Arletta McIsaac, 1927—2012


Arletta Marie McIsaac, a lifelong nurse who brought her attentive touch to patients ranging from rural American Indian children to A-list Hollywood stars, passed away on July 11 in an auto accident. She was 85.

“She was just an amazing, wonderful, special person,” said her daughter, Loretta.

Arletta was born in 1927 in Toledo, Ohio and grew up with her two sisters and brother. Family members joked that not only was she an especially caring young girl, but that she wanted to be a nurse “pretty much since birth,” her daughter said.

That dream was fulfilled when she graduated from Case Western Reserve Nursing School with a Bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1948, and moved west to start her career on an Indian reservation in Hoopa, California, for the United States Public Health Service.

“She couldn’t get out of Ohio fast enough,” her daughter said with a laugh.

Once in Hoopa, Arletta met William J. Robertson, who was working as a maintenance man on the reservation. William was originally from Sonoma, and had left behind a large family in the Bay Area, including a gaggle of cousins in West Marin. He and Arletta fell in love and were married, and had their three children, Raymond, Loretta and William, while living on the reservation.

Present at their wedding was Robert’s first cousin Lorraine, and her husband, Donald McIsaac. The two families remained close. Every summer, the Robertsons traveled north to spend a month with the McIsaacs on their ranch in Tocaloma. Her children recalled months spent playing baseball with the five McIsaac boys, picking wild blackberries and taking trips to Bodega Bay.

In 1955, the Robertsons moved to Arizona, where William taught at Phoenix Indian School, a boarding school for American Indian high school students. Arletta—or “Artie” as she was known—continued working for the public health service for a time, driving 30 or 40 miles to remote reservations to hold health clinics. A certain Tuesday might be a well-baby clinic day for one community, and that Thursday could be a senior check-up day in another area far away.

Each summer, the family would return to Tocaloma and their good friends.

“She could really go with the flow. She was just one of those people who was just amazingly positive and helpful. She saw the good in everybody,” her daughter said.

After she retired, Arletta worked for a time as a private duty nurse. She was good at what she did, and in the early 1970s was asked to be the personal nurse for Ann Taylor, mother to actress Elizabeth Taylor. Arletta became close to the family, and when Richard Burton fell ill she became his personal nurse as well. The Taylor-Burton’s nicknamed her “Robbie,” and she even brought the elder Ms. Taylor up to the ranch at Tocaloma during her convalescence.

“You’re the worst nurse I have ever known,” joked Mr. Burton in a note to Arletta. “I wouldn’t take anybody else though. Much love, Richard B.”  

When her husband passed away in 1979, Arletta remained close with his family in Tocaloma, especially cousin Lorraine. The two women were fast friends, and took many trips together, including to Australia and New Zealand. In the early 1980s they went to New York City, where Loretta was working as a Broadway stage manager. They ate at famous Sardi’s Restaurant, and took pictures backstage with the stars of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” including Broadway legend Bernadette Peters.

“They saw something like nine Broadway shows that week. The crew just loved her,” Loretta remembered fondly.

When Loretta was married in 1992, it was Donald McIsaac who gave her away (Arletta sewed the wedding dress). And the following year, when Lorraine fell ill, it was Arletta who traveled to West Marin to help take care of her in her final year.

“Lorraine told Don that he should marry my mother after she passed away,” Loretta said. “But mom always dismissed the idea.” At Lorraine’s funeral, when Loretta asked her mother if she thought Don would ever remarry, she joked “God help the woman who marries that man!”

But just two years later, when she was 69 and Don was 79, that woman was her. Don’s son Ted McIsaac called up Loretta and said, “You know, I think something is going on between our parents!”

The two families were so close that it felt like a natural blending, and the children described the match as “perfect.”

The two lived happily together for 14 years, until Don’s passing. They lived part of the year in Arizona, and the rest in Tocaloma. They spent time in the mountains of Arizona, where they went fishing every day in the lake near their home, and they traveled to Hawaii each year on vacation. When driving between Arizona and California, the two would stop off in Laughlin, Nevada for some light gambling “just for fun.”
After Don passed away in 2010 from a hematoma resulting from a fall, his sons would call Arletta every Sunday to chat and check in.
She is remembered as being “everyone’s mom,” the lady you could always call for questions, with “a smile that never left her face.”

Arletta McIsaac is survived by her sister-in-law, Vesta Lund; her children, Raymond Robertson and his wife, Betsy; Loretta Robertson and her husband, Darrell Ziegler; William Robertson and his wife, Jann DuBois; her stepsons, Doug, Dave, Ted and Allan McIsaac; and her daughters-in-law, Marge, Mickey, Rhea and Nina; her grandchildren, Ray Robertson and his wife, Jenny; Steve Robertson and his wife, Rebecca; Sara and Jesse Robertson; and countless step grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.