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Ventura Woman Receives Gift of Thanks From Late Employer : Wills: Before retired surgeon died, he bequeathed a Caribbean cruise to his housekeeper. The trip will serve as a belated honeymoon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandy Teigen is a Jehovah’s Witness and does not celebrate Thanksgiving.

But today, the 54-year-old Ventura housekeeper will give thanks to the memory of a friend and former employer who lavished her with an unusual thank-you gift: a weeklong Caribbean cruise.

For 15 years, Teigen scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed Dr. John Nickel’s Ventura home. And when the retired surgeon died last year at age 69, he left Teigen an all-expense-paid trip for two in his will.

“This is just so bizarre,” Teigen said Tuesday evening, fanning herself furiously with a travel magazine. “But that’s OK, I am going to have a couple of drinks for him on the cruise.”

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So while some families are gorging on turkey and pumpkin pie, Teigen and her husband, Jim, will be gearing up for a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a luxurious voyage through the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It will be a belated honeymoon of sorts, since the couple could not afford a lavish vacation when they married in North Dakota’s November chill 35 years ago today.

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“We drove about 60 miles from our home town to a motel in Minnesota,” Teigen recalled. “We were very, very poor.”

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It was because of her frugal nature, Teigen said, that Nickel specified in his will that the money be used for a cruise.

“I probably would have paid house taxes or something,” Teigen said. “I am not a frivolous person.”

But Nickel was a generous one. A Ventura-based surgeon who suffered from a weak heart, Nickel’s joy in life--and even in death--was giving gifts to his friends and loved ones.

He would scour catalogues for the perfect Christmas present or birthday gift. A gourmet cook who enjoyed setting a splendid table, he once sent a friend a roasted pig. One year, he gave Teigen stuffed Cornish game hens.

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“He just seemed to think of everyone,” said Jaime Case, Nickel’s 19-year-old granddaughter. Case said her family was not surprised when Teigen showed up in Nickel’s will.

“She always went out of her way to help him,” Case said. “She wasn’t a house cleaner to him. I don’t think anybody ever thought of her that way. She is part of the family.”

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Teigen cleaned Nickel’s east Ventura house every Thursday. She would start at 9 a.m. in the kitchen, while Nickel sat and chatted with her.

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“We discussed all of life’s problems and solved them, in theory,” she said. As his health failed, she would help the doctor with other chores such as bathing his two dogs, Happy and Missy.

“I’d turn the hose on them,” she recalled with a chuckle.

A widower who had lost his wife, Marjorie, to breast cancer 15 years earlier, Nickel was confined to bed after his kidneys eventually began to fail. One of his four nursing assistants was Teigen’s daughter, Cheryl Navarro.

“He always had been very thoughtful to my mother and my parents,” Navarro said. Long before she became his care giver, when Nickel knew of Navarro only through talking to her mother, the doctor sent comforters to celebrate the birth of Navarro’s two children.

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Even knowing his generosity streak, Teigen said the cruise was an unexpected gift.

Nickel had taken his daughter and son-in-law on a Caribbean cruise about a year before his death, and he talked about the trip during one of his kitchen conversations with Teigen.

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She had been envious of the trip. It must have been shortly thereafter, Teigen guesses, that Nickel decided to give her the cruise.

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“He had been on a couple of cruises and as much time as we spent talking, he knew as much about my likes and dislikes as any friend I had,” Teigen said.

“He spent so much time picking out gifts, it was so typical of him giving me a gift with that in mind.”

It wasn’t until several months after Nickel died of congenital heart and kidney failure in September, 1994, that Teigen learned of the doctor’s last gift to her.

“I got a letter from an attorney telling me I had been mentioned in his will,” Teigen said. “He was just that type of man. There should be many more like him in the world.”

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