Who was Trudy Barton?
She died last weekend, alone and at the age of 71. She lived in Rio Dell and spent the last part of her years calling a number of people throughout the community. She frequented the Rio Dell Pizza Factory and would often call a Rio Dell refrigerator repair company. She would call Rio Dell City Hall almost daily to chat with the staff.
Trudy called the Rio Dell Police Station. Every day, in her later years. Many there simply remember her as the voice at the other end of the telephone. When Trudy called the police station to chat, it was about anything and everything — books, food, a fox in her yard — or to just check in.
Jeff Conner, Rio Dell Chief of Police, said his calls with Trudy were short, only about two to three minutes long, but it was the quality of the conversations that stuck with him.
“I know she liked to read, for we would talk about the books we had enjoyed,” Conner wrote in a letter to the Outpost. “I read The Winter Soldier at her suggestion and she read The Kite Runner at mine.”
Conner’s letter was deep and heartfelt. It touched on many aspects of life in small towns as well as some of the challenges the elderly face in our current times.
I had never met Trudy in person, but her voice greeted me almost every day I came to work, often within minutes of my arrival. She phoned several times a day, more if she was feeling anxious or having a “hard time.” Sometimes it would be every fifteen minutes when she was having a particularly rough time. So, I got to know her a little, as much as she would let me.
I knew the things that regulated Trudy’s life, that the bus had gone by or her refrigerator had turned on. I know these things because she told me, over and over again. But I never met her.
A lot of people around town knew Trudy only as “Trudy” — the dear older lady who would stop into their shop regularly, or call them on the phone nearly every day, just to chat. Like Conner, a lot of these people had barely met the woman. But there were a few people in town who knew Trudy before that time in her life — when she was more than just a voice on the telephone.
Trudy Barton first came to Humboldt County in the late 1970s, at the age of 35, with her friend Carol Beaton. The two were living in Los Angeles at the time and wanted to escape the Southern Californian heat, so they decided to head north for a bike trip in the redwoods. Beaton and Trudy were best friends for over 15 years and were like sisters, Beaton said.
“Trudy was full of adventure,” Beaton, age 75, told the Outpost. “She was a lot of fun and full of life.”
Their bike trip brought them from Myers Flat out to Honeydew and Petrolia. Beaton said the two had no idea what they were getting themselves into at the time. They looked at a map and assumed the route would be flat, but discovered “one of the hilliest roads in California,” Beaton said.
“This was back in the hippie days and there were all these hippies at the Honeydew store playing baseball and music, we thought it was wonderful,” Beaton said between laughs. “We had no idea we were in the pot-growing center of the world.”
The two continued on their trip to Ferndale along the Mattole Road. Along their way they found a completely secluded coast line, a sight that was unfathomable for the two because of their time in L.A.
After the bliss of riding along the coast, Beaton said they saw The Wall and thought, “Oh my god.” Trudy walked her bike up the steep, unrelenting hill, but Beaton was able to pedal through to the top. They got into Ferndale a few days later and rented a room in a “crazy lady’s house,” Beaton said. It was in Ferndale that Trudy had an epiphany. Trudy said she felt as if she had lived in Ferndale in a previous life and said to Beaton that they should move there. So two years later, they did just that.
Beaton said Trudy worked as a set designer for fashion shows and as a fashion photographer for the Los Angeles Times, and she would fly back and forth in between shoots. They lived in Ferndale together for about 5 years before going separate ways. Trudy eventually moved to Rio Dell, where she plugged into the community. It was here where many may remember her as “Dahlia Dalmatiane,” when she donned a black and white polka dot outfit and stood on top of a fire truck in Rio Dell in 1998 to promote the building of a proposed Rio Dell Animal Care Facility.
Others may remember her as the “Queen of the Community Garden,” when she oversaw the Rio Dell Farmers Market and helped “gardening newbies as they planted strawberry plants and seeded lettuce for a buddy or companion crop in one of the community garden spots,” according to a June 2006 article in the Times-Standard.
Alice Millington first met Trudy in 1996 or 1997 when she helped her buy a house. Millington helped Trudy buy and sell many homes throughout their years together and they started to form a friendship.
“She was wildly outrageous and funny,” Millington says. “You couldn’t help but to engage with her. She was a friend from the get-go.”
Millington remembers Trudy as someone who was very involved with the community and someone who had a knack for getting people together. She would always be the first on stage at fundraising events, and Millington remembers Trudy having a natural talent for seamlessly combining soliciting donations and acting during impromptu plays.
Millington said she remembered when Trudy got a group of neighbors together and painted a bunch of stars in the street because the City of Rio Dell made a mess during road construction in front of her house. Millington said Trudy got in a bit of trouble with the city, but shrugged it off saying “If you can’t fix it, feature it.”
“In your whole life you would never run into another person like her,” Millington said with a quavering voice. “She was one of a kind.”
Shannon Miranda, founder of Miranda’s Rescue in Fortuna, remembered Trudy as someone who was always more than willing to help during fundraisers. Miranda said Trudy dressed up in costumes and take center stage for entertainment for fundraising events. She dressed up as “Queen Spade” for the opening of Miranda’s Rescue in 1996.
“She always got people to donate and she liked giving people the ‘wow’ effect,” Miranda told the Outpost.
Trudy struggled with bipolar disorder late in her life, a condition that affects 2.6% of the U.S population, according to the National Institute on Mental Illness. Many of the people that the Outpost talked to about Trudy said she was a brilliant, vibrant, lovable and active member of the Rio Dell community until her health started to get in the way.
“She was always very outgoing until she became ill,” one person told the Outpost. “The last 10 years or so she was a bit reclusive.”
The Fortuna Senior Center helps seniors to connect with one another in the community. They offer community events as well as a referral system for seniors seeking a number of services such as medical or legal help.
“If they don’t know who to call, they can call us,” said Val Vosburg director of the Fortuna Senior Center. “If we don’t know the answer, we will find it.”
Vosburg said the Senior Center hosts a number of programs aimed at getting seniors out and about and allowing them to connect with one another. There are card games every Thursday and Friday night that regularly draw a crowd of about 35 to 70 seniors, Vosburg said. There are mini-trips for people to go on and Saturday night socials every third Saturday of the month, where upwards of 100 seniors usually attend.
“The biggest part of the center is for people to come together and share stories they have in common,” Vosburg said. “It is a pretty amazing place.”
The FSC is open to all seniors regardless of income levels and Vosburg said there is a scholarship fund set up for the low-income to cover the $35 donation-based membership. Vosburg wants to let the community know she and the FSC are here for the senior community and that a social life and community are very important for seniors.
A number of people had touching parting words for Trudy.
“I only hope that today is going to be a ‘good day’ wherever her soul now resides,” Rio Dell Police Chief Conner wrote. “Goodbye Trudy, and thank you for being a part of my life; I will miss you.”
“It’s really sad. I’m going to miss her,” Shannon Miranda said. “She definitely left an impact on the county here. She did so much.”
“Trudy was exceptional in many ways,” Carol Beaton said. “She was my favorite person in the whole world.”
Yesterday would have been her 72nd birthday.