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Inspiring Lessons of a Lifetime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Violet Wightman marched into a freelance writing class at Fullerton College and told the professor how things would be. “I don’t have to do anything you say,” she said, “because I’m older than you.”

Wightman’s pronouncement turned out to be an understatement. Already in her 90s, she was decades older than anyone else in the class. She quickly became the dominant force and the center of attention--to the delight of her classmates. Today, at 97, Wightman is a campus icon and author of the only book ever published by Fullerton College.

“This woman is a national treasure,” student Robyn Bryson said of the elderly classmate who regularly regales younger friends with tales of a life spent hobnobbing with the likes of Dorothy Chandler, Charlie Chaplin, Amelia Earhart and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Julie Davey, head of the journalism department, admits that she was skeptical upon first hearing those stories. “I was very patronizing because I didn’t believe her,” Davey said.

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But Wightman brought proof in the form of a yellowing newspaper photograph of herself with Earhart, the legendary aviator. Davey revised her opinion. “I knew,” she said last week, “that I had the real article.”

Wightman said she met those famous people during a long career as a concert pianist. Born in 1901 in Globe, Ariz., she studied music as a child under composer Rachmaninoff, who she says called her his “little princess.”

The Wightman family moved to Los Angeles, where young Violet once played to a crowd of 25,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. Later, while studying music in France, she made a concert tour of Europe’s major cities.

In 1931, the gifted pianist married a prominent dentist who had been her childhood sweetheart. The couple had four children. Their union ended tragically 20 years later on a foggy road in France: An automobile accident left Wightman seriously injured and widowed at age 50.

“I was married to the best and never thought of getting remarried,” said Wightman, who moved to Fullerton in 1963. “I’ve had a very busy life.”

Through it all she has meticulously recorded every event in scores of stories, poems and memoirs that now fill more than 150 cardboard boxes in her apartment. She first enrolled in the college writing course in 1991, she said, to learn how to polish and organize the old works and to create something new. “I decided to write the history of my family,” she said, noting that her grandfather was scalped by Geronimo.

She is now taking the class for the third time.

The tales of her lifetime cover a wide range of topics and writing styles. Some are earthy and humorous, such as the autobiographical piece about her stay in a French hospital where, Wightman writes, she inadvertently caused a pompous French physician to ruin an expensive pair of shoes by stepping into a bedpan full of urine. A novel in progress chronicles the travails of a eunuch named Francois who keeps trying to get into heaven while God keeps throwing him out. And Wightman’s proposed autobiography, professor Davey said, has the working title of “Moonlight, Palaces and Toenail Clippings.”

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“She’s an excellent writer,” Davey said. “She’s a creative genius who can take the most mundane subject and weave it into a wonderful story. Everything she does has a little twist to it--it would be really tragic if her writings were never published.”

That possibility was what prompted college officials in June to publish a small volume of Wightman’s poetry. “Sitting on a Cloud"--on subjects ranging from fairies to motherhood--takes its title from the author’s often-repeated promise to fellow students never to die, but instead to “sit on a cloud and be the wind against your cheeks.” The book was published, Davey said, because “I knew I was in the presence of a real genius and wanted to tell the world about her.”

Members of Wightman’s writing class already know what the world may someday discover.

“She’s taught me how to appreciate life,” said Robert Ibarra, 32, a truck driver who is studying for a career change. “She’s really inspired me to fulfill my dreams.”

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Classmate Richard Santner said knowing Wightman has changed his life. “She said that she didn’t have enough time left to do what she wanted,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I’m only 40, I have all the time in the world.’ It really moved me. I couldn’t stop thinking of her.”

During a recent class session, Santner sat at the frail woman’s feet reading one of her stories aloud. Because Wightman is hard of hearing, class members often take turns sitting next to her as they present their work. Many have visited her at home, helping to sort through her life’s work.

Much has changed in those many years, Wightman said. “I think there’s more love in the world today than there used to be,” she said.

That love was evident during a class last week as Wightman, who fell recently, occasionally moaned in pain. Her classmates crowded around her, gently massaging her neck.

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“This class would be dead without Mrs. Wightman,” student Ellen Simac said. “She does everything in spite of her pain. It’s made me realize that you never get old.”

And what of the writer’s assertion during her first class about who would be listening to whom?

“When she walks in,” Davey said, “she becomes the teacher and I become a student. I feel that if I interrupt her, I’m interrupting an important lesson.”


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