By Teri Baker
From the time she was little, Nellie Robertson has been enchanted with the way words could bring color and drama to life. Her father wrote wonderfully descriptive letters and read them to her, instilling in her a desire to write that has never diminished.
At age 12 she went door-to-door “getting the news,” rushed back to her grandmother’s house to write the stories, then produced a “newspaper” that kept the neighbors informed and entertained. In high school she wrote short stories and worked part time at the library. Author of Monroe: The First 50 Years, Nellie maintains, “I’ve always written. I probably always will.”
Another skill, conducting meetings, eventually brought her into the life of Bill Robertson. They met through a citizens band radio organization while Nellie, a certified teacher of parliamentary law, was working on the group’s bylaws. The Robertsons, who have been married 30 years, moved to Monroe in 1972, and a year later, Nellie began her career at The Monroe Monitor. She started out composing ads, but within two weeks was writing a recipe column. “I hate recipes,” she confides, adding that while she admires the culinary skills of others, she finds cooking “quite boring,” and was “much happier describing it than doing it.”
Her duties soon included writing the “social page.” A feature about a pilot earned her a bonus and was so well remembered that for years Nellie was known as “the girl who went flying.” When Bill took a job in Petersburg, Alaska, in 1976, Nellie went to work for The Petersburg Pilot as feature writer, typesetter and circulation manager rolled into one. “It was an incredible experience,” she says. “The messy, physical work of producing a newspaper was offset by the joy of writing.”
The couple moved to Dillingham, Alaska, where Nellie managed the dock for the city and was office manager for a couple who owned five diverse businesses: a hotel, hardware and lumber store, restaurant, marina and fur buying operation. She also taught parliamentary law for the University of Alaska. On a lark, she agreed to run for mayor against two men, both lifelong residents of Dillingham. She says she didn’t really care if she won until the radio station had a debate, and her opponents called her a politician.
“I was outraged,” she recalls. “I told them the only reason I was running was because I knew how to conduct the meetings.” Voters, tired of the haphazard way city meetings were held, responded by electing her outright in the primary. Dillingham lost its new mayor eight months later when Bill’s health forced him to resign as head of maintenance for the school district, and the couple returned to Monroe, where they still owned a home.
In 1982 Nellie found herself back at The Monitor, where she remained until she retired ten years later with five writing awards to her credit. She wrote a lot about local history, started a health page and wrote a column called “Nellie’s Knick Knacks.” She says, “I always included people. That’s what I think newspapers are all about.”
While her fiction is based on historical events, Nellie’s book about Monroe, Monroe: The First 50 Years, is a factual, chronological account of that city’s beginnings. Filled with information and insights into everyday life on farms, in mills and logging camps, along the river, etc. Attitudes about business, civic responsibility, education, social life and morality are recorded, as are accounts of community celebrations, church news, “current” fashions, entertainment and sports.
“I wrote the book because it had never been done, and I felt it needed to be,” Nellie says. “It soon became apparent that I couldn’t do the entire history, so I decided to do the first fifty years. The Monroe Historical Society kindly let me keep their film and reader here at the house, or it would have taken me forever to get this written. As it was, it took four years.”
Nellie says she enjoyed the research, but “had the most fun including vignettes that make it human.” She writes of Sam the Hugger, so named for breaking into homes to hug the lady of the house before dashing out again, and Louisa Smallman, a pioneer who successfully fought off claim jumpers, but jumped up on a table whenever she saw a mouse.
These days, Nellie concentrates on writing fiction four hours a day. Careful to maintain a balance in her life, she plays computer games while she eats lunch, cross-stitches designs on sweatshirts and spends as much time as she can.
For Nellie, the accolades that meant most came from her husband and children. A warm smile spreads over her face as she tells of a speech her daughter gave before a service organization. The message that age should not make a difference was focused on “the best mom in the world, Nellie E. Robertson, who published a book shortly before her seventieth birthday.”
Nellie’s writer’s mind is always seeing possibilities, always figuring out the best way to string words together. It is part of who she is – and part of the world her father showed her when she was just a little girl.
Nellie Robertson now lives in Olympia Washington and is still writing. She has since completed Monroe: The Next Thirty Years, Kathryn’s Courage, Wellington Wisdom and its sequel, Beyond Wellington. Even though she decided that “Discoveries” wouldn’t sell that well she had it printed rather than published, selling out twice. Her newest book is titled “Hannah.” For more about her see the Monroe Historical Society page.
Source: Interview with Nellie E. Robertson, 1997 and 2006.
© 1997 – 2006 Theresa A. (Teri) Baker, All Rights Reserved