Vivian Herron dies at 61
With a few simple keystrokes, Vivian Herron turned her friends and neighbors from the town of Washington into characters with colorful histories, lively pastimes and names seemingly sprung from Damon Runyon’s imagination.
In truth, people like Mr. Pete, Mervelous Merv, Poison Bob and Mama Su do exist, and their heads were hanging low Wednesday as word spread of Ms. Herron’s death the night before at the age of 61.
Ms. Herron, who was born in Washington, D.C., spent the last three decades of her life putting the little town by the Yuba River into the consciousness of Nevada County residents, in part by penning a weekly column in The Union.
She worked tirelessly to help others and help Washington – a block-long mining burg nearly forgotten when the West’s gold-rush fever broke – get past its image as a town where hoodlums and ex-cons disappeared into the pines.
“She showed people the true side of our town,” said Mama Su Decorte, co-owner of the Washington Hotel, where many of the town’s permanent residents held a sort of wake Wednesday, sipping water from Mason jars on the hotel deck below the gurgling river. “It’s the greatest loss I’ve felt in a long time.”
Those living in Littletown, as Ms. Herron often referred to Washington in her columns, remembered a woman who would bake cookies for the children attending Washington School below her hilltop house, who would send batches of cobbler to ailing residents, and spend hours extolling the virtues of the people in her town.
Wednesday, it was as if she had 150 brothers and sisters crying for her.
David Bigler, whose son was born just two weeks ago, said Ms. Herron often stopped by his house to deliver baby clothes garnered from her favorite thrift stores and send raspberry cobbler to his house in the weeks leading up to his son’s birth. “If you needed something and she had the means to provide it, she’d do it.”
Several years ago, Ms. Herron took an old trailer and stocked it with books to serve as the town’s unofficial library. She spent hours volunteering at Washington School and was working on updating the town’s history before she died.
“I can’t say that Vivian was a personal friend, but there was something about her passing that touched us all,” said Larry Graham, a town resident for eight years and one of a handful of past “mayors” of the town. Last month, Ms. Herron wrote of a funeral for Graham’s prosthetic leg that lies beneath a patch of dirt on his property.
Perhaps it was prophetic that Gypsy John Bryant wore black Wednesday, as he seemingly has for nearly every day of his 32 years in Washington.
“Vivian never thought about Vivian,” he growled.
“I just loved her to pieces. She did the community a great service just living here,” said Bryant, one of a handful of members of the Washington Welcoming Committee, another of Ms. Herron’s favorite column topics. “I looked forward to just talkin’ to her. She comes as close to an angel as anyone I know.”
Writing seemed to come naturally to Ms. Herron, who peppered her columns with words such as “hailfar” and often referred to her home as the Herron Hovel, where she and her husband, dubbed “Sugartush,” spent their evenings.
“The image that she promoted of this town was so true,” said Pete Milano, teacher at Washington School, which was a frequent subject of Herron’s columns.
She’d often tout the school’s spaghetti feeds and yearly week-long trips to the big cities at the end of the year.
“She was our biggest cheerleader,” said school employee Kim Lee, whose husband, Merv, served for years as the town’s fire chief.
In truth, Ms. Herron was interested in what people would think of her writing style, said her daughter, Crystal.
“She would write three or four columns ahead of time and she was always completely shocked at getting fan mail,” Crystal Herron said.
Crystal Herron said her mother would often look up Southern-style expressions on the Internet and ask her daughter if she approved. “I hardly knew what any of them meant,” she said.
In reality, Ms. Herron spoke with an affected accent and, at times, seemed to live the life of a real-life Aunt Bee, the homespun matriarch on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Dale Herron, Ms. Herron’s husband, learned to embrace his wife’s minor celebrity status and the nickname she gave him.
“Everybody got a kick out of it. I didn’t like it, but everyone else enjoyed it,” he said.
As for the column, “they all loved it,” he said. “I’m sorry that everyone’s going to miss her articles. I think the readers are going to miss them.”
John Seelmeyer, a former editor at The Union, hired Herron after noticing her work in the Downieville-based Mountain Messenger.
“Her contributions to the paper were beyond measure. She not only described life in Washington, but she idealized small-town life that we look for in Nevada County.”
Richard Somerville, The Union’s current editor, said Herron’s style captivated readers.
“It’s every editor’s dream to have a columnist who can tell the story of a place so that whoever reads it knows it’s true and real – knows what it’s like to live there.”
Ms. Herron was born on July 1, 1943, to Joseph and Jean Miller and grew up and attended high school in the Washington, D.C., area. She moved to Los Angeles in 1966, where she worked as a legal secretary. She married Dale Herron in 1970 and moved to Washington five years later to be near a relative.
She was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by sons Shane of Reno and Chad of Washington, and a second daughter, Jade of Nevada City; a brother, Bruce of Florida; and two grandchildren. Burial services are private and pending.
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