By Carla Petievich
Connie Carlson, a long-time resident of Berkeley, passed away on April 24, 2014, at the Chaparral House on Allston Way in Berkeley. She was 96.
Connie added flair, energy and surprise to any occasion she attended, and extracted as much as possible from life. She held ideas and experience in higher regard than the comforts of a conventional place in society; everyone who knew her would certainly attest to the confidence of her convictions and her complete disregard for convention.
Connie was born in Tacoma, WA to Carl Martin Carlson (1884-1971) and Rae Lillian Rothstein (1887-1950). When Connie was still a small child, the family (including her younger sister, Zaida, 1923-2012) moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, where Connie’s parents practiced optometry, making eyeglasses for the townspeople and inhabitants of the nearby Tlingit reservations.
Connie’s spirit of adventure and her desire to escape her parents’ chaotic marriage drove her to leave home at the age of 15; she made her way from Ketchikan to “the States” by steamer. She worked her way through high school as an au pair for a Tacoma family and even managed to save enough to proceed onward to California, eventually landing in San Francisco.
Connie graduated from Mission High School in 1935, then enrolled in the University of California where she was active in dramatics and debating. She also studied music for many years, training for a performance career as a classical vocalist. Ever the perfectionist, however, Connie ultimately decided that she lacked the particular set of qualities necessary for a successful musical career. She described her audition with the SF Opera Chorus as “a complete bust” because her strong voice and personality did not blend at all with the chorus’ other voices.
For many years, Connie supported herself waiting tables; her favorite employer was the Black Sheep Restaurant on Bancroft Way in Berkeley near Telegraph Avenue. As a lifelong people watcher, Connie loved the clientele of the Black Sheep and the feeling was apparently mutual. When Zaida arrived in Berkeley in 1942 to attend UC Berkeley, Connie found her a job at the Black Sheep, too. The early lives of Zaida’s children were replete with tales of Black Sheep exploits.
When Connie realized that she could not support herself forever by waiting tables, she became a court reporter, an occupation that paid well and also involved listening to people’s stories as they, and their cases, moved through the courts.
Connie was so verbally adept, and so skilled in language, that she often transcribed people’s testimony ahead of their own utterances. She worked in the Los Angeles courts for 12 years, returned to Berkeley in the early 1960s and eventually became the preferred reporter for Alameda County Superior Court Judge Lionel Wilson, who was later elected as Mayor of Oakland.
In 1963 Connie was part of Judge Wilson’s group that went to Mississippi to register voters. Always interested in politics, Connie was active in a group of homeowners who lobbied for reform in California’s home insurance laws after the tragic Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm of 1991.
Connie retired in 1976 due to work-related deterioration of her spine but continued to be a vigorous participant in life.
In the 1980s she returned to the University of California to take a wide array of courses, following her diverse interests, and made full use of the university as a resource for intellectual development. From an early age she had been interested in dramatics, which allowed her to express her legendary style and flair. She was an avid film and classical music enthusiast, attending grand opera and recitals of every sort.
Other interests included fashion, nutrition and psychology. During the 1950s she became very involved in the set of ideas and practices called Dianetics, precursor to contemporary Scientology. She also loved real estate and houses, buying and decorating several over the years. Her favorite was a lovely redwood cottage in the Berkeley hills. She planted, and lovingly tended, its rose garden and filled the hillside with native Californian flora. Losing that place to the Firestorm was perhaps the most keenly felt loss of her life.
Most of all, Connie was a woman of great courage and independence, right to the end. Because of her personality and interest in people, she attracted many friends over the course of her life. She never married, however, and had no children.
Connie is survived by her nieces and nephew, Sherri Perelli of Framingham, MA; Carla Petievich of Austin TX; Michael Petievich of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; her brother-in-law, George Petievich of Nevada City, CA; and a large circle of extended family and friends.
Feel free to share your messages of condolence and/or memories of Connie Carlson in the comments.
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