Barbara Rothwell, a single mother whose working hands held several jobs to support to her family, died on December 5 in a car wreck on Highway One near her home in Bolinas. She was 48.
She was pronounced dead by county paramedics after volunteer firefighters, including members of Bolinas, Stinson Beach and Point Reyes fire departments, pulled her from her black BMW found against a tree at the bottom of a 15-foot ravine about a half mile north of Olema-Bolinas Road. She was returning from a visit to her mother, who was recovering from an illness at Marin General Hospital.
The cause of the accident, which occurred around 8 p.m., is under investigation by authorities with the California Highway Patrol and the county coroner’s office, which is awaiting the results of a toxicology test. Authorities indicated drowsiness as a possible cause.
The wreck involved her 7-year-old son, John Rene Rothwell-Martin, who was treated for minor injuries after narrowly escaping the wreck. He now is in the care of his father, Scott Martin, and his wife, Kori, of Redwood City.
Barbara’s death has gripped many in and around her hometown of Bolinas, where she was known as “Barbie” by longtime friends and colleagues who saw her as a core part of the tight-knit social fabric of the town. “In Bolinas,” said Alex Horvath, who grew up with Barbie after moving to Bolinas as a
child in the 1960’s, “everyone’s like extended family.”
Mr. Horvath now lives in Rohnert Park, though he often rendezvoused with Barbie when visiting Bolinas. He is one of many childhood friends who now are scattered across the county and region. “This was like losing a sister,” Mr. Horvath, an advertising manager for online news service Patch, added. “It was a punch in the gut for everybody.”
Barbie was not afraid of hard work. She was resourceful, jugging a range of odd jobs to try to support her son and mother, Mary Rothwell, for whom she cared before she was admitted into the hospital after falling ill. Ms. Rothwell, 86, was released earlier this week to an outpatient care center in Larkspur.
Barbie worked some days as a handywoman at Bolinas Bay Lumber and Landscape, where she often was seen loading gravel into trucks with a forklift and explaining to customers how to use certain tools and other merchandise. By night, she sometimes was found tending bar at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, where she worked on and off since the early 1990’s.
“Everything was part time and full time for Barbie,” Don Deane, owner of Smiley’s, said. “If she was on board, she would give it her all.”
Barbie also ran a housecleaning business called “Sweeping Beauties,” through which she gained a reputation as a reliable worker.
“She was always in survival mode—she had a tough life,” said Cathy Scheezer, a landscaper and bookkeeper who went to school with Barbie at what is now Bolinas-Stinson Union School District. “She didn’t want to depend on anybody; she would just learn it.”
Ms. Scheezer, who has lived in Cazadero for more than 20 years, routinely visited Barbie on trips to Bolinas, where she last saw her friend offering horseback lessons during a downtown festival, dressed as a cowgirl. “She was a go-getter,” Ms. Scheezer said, adding that Barbie was planning to earn a welding license. “She would just do anything that interested her.”
Her ambition was acknowledge by B.G. Bates, a local realtor for whom Barbie occasionally cleaned and decorated homes entering the housing market. “Barbie could do anything,” Ms. Bates said.
But the challenges she faced as a single mother brought little respite.
Barbie was a part of what Ms. Bates called a “sandwich generation,” in which parents are saddled with caring for their children and aging parents. “I had a hard time doing that,” she said, “and I had a parent to help me out.”
Nonetheless, Ms. Bates added, Barbie maintained a level of vigor that helped her rise above hardship. “She made a great life for herself, for her little boy and for her mom,” she said.
Her resolute persona made her death difficult to fathom for many locals, including Robin Bradford, who co-owns the hardware store where Barbie worked part time for the past year.
In a tribute published last week in the Hearsay News, Ms. Bradford described Barbie as “seemingly indestructible and never out of energy,” adding later by phone that her “strong personality” was apparent when she entered a room.
She was outspoken, Ms. Bradford said, known for her stern views on outsiders moving to Bolinas, where locals have grappled with a certain amount of gentrification that has caused a rise in housing prices.
In an article in 2000 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Barbie is quoted describing the prospect of Martha Stewart moving to Bolinas—which did not happen—as “pretty lame.”
“I dare her,” she was quoted as saying outside of Smiley’s.
“She was a tough, tough cookie,” said David Duffin, who spent time with Barbie during her childhood, when he ran an educational motorcycle program at the school—from which she eventually received a diploma. “But she was the sweetest person at the same time.”
Her generosity touched many locals.
“She was hard-wired to give,” Ms. Bradford said, recalling Barbie bringing into work homemade meals like French toast and at times offering to take customers to her nearby home to search for merchandise not found in the store. “She was not at all afraid about putting her hat in the ring.”
Barbie’s determination to bring prosperity to her family, while maintaining a relationship with her son’s father, drew admiration from childhood friend Angie Calpestri, also a single mother who runs an accounting business in Bolinas.
“She didn’t let things get in her way,” she said.
Barbie’s resilience is now embodied in her son who, after emerging from the wreckage Wednesday night with cuts and bruises, walked about a mile and a half through the fog-covered woods to a ranch. There, he notified authorities about the
accident. “That’s what Barb would’ve done, if she would’ve been in that situation,” Ms. Bradford said.
Ms. Bates agreed. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”