Charlene Weir: November 10, 1937 - April 4, 2015
Charlene Weir, El Cerrito resident for over 50 years, died April 4, 2015. She was born November 10, 1937 in Nortonville, Kansas, the seventh and youngest child of the late George and Clara Kettner. Charlene graduated from Hutchinson High School in 1955 and received her nursing certification from the state of Oklahoma in 1959.
She settled in the Bay Area shortly after and had two children, Chris and Leslie. After an early diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, Charlene abandoned nursing and turned her love of reading and puzzles into a career as a mystery writer. Her first novel, The Winter Widow, won the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic contest for best first mystery and was nominated for an Anthony Award. The six novels that followed featured Kansas Chief-of-Police, Susan Wren. Charlene said of her strong female protagonist, “Susan is intelligent and competent, any doubts or uncertainties are hidden beneath a cloak of cool confidence. She solves her own problems effectively. She doesn’t get rescued. She gets herself out of the burning building.” In many ways, this was the perfect description of Charlene herself.
Charlene’s final novel, Unknown Footprints, has been posthumously published. When she wasn’t writing, Charlene enjoyed playing the piano, looking after her two beloved cats, and visiting with her grandchildren. She was known for her sharp wit and quick sense of humor.
A Short Autobiography
Nortonville, where I spent the first five years of my life, had a population of around 300, or maybe 400, depending on which brother got asked. It’s situated in the northeast corner of Kansas, half the state away from Greeley County. (Remember Horace Greeley, who told young men to go west?) The weather was bitterly cold in winter, but there were those longed for days when the radio announced no school today. Children, protected from the rigors of going to classes, threw themselves gleefully into snow drifts and made snow angels. Summers were sweltering, but there were those warm evenings when fireflies flickered like magic in the dark.
The town had seven churches, which gave people a variety to choose from. While Kansans like variety, most of them went to church. My father was a Lutheran minister and I was his youngest and seventh child. My mother, as the minister’s wife, was always working. As I watched her can peaches and green beans, knit sweaters and sew dresses, I said to myself, “When I grow up, I’m never going to do all these things.” I didn’t either.
Though my parents weren’t readers, I have always been. Once I was old enough to take myself to the library, I quickly became an addict. Every week I’d come home with as many books as I could carry. This addiction persists to this day. In my mind, I can still hear my mother tell me to put down that book and go outside, get some sunshine and exercise.
How I became a writer still bewilders me, and that I still write bewilders me even more. I never thought about writing, never wanted to write, never considered writing anything someone else might read. Writers seem to know from the moment they’re born that’s who they are. Their very first words are, “Could I have a pencil and same paper?” Before they become famous, they rise at some unseemly hour like four AM and write novels. Then they go to jobs in lion taming or underwater search and rescue. This produces fascinating material for under the photo in the books.
After I graduated from high school, I entered nurses’ training and became a registered nurse. I worked in the Student Health Service at the University of Oklahoma. Life consisted of work, classes with the aim of a Bachelor’s degree and study.
And then, under the heading of Stuff Happens, stuff happened. Like Chicken Little, I felt that the sky was falling.
I was tired all the time. Even with many hours of sleep, I have a difficulty pulling myself out of bed. Everything was a struggle. My hands got numb. Then my feet got numb. The numbness got worse and spread.
I recall one day laboring, like wading through wet cement, up a flight of stairs at work. I looked out the window and, in overly dramatic fashion, thought, I can’t go on. Other strange physical problems arose. After I lost the vision in one eye, I took myself to a physician.
Those were the days when doctors were always right, were never challenged, and spoke with Godlike firmness. With his stethoscope, his otoscope, and his rubber hammer, he couldn’t find anything wrong with me.
He told me to see a psychiatrist.
I saw my brother, who is a psychiatrist. He sent me to Stanford.
That’s when I went west, though I wasn’t a young man. Actually, I followed my husband who came to Berkeley for graduate school. We were blessed with two children.
The neurologist at Stanford gave me the answer. He explained that I had multiple sclerosis. My first response was relief. There was a reason for all the weird physical problems. I wasn’t crazy.
He gave me some information about the illness and I did a lot of research. Have you ever noticed that life often gets in the way of all your plans? MS imposed limitations. It was important to avoid over-exertion and avoid stress.
I finally admitted nursing might not be a good career choice.
I still had that addiction to reading. Put printed words in front of me and I’d read them. I couldn’t help it.
Once upon a time, I finished reading a book, no doubt a mystery, and I made an idle comment. “I’ve read so may of these, I could probably write one of my own.”
My husband said, “Well.”
Ha ha. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
He pushed me into a life of crime. Not because he thought I’d be good at it, but to give me something to do when I was curtailing physical activities and avoiding stress. Writing might avoid the physical part, unless you’re involved in rigorous research, but I don’t know how much stress is avoided. There is nothing scarier than a blank computer screen.
Miracle in Kansas
A few years ago, my siblings and I went back to Nortonville for the hundred year celebration of the church where our father was the minister for so many years. It was a very emotional day. A church service first with some BIG person HIGH up in the church who gave a sermon (which was boring and irritating and long).
After the service, there was a lunch in a parish hall. Lots of food, noise, and conversation. Many people looked at me and put a hand level with a knee. “I remember when you were this high!”
My older brothers and sisters remembered many more people that I did, but I recalled quite a few.
One man was talking with me and telling me how wonderful my father was. Caring and kind and always available to visit a parishioner in need.
“Reverend Kettner was the best we ever had here. I’ll never forget him.”
I smiled and was ready to walk on to talk with another person when he said. “He performed a miracle for us.”
“Yes. My wife. She was very sick. And she just slipped away.” His voice got thick. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Reverend Kettner pulled her back.”
“Pulled her back?”
He nodded. “I called for him. And, of course, he came immediately. She was in a coma. He looked at her and shook his head. He prayed, and then we prayed together.” He cleared his throat and shoved the handkerchief in his back pocket.
“Then he gave her communion.”
He smiled. “And, by God—Oh, excuse me. She came back! It was a miracle!”
Wow. My father created a miracle. How exciting was that?
Later, much later, after all the celebration was over, I told my brother about this. My brother, the psychiatrist. He laughed, and looked at me the way older brothers look at much younger sisters. “The woman was probably a diabetic. The sugar in the wine brought her back.”
The story was better when it was a miracle.