Obituary: Colleen Nicholson
February 2, 2023
Colleen Nicholson was born on November 7, 1928 in Idaho Falls, ID, the eldest child of George “Bud” and Alice Mortensen. Her father was a cook and butcher by trade who ran restaurants in western Montana. Her brother Buddy (Jim Mortensen) and sister Ruthie (Rhoden) rounded out the family. The restaurant business was especially tough during the Great Depression, so the family moved often, living in Sheridan, Dillon, and Butte, MT. With the onset of World War II, her father heard of an opportunity in Bremerton, WA and decided to move the family west. Colleen told of driving in the back of an uncle’s pickup truck over I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass and smelling the salt air for the first time. It was pure magic to her!
The family settled in Bremerton where Bud ran a café and Alice worked alongside him as a short-order cook and baker. The Bremerton shipyards were working around the clock for the war effort, and the town was crowded – even the schools were on half-days to accommodate all the kids in shifts. Housing was hard to come by, and the family lived in a two-room house with no telephone. However, it could have been worse: Colleen (age 15) landed a job as a movie theatre usherette and told of shift workers from the shipyards who slept in the theatre. They showed movies around the clock, and a 10-cent ticket was cheaper than renting a room (if you could find one). Colleen also recalled usherette uniforms for each season including a blouse, cap, and cape, and showing people to available seats with her flashlight. During that period, she memorized all the lines to many movies, the result of hearing them over and over during her work.
In 1944, Bud had another opportunity. He had always wanted to go to Alaska. While walking on a dock in Seattle he engaged in conversation with a cannery owner from Petersburg, who, upon hearing Bud was a cook, offered him a job on a fish trap rigging scow, which he accepted. After working the summer out of Petersburg, he returned to Bremerton and the family packed up again and headed north. When they arrived in town, Colleen recalled that there were no men between the ages of 18 and 35. It seems the local draft board had misunderstood their draft quotas and enlisted every man between those ages in the military. The family settled in “Skylark City” near where the ferry terminal stands now and Colleen joined her mostly-female class at Petersburg High School, graduating in 1946. While in high school, she worked for Tony Schwamm at Petersburg Air Service. In addition to the office work, she was tasked with buying furs from trappers who often drove up to the float in skiffs. Colleen measured the pelts and paid cash from a cigar box. At other times, Tony flew her out to remote locations to buy furs. She noted that her parents had no idea what she was doing.
1946 was also the year the war ended, and the men came home. Mom said that one day, all these tall, handsome Norwegian men showed up in town – what a grand surprise! She soon spotted Erling Nicholson and, in her words, “I knew he was the one.” When asked how they came to marry, she’d just shrug and say, “I really don’t know, I just knew he was the one for me.” Dad used to joke that she chased him until he caught her, and in 1947 they eloped by seaplane to Juneau. Colleen was 18 and Erling 22.
Oldest daughter Gayle was born in 1948, followed by daughter Kim in 1949. By this time, Bud and Alice had purchased the old McKechnie house at 300 North Fourth, and Erling set to work building a house next door on a lot purchased from Gordon Jenson. He worked in the Trading Union Hardware Department, and Colleen enjoyed being a homemaker and mom. Unsurprisingly, she was an excellent cook and charmed her widowed Norwegian father-in-law with her kitchen skills, especially her chicken and dumplings. “Yust like little clouds!” he would exclaim.
In 1962, Colleen and Erling purchased her parent’s house and moved 50 feet south, where they would live for the remainder of their lives. The added bedrooms were timely, as daughter Natalie was born in 1963 and mother Alice moved in after Bud’s death the following year.
When Gayle and Kim were small, neighbor Louise Taylor offered to take them to Sunday School at Petersburg Lutheran Church. Mom happily agreed and sent them on their way each week. One Sunday when they returned home, the girls asked her, “Mama, why don’t you come to church?” Unable to think of a good answer, Colleen joined them the following Sunday. It was there that she discovered and nurtured her deep and abiding faith in God. Erling joined her, renewing his activity in the church of his youth, and they served faithfully for the rest of their lives. Colleen was active in Faith Circle, attended and led Bible study, taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, sang in the church choir, served on the church council, and was active in the American Lutheran Church Women at local and state levels. In her final years, she hosted a Sunday morning women’s Sunday School class at her home. The Sunday School ladies were dear and treasured friends who held an important place in her heart.
Colleen held a variety of jobs and volunteer positions in Petersburg during her 79-year residency, including membership in the American Legion Auxiliary, serving on the first Petersburg Library Board, telephone operator at the telephone exchange, work at the post office for Dick Brennan, deputy City Clerk under Jerry Van Vleck, and as scheduler and support staff for visiting eye clinics. She especially looked forward to the bi-monthly clinics with Uncle Buddy, optician Fred Cook, and the other visiting eye doctors, often hosting them during their stays. She enjoyed making many new and unexpected friends while scheduling appointments and delivering eyeglasses. Following retirement from the City of Petersburg, Colleen prepared for and participated in a 3-week study trip to the Holy Land and places in Greece and Italy.
Colleen loved cooking and baking, subscribing to every cooking magazine available, trying new recipes and substituting ingredients with impunity. When she’d complain that something didn’t taste as she’d expected, the first question was always, “Did you use all the right ingredients?” The answer was frequently, “Well, no….” She baked the family’s bread, incorporating any leftovers from the fridge that she thought appropriate – one memorable batch included kernels of leftover corn. Her Saturday morning Swedish hots were legendary, and she was always willing to add another spot at the table and whip up another batch. “Scoot over, honey, we’ll add a place, I’m making more,” was her credo. In addition to cooking for friends and family, Colleen also made hundreds of fancy finger sandwiches for weddings, catering along with the other members of the Faith Circle.
Colleen was a life-long learner, taking classes offered by the Cooperative Extension service, and writing classes. Her other hobbies included sewing, knitting, needlework, and, most of all, reading. She sewed Christmas and Easter dresses, prom dresses, bridesmaid dresses, and wedding dresses for her daughters, friends, and nieces, sometimes working into the wee hours of the morning to ensure completion. She knitted many pairs of Norwegian mittens for her girls, adding extra-long cuffs to ensure wrists stayed warm (and causing some mittens to be mistaken for socks, the purpose of the thumb a mystery). In between projects, she read voraciously. Her literary taste was broad, including everything from mysteries to history, poetry, travel, adventure, and humor to theology. When she found an author she liked, she read their complete works, often re-reading her favorites annually. In her final decades, most of her couch was given over to books and she had the library on speed dial. Keeping her in reading material became a full-time endeavor for her friends and caregivers, one they performed with diligence and enthusiasm.
Although homebound for the last few years of life, Colleen continued to enjoy the company of old and new friends. She appreciated the food and delivery visits from Mountain View Food Service, home visits from the caring staff of Petersburg Medical Center, the engagement with her Petersburg Lutheran Church community, listening to KFSK every morning, friends who stopped by to discuss books or bring cookies or soup, and Rod Judy’s perfect apple pie. She often commented that with books and visitors she was never lonely. She was, and we are enormously grateful for you.
The family would like to recognize Colleen’s special friends and caregivers, Athena Haley, Julie Hursey, and Janice Lopez. When she experienced a heart attack on December 2, they were with her and the caring staff at Petersburg Medical Center during her last moments of life. Their love and dedication allowed Mom to live out her final years as she wished, at home and as independent as possible. We are deeply appreciative.
Colleen is survived by daughters Gayle Trivette (Sam) of Juneau, AK, Kim Jacobs (Clint) of Culbertson, MT, Natalie Nicholson (Mike) of Snohomish, WA, grandsons Paul Jacobs (Chris), Dan Jacobs (Carrie), Marcus Trivette (Jodee), five great-grandchildren, nephews Doug Welde (Naomi), Cole Rhoden (Charlie), George Mortensen (Linda), Rod Judy, niece Julie Jarvi (Paul) and countless friends and loved ones. She was preceded in death by her parents and siblings, her beloved husband Erling, grandson Peter Trivette, and niece, Darcey Judy.
A memorial will be held on April 23, 2023 at Petersburg Lutheran Church. In lieu of flowers, memorials to Petersburg Lutheran Church, the Petersburg Public Library, or public radio station KFSK would be appreciated.