Pictured: Nancy at summer pasture in Krygyzstan, circa 2011, flanked by former exchange student Bakai Osmoev, who lived with the Walters’ and studied at Mammoth High School about a dozen years ago, and Bakai’s father Urmat./
Nancy Peterson Walter, a Mammoth resident for nearly twenty years, whose history in the area extended for more than fifty, died earlier this month after a brief bout with leukemia. She was 77.
She died with her husband of 55 years, John, holding one hand and her daughter Sandra holding the other.
John described her this week as “a mentor and mother to young and old all over the world. She would deny it but I think she secretly wanted to emulate Margaret Mead. She was a teacher supreme, defender of women’s rights, strong supporter of equal rights and social justice for all but particularly for minorities and the disadvantaged, and an explorer of world cultures, forming a global family unfettered by geographical boundaries.”
As John noted, calls poured in from all over the world at the news of Nancy’s passing, from the Krygyzstani exchange students the Walters took into their Mammoth home over the past few decades, to the students in rural China (Urumchi) where Nancy and John lived for a year while Nancy taught at the local university.
Nancy was a Depression-era baby, born December 3, 1935 in Rockford, Illinois. Of modest means, the family, immediate and extended, lived in an apartment above a bar. One of the highlights of Nancy’s childhood occurred at age ten when Aunt Bonnie got married. This meant that Nancy would finally get her own bed.
Mostly, however, her childhood was one of hardship. Her father spent extensive time in a TB sanatarium before dying when she was aged ten. Her younger sister died of meningitis when she was 12.
In her middle school years, according to her husband, Nancy became enamored with ancient Egypt and decided that she wanted to become an anthropologist. A bold dream for a girl who had never been outside of the midwest, from a family that had never had someone attend college.
But sure enough, that’s exactly what she did. Nancy was a force of nature. And various medical ailments throughout her life never derailed her. Nancy proudly referred to herself as “The Bionic Woman,” ultimately armed with two new knees, two new hips and one new shoulder. She was a TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) nightmare. As John laughed, “She just automatically went to line B at the airport.”
She moved to California in 1956 to complete her undergraduate education at what is now Cal-State Northridge. She received her Bachelor’s in 1962, her Masters from Northridge in 1970, and her PhD from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1986.
More from John on Nancy’s arrival in California:
“She lived in Granada Hills, renting a house with three other single women. She bought an old Renault 4cv that was so basic the windows didn’t roll down. When she went for her driver’s test she took the window out completely so she could demonstrate hand turn signals. Of course, it rained that day. When the 6’4”, 250 lb. examiner looked at the little front seat and the missing window, he said, ‘Why don’t you get a real car, lady.’ She borrowed one and passed with flying colors … ”
John and Nancy met at a party in December 1956. They were married in August 1957. They adopted two children soon thereafter, Jon (now 52) and Sandra (now 49).
Jon works as an RN in central Washington. Sandra is a social worker and lives in Santa Cruz. Nancy is also survived by two grandchildren, Kristin (23) and Shaun (17).
Nancy’s love affair with the Eastern Sierra began in graduate school. She wrote her Masters thesis on Projectile Points of the Owens Valley, and her PhD dissertation was on the Land Exchange Act of 1937 and the creation of the Indian Reservations at Bishop, Big Pine and Lone Pine. Her research was greatly aided by the wisdom and cooperation of Tribal elders, who gave her keen insight into Tribal life in the first half of the 20th century.
The Walters’ permanent residence was in Northridge until the 1994 earthquake leveled their house. Nancy and John then decided to move to Mammoth for a year, and like so many others, they never left. Their home at 240 Mammoth Knolls Drive is full of artifacts and photographs collected on their many world travels.
In some respects, their future travel was foreshadowed by their time in Northridge, when the Walters both joined the Foreign Affairs Council and hosted “home visits” for a variety of dignitaries, from a Vietnamese Supreme Court Justice to an Italian Airport Designer.
“We’d pick ‘em up at the airport in our old VW bus just to give them a true American experience,” laughed John.
The old VW bus wasn’t used just for dignitaries either. John recalled one time where he and Nancy picked up some children in Watts and brought them back to the San Fernando Valley for a night of suburban trick-or-treating.
Their world travel began in earnest after John retired from Rockwell International in 1987. “She was the traveling diplomat,” he recalled. “I went along as the cook.”
Theirs was a wonderful marriage, and John certainly appreciated and enjoyed being along for the adventure, sharing a life with a person so loving, so passionate, so ambitious.
John will host a celebration of life for his late wife on March 25 at 240 Mammoth Knolls Drive from 3-5 p.m. “It’ll be a typical Walter potluck,” he said. “Bring memories and a dish to share.”