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Enduring Community Gratitude

A Gift of Enduring Community Gratitude Continues to Help Others

A Mother Lode community’s warm acceptance of a young outsider is at the root of one family’s still blooming legacy that continues to make a positive difference across Tuolumne County.

Through an endowment from their estate set up with their children and administered by Sonora Area Foundation (SAF), Norbert “Holly” and Elaine (nee Rodriguez) Wilson found a way to perpetually extend a similar kind of “helping hand” to the community that welcomed Holly when, as a young teen of the Great Depression, he moved into Tuolumne County with barely more than the clothes on his back.

The Wilsons’ youngest son Jeff and sister Kathy Sells, and now her son, Brian Sells, who manage the family business — Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home — along with their siblings Norby and Denny preside over their endowment gift to the community they loved. Jeff describes it as an activity that is near and dear to all their hearts. He chuckles, “We have some good old-fashioned Italian ‘discussions’ . . . we all have different interests and points of view so it’s interesting to listen to when we get together to discuss it all. I’ve wondered many times if Dad and Mom didn’t plan it that way!”

He continues, “Interfaith is big on our list — people who need that helping hand to get back up and allow them a chance to make it on their hard work. Dad came here with nothing, so he talked about going hungry and cold many nights, and he talked about how people of this community welcomed and help him in those days, and from that he instilled in our family to help others — people who are struggling and need that little bit of help to keep them going.”

He laments, “There are so many worthy causes, especially now. People need a lot of help and we want to be there for those who are really trying to get out and better themselves, and that’s what our parents set us up to do.”

Joyfully ‘Keeping It Local’

The family also enjoys providing support to the WINGS Fund, a nonprofit set up by Dave and Teree Urquhart for the express purpose of financially assisting families who have children hospitalized out of the county. The genesis of WINGS, nearly 20 years ago now, came from a time when the Urquhart family became acutely aware of hardships associated with having a loved one hospitalized far from home as Dave underwent heart transplant surgery; the process involved nearly two months of recovery time in a Palo Alto hospital. While they had good insurance and sick leave, the Urquharts realized many people are not so fortunate.

The couple jointly expresses extreme appreciation for the Wilson family’s generous donations to the WINGS Fund via SAF. They add, “Their donations have helped support families at a critical time when their children are ill and must be transported to medical facilities outside Tuolumne County. Their selfless gifts have blessed people in their greatest time of need.” Jeff Wilson notes his family also appreciates that no one associated with administering the fund receives any pay, which allows 100 percent of each donation to directly pass on to the recipient families.

According to SAF Executive Director Darrell Slocum, the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA) Food Bank, Sierra Senior Providers/Meals On Wheels, Adventist Health Heart and Cancer centers, Hospice of Tuolumne County, the Humane Society, and  various veterans’ groups are among the many other grant recipients from the Wilson Family’s endowment fund.

A Legacy Of Gratitude

With humor and a sense of enduring gratitude, Jeff shares his family’s back-story, including that his Dad, Norbert, who arrived in Tuolumne County at the age of 16, quickly acquired “Hollywood” as a nickname, both for being from Hollywood and looking a bit like James Cagney. It became shortened in later years to “Holly.”

“My Dad came to town with nothing, didn’t know anyone here and the community really accepted him,” Jeff gratefully recounts. “He wanted to give something back to this area that he loved . . . he knew [SAF Founder] Irving Symons, and liked the idea of setting up an endowment fund so there would always be monies there to be given — then he left the decision of where to help to his family members — all of whom still live here — with input from the [SAF] board.”

Before Holly came to the Mother Lode with his father for a summer visit to see a step-aunt living in Columbia, his family had lost everything they had in the Great Depression. A sickly lad due to a serious asthma condition, he immediately felt healthy at this altitude and at home with the local people. At the end of his sojourn in these new surroundings, he begged to stay, knowing he could have a healthier life, playing sports at Sonora High, etc. but the family could not support him here. However, he persisted, knowing he would do whatever jobs he could to support himself and when his aunt offered up a miner’s shack with a cookstove and outhouse, he got to stay.

And odd jobs were how Holly first met Mrs. Josie (Borzini) Terzich. She already had been a trailblazer in the funeral business; one of a few women pioneering to become a fully licensed woman embalmer and mortician in 1919), and in 1926 the first woman elected County Coroner.

Around the time Holly came to Tuolumne County in 1935, she had become a new partner in her own Terzich & Bigelow Funeral Home — a time when there were few if any, women without a family connection working within the industry in California. A widow who lost her husband in the 1918 Spanish swine flu epidemic, she also had earlier suffered the stillborn loss of her only child, Josie took a liking to the young newcomer who would have been about the age of that child.   She also had a well-known reputation for her kindness to others throughout the community.  Jeff adds that his Dad often recounted that during this time, she was known to “make up” work, having him wash the hearse or mow the lawns when it wasn’t needed, just to give him money to buy food, since he wouldn’t accept handouts and wanted to earn his way.

Good Samaritans Become Family    

Holly’s introduction to the Rodriguez family and to his future wife Elaine came through one of his early friends — her own brother, Charlie. “Her father Tony operated a bar across from the now Bank of America and also was the local taxi cab business,” Jeff explains. He laughingly recalls how different from today’s world as when his Spanish Grandpa had to leave the bar to go pick up a taxi fare. “He would just leave his customers as they continued enjoying themselves at the bar and when he returned, he would find their payments on the counter. Can you imagine? That’s how good people were back then.” Mr. Rodriguez also drove the hearse and was sometimes a personal driver for Mrs. Terzich, who did not drive.

When the Rodriguez family learned of Holly’s meager living quarters at the ranch, they invited him to come live with them in Sonora. The arrangement remained in place until signs of a budding romance led Elaine’s Dad to send him over to bunk at the Bisordi Boarding House (now The Gunn House Hotel). By that time, Josie, who had become like a second mother to Holly, instead had him move into an apartment with her over her newly built funeral home that is now called the Heuton Memorial Chapel although at the time it was known as Terzich & Bigelow Funeral Home. It was not long before she and her former partner ended that partnership, which led her to eventually open her own Terzich Funeral Home in 1940 at the now current location on East Rose Avenue. At that point, she became one of the first women in California to found her own funeral home alone.

Holly worked various full-time jobs, like at Panero’s 76 Gas Station, to save money for college; additionally, earning a scholarship to St. Mary’s College to play football. But as soon as World War II broke out, he enlisted in Jan 1942 in the Army Air Corps, becoming a B-24 pilot. After several leaves home and multiple proposals, he eventually managed to convince Elaine to marry him. After he returned in 1946, realizing Mrs. Terzich’s disadvantage in not driving, he made good on a promise to himself and used his GI Bill benefits to go to mortuary science college so that he could help Mrs. Terzich in her business and initiated an ambulance service similar to what other area chapels were doing. In 1950, she added “Wilson” to the name of her business, telling him “You’re my family,” and they became partners.

As Jeff puts it, his family’s is just another heartfelt story of neighbors working together through extraordinarily hard times. “They were the Greatest Generation . . . went through the Great Depression, the War, always pulled together, helped each other out — and took that with them to the end of their lives.”

Still Serving the Community

Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home remains the oldest continually-owned, family-operated funeral and cremation provider in the county. Its initial downtown Sonora location built by Josie Terzich was joined in 1966 by a second chapel in Tuolumne. As the business transitioned more to cremation, they added the county’s only crematorium, Mother Lode Crematory in Jamestown in 2012. Although Mrs. Terzich passed away in 1974, her influence lives on. “My Dad always said ‘never take her name off the funeral home because she’s the reason I was able to have the life I did here,” Jeff shares. “He loved, respected her, and she was part of the family, she was our Nanny Josie.”

Of note, just before the Covid pandemic hit in early 2020, the Wilson family bought out Heuton Memorial Chapel, which still existed as downtown Sonora’s other long-time funeral business, effectively bringing that original Terzich location full circle back into local family ownership.  Although both are jointly operated, they can be reached separately: for Terzich & Wilson, call 209 532-3131; to reach the Heuton chapel, call 532-7121.

As part of its mission, the Sonora Area Foundation (SAF) strengthens the local community through assisting donors, making grants, and providing neutral leadership on important area issues and challenges. SAF charges no fees for its services that help provide individuals, families and businesses like the Wilsons with a safe, easy way to assure their contributions will do good work now and in years to come. For more information on SAF, click here https://sonora-area.org.

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