey was the baby’s name, and it just stuck.”

She graduated from Sonora High in 1929 and lived with her grandmother while earning  a two-year degree from the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. She credits her mother, who lived to age 98, for shaping her life’s direction.

“My mother taught me not to run around with my head in the air not seeing anything,” she says. “When she told me that, I looked down, and I saw a tiny blue flower – a Baby Blue Eyes. I always remember what she said. ‘There are many beautiful things all around you. You need to look for them.’”

She returned to Sonora, married, and waited tables at a popular Sonora cafe, The Lunchette. She met Gary Cooper and other stars and production workers on many of the movies filmed in Tuolumne County. Spotted by a Paramount Studio executive, she took a turn in Hollywood with bit parts like “girl at the train station,” or in crowd scenes.

It was exciting, a lark that paid about $700 a month. She hung out with a group of actors that included Cary Grant and William Powell. She knows some funny stories about them, but declines to share them for print. She’ll only say, “That William Powell, he was a clown!”

The studio offered her a contract, she says, but her husband refused to sign it. “He could have sued the studio, citing alienation of affection,” she says. “Like a nut, I came home.”

Back in Sonora after her Hollywood adventure, Mickey worked for five years as a salesclerk for Sonora’s Ben Franklin store, then moved to San Francisco to work as a gift department buyer in the Butler Brothers store.

After the war, she opened Sierra Studios gift shop on Washington Street, later adding a flower shop, Sonora Florist , and a Merle Norman cosmetics franchise.

“Sometimes I had three weddings on a Saturday, one at noon, one at 2 pm and one at 7 pm,” she recalls. “For high school proms I did everyone’s flowers different. I just enjoyed creating things.”

The downside to those busy years: two not-so-happy marriages. She had no children from either marriage, but raised her second husband’s son, Robert, as her own after the marriage ended.

Her third husband, physical education teacher Orville Nichols, was the charm: kind, appreciative, funny. In 1955 the couple moved to Hollister, where they raised his children, Steven and Karen, and Leonard, a foster child. Mickey earned a bachelor’s degree in art from San Jose State University, then taught in Hollister schools for 10 years.

Through those busy career years and beyond, she found time for community service. It came naturally. “I hardly ever met anyone I didn’t like,” she says.

In Hollister, she was a hospital volunteer and, with the Hollister Women’s Club, organized a show featuring 900 works of art by elementary school students.

She is a Sonora Soroptomist past president, and in the mid-1950s played the leads in Gay Nineties fundraisers for cancer research. She is a 25-year member and past president of the Aronos (Sonora, spelled backwards) Research Women’s Club. She’s older, in fact, than the club itself, which was founded in 1915.

Mickey Nichols still makes floral decorations and looks forward to doing more –whatever is needed.  “I care about people, so it’s important to me to work in my community,” she says. “It’s satisfying to know that you’re helping.”

She gets tired once in awhile, but a half-hour nap usually restores her. She still drives to club meetings and the grocery store.

“The biggest change in the county is traffic,” she says. “It’s very heavy, and there are so many new housing developments. Sonora has become more like a senior community. I’d just as soon be back 50 years, but I love the library and its programs, and the college is wonderful.”

As she looks ahead, this happy-go-lucky girl who survived childhood tragedy and embraced hard work and service in adulthood, is ready for whatever’s next.

“I look forward to it,” she says, “as the end of a busy life. I’m not afraid. I’m a Christian. I know that I’ll go on.”

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Joy Conklin June 15, 2010 16:41
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