A new Wednesday morning routine has settled in at Portola Valley Hardware at the corner of Alpine and Portola roads: the absence behind the register of former store owner Helen "Tommy" Simpson.
Though Ms. Simpson, 92, had sold the store long ago, she'd been working part-time for a few hours a week until recently. She died Nov. 25 surrounded by family, friends and her four cats at the family home of more than 50 years on Grove Court, relatives said.
Councilman Richard Merk, who went on to become a general contractor, worked for Ms. Simpson during the first half of 1960s, when inventories were counted by hand, and if a customer wanted a piece of pipe threaded, it was done at the store.
"Tommy was just this wonderful person," he told The Almanac. She ran the store, while her husband Bob had a full-time job. The store had been an investment should their kids find it interesting, her son Jim Simpson said.
A woman in a pre-feminist era running a hardware store? "You wouldn't expect this woman to answer questions about plumbing or electrical stuff, but she really knew the answers," Mr. Merk said.
For a time, Mr. Merk said, he and an elderly man named Mr. Johnson were the only employees. Mr. Johnson would propose a rearrangement of the store's interior, Ms. Simpson would agree, and the three of them, after hours, would shove display units around, Mr. Merk said.
Sometimes, a break was called for. "It's a hard life, running a retail store. You're married to that store," Mr. Merk said. "She was not above having a drink once in a while."
Ms. Simpson kept a bottle of vodka in the refrigerator, Mr. Merk said, and on occasion she would call out, "Would anybody like a drink?" Mr. Johnson obliged, as did Mr. Merk after he turned 21, he said.
"I enjoyed working there," he said. "I loved working there. It was fun to figure out peoples' problems. She trusted you to do your job. She told you what needed to be done and pretty much would leave you alone."
The vodka "wouldn't surprise me," said her son Chris Simpson, who though unaware of it at the time, noted that his mother liked to have a glass of wine with dinner.
Ms. Simpson stayed involved with the store over the years because "she just loved the people" she encountered there, town historian Nancy Lund said in an interview. Fighting back tears, she added: "She loved her house, she loved the town, she loved the people who live here."
Enough sweetness for two
Helen grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, relatives said. She learned horsemanship at the Ogontz Summer Camp, a retreat known for educating the whole girl.
She married Bob Simpson, moved to Portola Valley in 1954 and raised four sons. Her husband died in 2000.
Her sons would swim in the creek behind the house, on their own recognizance, her son Jim said. "She was a very independent lady," he said. "That's probably one of the things that she instilled in all of us, is independence."
Ms. Simpson also assisted Portola Valley dentist Dr. Bob Conlon part-time in his front office.
"She had enough sweetness for two people," despite raising four boys, Dr. Conlon said. Of his assistants, "she was unflappable ... and the most punctual, dependable -- I've already said 'sweetest' -- and responsible."
Ms. Simpson enjoyed a passion for the well-being of wild animals, and visited the Galapagos Islands, parts of South America, the American Northwest, and India and Nepal, relatives said.
"She would not invite but inveigle skunks and raccoons into her house to feed them," along with pet dogs, cats, and feral cats that wandered through, Dr. Conlon said.
After advanced age inhibited travel, she involved herself with animal rights groups, including Pets in Need.
Ms. Simpson is survived by her sons, John of Gold Hill, Oregon; Peter of Union City; Jim of Auburn; and Chris of Redwood City; 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. A memorial is set for Saturday, Jan. 23, at 1 p.m. at the Town Center at 765 Portola Road in Portola Valley.
The family requests that donations be made to the Morris Animal Foundation, Pets in Need, the World Wildlife Fund or another animal rights organization.