Portola Valley loses an icon

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.


Like this comment
Posted by Annika Simpson
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm

My grandmother was the most amazing woman. She was, and will continue to be a great inspiration to me. I am eternally grateful that I was able to be there for her over the last few months. At first every other day to help with the cats, and then, full time when she grew more dependent. I can only hope I was able to make her last days as special as she made them for me. She regaled me with stories about her life in the Valley, the special trips she was lucky to take (like riding elephants on a tiger reserve in India), and even that she met Amelia Earhart at Ogontz! I loved her dry sense of humor and sharp wit and enjoyed writing snazzy comments in her diary for her. Although she needed help with getting around during her last days, she was still extremely independent, even letting me know when I was trying to be too helpful. One day, she was trying to turn the T.V. off with the telephone and accidentally pressed the 911 button. When the police showed up ten minutes later and determined everything was fine, grandmother and I had a good laugh and a funny story to tell. She wasn't bothered by the handicaps that come with age, and when she passed peacefully, she inadvertently taught me not to fear my own mortality. I will forever love and miss my grandmother, and friend, Tommy Simpson. I hope I have inherited even half of her remarkable qualities.

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Posted by Danna Breen
a resident of Encinal School
on Dec 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Since my children and I were patients of Dr. Bob's and I frequent the hardware store (since my house is kindly referred to the BD (bulldozer) house up the road), I encountered Tommy a lot and I will miss her just being there behind the counter or talking to me comfortingly at Dr. Bob's office while I waited by the fire for him give the person in the dentist chair the heave ho ( THAT is another story for the annals of history!)What a lovely little village life it has been.Tommy's energy really contributed to that spirit of small town living.

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Posted by A Ladera neighbor
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Dec 9, 2009 at 12:30 pm

PV's "older" generation is full of such wonderful people. It's very sad when we hear of another treasure citizen passing. I'd wish I'd known about Ms. Simpson's wonderful life when she used to handle my purchases at the hardware store. My sympathies to her family - I hope they find comfort in all their stories about her.

Like this comment
Posted by JoAnn Loulan
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Dec 9, 2009 at 7:23 pm

I remember so many years of seeing Tommy at the hardware store (which I never knew she owned, she just knew everything!) and of course at Dr. Bob's office--she was always so patient in both arenas. I loved her sense of humor at Dr. Bob's--she'd just shrug her shoulders and we'd have a good laugh when I'd ask "how much longer do you think he'll be?"She will be missed by so many of us, a quiet, steady, comforting person and great role model to all women! What a great long life.

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Posted by Joanne Klebe
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Dec 9, 2009 at 9:46 pm

I met Tommy when I was 16 years old ~ thought I was all grown up and knew it all. Tommy opened my eyes to the natural world around me, giving me my first field guide to birds when I graduated from high school. Took me to the Audubon Canyon Ranch where I did volunteer work, took me to Ano Nuevo to look at elephant seals many years before it was ever a state park. She always shared all of her animals with me. Saw my first litter of puppies being born, experienced my first of many animals being but to sleep. She shared her love of horses and horsemanship with me. She accepted everyone and there was always room for one more at the dining room table. My life has been enriched by knowing Tommy all these years. I miss her very much.

Like this comment
Posted by KiKi Simpson
a resident of another community
on Dec 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I met Tommy about 34 years ago. Two years before her son Jim and I were married. She has a been such an independent woman.Even in her eighties she was hanging out the kitchen window to retrieve the bird feeder and fill it up so the birds wouldn't go hungry. I think it gave us all gray hairs! This little woman hanging out over two stories. Whew! I have been through many dogs and cats that she owned and outlived. In her later years, she would get older dogs thinking they would outlive her. She outlived all the dogs but there are still 4 wonderful cats living at her house. She will be missed by all us humans but also by all the critters she befriended. Deer, skunks, racoons etc. I miss you so much Tommy.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheryl Nouaux
a resident of another community
on Feb 23, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I enjoyed my visits with Tommy as we sat together with a cup of coffee at her table sharing stories of dogs and cats either from our life or from books we had read. We met in 2004 after she rescued a homeless Australian Shepherd. To make up for his time on the street we gave him two places to call home - her place in Portola Valley and mine in Half Moon Bay. Tucker was stopped twice on the coastside and correctly identified as Tommy's dog!

I brought Tucker along with me to the beautiful Memorial of Tommy's life. He was warmly greeted and invited in to take his place among her family and friends. When asked if there was anyone else that would like to speak, I will always remember how Tucker pulled himself up on his four legs and began to bark!

You touched our hearts and we thank you, Tommy, for your kind gift of friendship.

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