Nancy Waller Hawley Wilsea doesn't make a very convincing old lady, even though she referred to herself as one quite a few times during a conversation on a recent snowy day, over a cup of coffee in the cozy kitchen of her Kent Hollow home.
Upon meeting her for the first time, the thing that one immediately notices about Mrs. Wilsea, widow of Fred Wilsea, a master carver who passed away a few years ago and who was renowned for his ability to create and restore beautiful pieces of furniture, is that her eyes always seem be dancing.
She may indeed be getting up there when you stop and count her actual years, but Mrs. Wilsea is what all women aspire to be when they reach a certain age: accomplished, looking darned good and still going strong.
And there's no stopping this youthful oldster who happily confesses that she will celebrate yet another birthday Feb. 2.
"I'm a little embarrassed by all of this," Mrs. Wilsea confided to the nosey visitor in her kitchen. She honestly didn't think there was anything about her that people would find very interesting.
But let's face it. How many almost-88-year-old women do you know who can operate a backhoe?
According to Mrs. Wilsea, it's a piece of cake. The John Deere model, her backhoe-of-choice, drives "just like a car with power steering," she said. "You haven't lived until you've driven one," she kidded.
Although these days she doesn't operate a backhoe regularly, she will still get behind the controls of the machine in an emergency. "In the summer, I had to pull them out of the mud," she said, in reference to some project or other that had gone awry on her farm and required the backhoe-driving skills of an "old lady."
A portion of the Kent Hollow farm property, which has been in the Waller family since 1731 when it was awarded as a land grant by the King of England, was given to Mrs. Wilsea by her father, a prominent orthopedic surgeon in Westport, which is where Mrs. Wilsea was born. Later on, the doctor's daughter purchased the rest of the family farmland from an uncle who was not interested in retaining his share, and she eventually made her home at the place where she, along with her brother and her parents, had spent her childhood summers.
While there are no longer cattle and sheep raised on the farm, hay is still baled on the property, and Mrs. Wilsea's son and grandson oversee that operation.
But Mrs. Wilsea still cranks up her own generator and she does her own electrical repairs. And while she enjoys repair work, Mrs. Wilsea's great love is building things. "On the farm, you're always building," she explained, but her talent for construction was also put to use on land other than her Kent Hollow property.
She accomplished her first building project, a little cottage near Lake Waramaug, in 1960. It still stands and has a family living in it. Her last project, which was completed 10 years ago, was a tiny 12-by-14-foot cottage structure, a guest house, on Mrs. Wilsea's property and next-door to her own house.
"I love small houses," she said. "I can remember loving small houses way back." She believes that small houses are an especially good idea in today's world. "These are interesting times … we don't know what's going to happen."
Back when Mrs. Wilsea was building, there were no architects around to help her. Instead, she turned to the Library of Congress for how-to books, and also to Sears and Roebuck, which used to sell how-to information for almost everything under the sun, she said, from making your own cheddar cheese to building a house.
"I was putting my own septic tanks in," Mrs. Wilsea said. "That wouldn't go over now."
"I've done all the macho things, [such as building and] flying," she added modestly.
Indeed, her brother-who became a government test pilot at an early age, and, later, the first helicopter pilot hired by The New York Journal American to transport reporters to their assignments-told his then 16-year-old sister that she should be flying, too. Mrs. Wilsea liked the idea and went straight to Stratford and started her flying lessons at the Sikorsky Airport.
"The hard part was that you went into it with high heels and your dress tucked down into your flight suit," she said. Back then, she recalled, "ladies didn't wear slacks."
But Mrs. Wilsea said that in those days all pilots, no matter their gender, "flew by the seat of [their] pants." She recounted one particularly harrowing incident in which she went out in a plane, solo. "I went out by myself … over [Long Island] Sound. The fog got in under me, and I lost my bearings. … I couldn't find the airport … it scared me."
She also remembered the time she flew up to Litchfield County and had to make an emergency landing on an area golf course. "That didn't make me too popular," she acknowledged.
So just how is it that Nancy Waller Hawley Wilsea came to experience so many interesting things in her lifetime?
The Kent Hollow resident feels that she takes after both of her parents. She described her mother as "an angel who pitched right in after losing money and servants" as a result of the Great Depression. "Mother put shingles on. She was a [spirited] Chicago girl. She could hitch up a horse … ."
But Mrs. Wilsea's mother was also a "Florodora Girl." "Florodora" was one of the first successful Broadway musicals of the 20th century, and its popularity was attributed, in large part, to a chorus of six attractive girls, who were all 5 feet, 4 inches tall and 130 pounds.
In fact, Mrs. Wilsea inherited not only her mother's beauty, but also her talent for singing. She has had several successful solo appearances throughout Connecticut in churches and on radio programs. A review of one of Mrs. Wilsea's performances, printed in the former Bridgeport Post, read, " … [she] sang without apparent effort in warm full tones with utterly sweet and poignant interpretations."
"The main thing is that they thought that my brother and I should be very independent," said Mrs. Wilsea of her parents' child-rearing philosophy. Her father's work as an orthopedic surgeon garnered him a spot in the Smithsonian for a special operating table that he developed, though Mrs. Wilsea has never been to the museum to see the exhibit.
She recalled, however, that when she was 12, she asked him for a car. "He bought me one. A Model-T Ford."
Dr. Waller Hawley's instructions to his daughter, as she remembers them, were to "stay on the farm."
Mrs. Wilsea, who confessed that she didn't always keep the car on family farm property, said that when she asked her father for a spare tire, he gave her a tire patching kit and tools instead. "I learned to patch my tubes," she said matter-of-factly.
"My father was very progressive," explained Mrs. Wilsea. In fact, she said that he wrote a 100-page manuscript on the future of health care in the U.S. in the 1930s and sent it to Franklin Roosevelt, who deemed it so impressive that he began a formal correspondence with the Connecticut surgeon.
In spite of having well-educated parents and attending prestigious private schools in Fairfield County, Mrs. Wilsea was a child of the Great Depression and therefore never made it to college.
But she has some wisdom to impart to today's youth. "Instead of buying liquor, I bought two-by-fours [and learned to build things]. I'd say to young people today, 'Don't smoke. Buy two-by-fours.'"
Our time was up, and Mrs. Wilsea, like a pied piper, had her visitors quickly following her through the house and into her garage. Even though they were wearing their winter boots, she was determined that the visitors should hop in to her SUV so that she could drive them down her snowy driveway to their waiting car. She would deposit them, and race back up the hill to get ready for the next round of company that would be arriving at any moment for lunch. "I'm a people person," she acknowledged.
And over the years, there have been some notable people.
Mrs. Wilsea became friends with Helen Keller and corresponded with her in Braille, played with actor Jack Nicholson when he was a child (Mrs. Wilsea's brother married Mr. Nicholson's mother) had Charles Atlas come to her rescue once when her car was stuck near Lake Waramaug and rubbed elbows with the Lindberghs, becoming friends with poet and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Now, each and every Sunday afternoon like clockwork, and on many weekdays such as the one when a reporter came to call, Mrs. Wilsea cooks for friends and neighbors such as "old Bill Camp and his son Billy Camp."
When it was suggested that on top of her other accomplishments she must be a pretty good chef since she always has something simmering in a pot, Mrs. Wilsea set the record straight. "Oh no," she said, emphatically. "They'll say, 'We're coming up for coffee and a stale doughnut.' They kid me about my cooking."
Then she paused for a second, tilted her head slightly sideways, smiled and said, "But they still come."