Mary Etta Segerstrom — a career newswoman, local historian, founder of Tuolumne County’s first parent nursery school and matriarch of the Segerstrom family — died in Sonora on Thursday morning at age 92.
Mrs. Segerstrom, who last weekend suffered a heart attack, was taken to Sonora Regional Medical Center, where she succumbed to her illness at 8 a.m. Thursday. In her last days, she was surrounded by her large family and numerous friends and well-wishers, according to her children.
She was born May 17, 1920, in Memphis, Tenn., and was the eldest of two children to her mother, Mary Frizzell. Her mother later married Dr. Newton Farrell, taking his last name for herself and her children.
As a youngster, Mary Etta lived at various times in Kentucky, Florida, New York and Idaho before moving to California for school. She studied journalism at Stanford University in the early 1940s.
At Stanford, a roommate introduced her to her future husband, Donald Segerstrom Sr., whose family has lived in the Sonora area since 1900. The two were married in the Stanford Chapel in 1943 and moved to Milford, Utah, and Reno, Nev., before finally settling in Sonora in 1947.
Mrs. Segerstrom was a writer and worked as a theater critic for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin newspaper and as a stringer for the Wall Street Journal. Her passion for journalism was shared by her husband, who, in 1938, became publisher of The Union Democrat newspaper after it was acquired by his family.
The Segerstroms owned the paper until selling it in 1953.
While raising five children, Mrs. Segerstrom distinguished herself as an active member of numerous philanthropic groups and social clubs.
She was a founding member of the Tuolumne County Historical Society in 1955, and served as president of the Philanthropic Education Organization and the American Association of University Women. She was instrumental in establishing Sonora’s Parent-Teacher Association and was active in St. James Episcopal Church.
“I love my mom very much. She was the most gracious, wonderful lady you would ever want to meet,” said her son, Donald Segerstrom Jr., now a Tuolumne County Superior Court judge.
“She was well loved and respected around the community,” said her daughter, Ann Segerstrom, a publicist who lives in San Francisco. “She was one in a million.”
“She left us with a sense of how to treat other people — that the Golden Rule always applies,” said another son, David Segerstrom, a computer consultant who lives in San Diego.
Those who knew her best said one of her proudest accomplishments was establishing the Sonora Parent Nursery School in 1953. The group began as a co-op between parents who decided to take turns looking after each other’s children.
“She was very proud of that endeavor, because it was really important to her that young people had a place to go,” said Sonora historian Pat Perry, who knew Mrs. Segerstrom for about 20 years.
Mrs. Segerstrom wrote extensively about local history, authoring works on downtown Sonora and the impact of the 1906 earthquake on Tuolumne County. She was awarded the Order of the Wheelhorse from the Tuolumne County Historical Society in 1978 for her efforts in historical preservation.
Son Steven Segerstrom, a physician from Santa Barbara, recalled his mother as an avid gardener who reveled in growing row upon row of strawberries behind the family home on Knowles Hill Drive. He said she loved strolling through the Sonora Farmers Market and grabbing lunch downtown at the Diamondback Grill or Bon Appetit bistro.
She also had an adventurous streak, and a family legend has it that she ignored air raid warnings while she was working as a reporter in San Francisco during World War II.
“Rather than go to an air raid shelter, she would go up to the roof because she was a journalist and had to see what was going on,” Steven Segerstrom said.
Mrs. Segerstrom enjoyed seeing the world and made trips to Europe, Australia, Japan and China, often traveling solo. She read history novels, studied art and loved to listen to musicals, show tunes and Frank Sinatra.
Tuolumne County historian Carlo De Ferrari met Mrs. Segerstrom in the early 1950s when she became friends with his late wife, Harriet. He was impressed with her extensive knowledge of the area’s history.
“If I needed help on anything I never hesitated to call her. She was always good about that,” he said.
Tuolumne County archivist Charles Dyer met Mrs. Segerstrom in the late 1970s to work on a restoration project for the West Side and Cherry Valley Railroad exhibit at the Tuolumne City Memorial Museum. He said she was always a pleasant person to work with and remained young at heart.
“The last time I saw her she was walking through town with an ice cream in her hand,” he said. “That was how she was, she just enjoyed life.”
Mrs. Segerstrom is survived by one daughter, Ann Segerstrom, of San Francisco; and three sons, David, of San Diego, Steven, of Santa Barbara, and Donald Jr., of Sonora. She also leaves six grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.
She was preceded in death by her parents, brother Jim Farrell in 1943, her husband Donald Sr. in 1973 and her son James F. Segerstrom in 2007.
A funeral announcement is pending. Terzich and Wilson Funeral home is handling arrangements.
“She had lifelong friends here,” said David Segerstrom. “There was no place on earth she liked better than Sonora.”
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