Louise Dolcini, who for years taught at Marin’s only one-room schoolhouse in Hicks Valley, died on April 8 at 90 years old.
Louise, who raised six children with her late husband Peter, was a quiet, forthright, capable woman who gardened and loved the outdoors. She taught for many years at Lincoln School, whose students she took on wildflower and bird expeditions at the family ranch and elsewhere. She and Peter enjoyed traveling, taking Spanish lessons in Costa Rica, visiting cousins in Ireland, going with her sister Mary Ellen to Spain and taking a cruise to Alaska, curious about the wildlife there.
Born Elaine Louise Kiely to an Irish Catholic family in 1928, Louise grew up in Santa Clara in what her daughter Elaine described as a large Victorian house that sometimes took in boarders. Her parents owned a grocery store and her father was involved in city affairs, at one point serving as mayor. Louise was one of nine children.
“Louise was a shy person and I was very outgoing…So I was the boss,” her older sister Mary Ellen said of their youth.
One time, the two sisters helped raise money for a new club, the “What’s It” club, meant to provide a place for teens to hang out and have “clean fun” away from drugs. Mary Ellen decided that she would sing a popular song, which referred to various animals, while on a swing, managing to convince Louise to dress up like a fish and lay down on the stage. “Louise said, ‘I don’t know how you got me to do that,’” Mary Ellen said.
Mary Ellen also played a small role in Louise meeting—on a blind date—Peter Dolcini, born and raised in Hicks Valley and at the time a college student at the University of Santa Clara. When Peter arrived late, Mary Ellen, dressed up strangely in an old coat and curlers, opened the door and, pretending to be Louise for a few minutes, said she was all ready to go.
When Louise met her future husband in the early 1940s—she was just 15 years old at the time—many men were serving in World War II. But Peter couldn’t; his eyesight was so impaired that he was legally blind. (Louise’s daughter Carol noted that it was “kind of ironic” that they met on a blind date “because he had terrible eyesight.”) Instead, he earned a degree in chemistry, while Louise earned a teaching credential at San Jose State University.
Together the couple raised five daughters and one son. They spent years in the Bay Area, and then moved to Stockton for about a decade, where Peter helped run a “drive-through dairy,” which sold products made from Dolcini milk. The family raised Jersey cows, which, although smaller and less productive than Holsteins, make a flavor considered superior by many. Peter also ran an ice cream shop called the Gold Mine.
Louise raised the children and, as Carol noted, served as the family driver, due to Peter’s poor eyesight—remarkable at a time when it was men who typically drove.
Louise’s daughter Elaine recalled her mother driving the family to camping trips around the West—Santa Cruz, the Grand Canyon, Lassen, Zion, the Sierras and more—experiences that cultivated a love of camping that, for her, continues to this day. The six kids slept in the tent while Louise and Peter slept under the stars.
Her mother’s style, Carol went on, was being “quietly in charge.”
“She ran a tight ship,” Carol recalled of her mother. “You had no doubt that everything was taken care of. If Louise was in charge, things were going to be fine.”
She was always honest, seemingly unable to lie. If a subject was difficult to talk about—or if perhaps something had been said “in haste”—her mother would write a letter. “All of us had letters from her, or from her and Dad,” Carol said. No letter was ever co-written, though; instead, they might each write separate letters about the subject at hand. To reply, one did not call. “You would write back…Sometimes in writing, you understand things differently,” Carol explained.
In 1967, the family moved to Hicks Valley, where life was quite different, especially for the children, who had never lived in such a rural place, and for Louise, who knew no one. From the family home—not far from the house where Peter grew up—it was four miles down a dirt road just to get the mail, according to an interview Peter and Louise gave in 2012 as part of the Story Shed, a project created by Jacoba Charles with funding from the Marin Media Institute. When the family first moved, the home had no television and no telephone, Carol recalled. The only source of heat was a fireplace in the living room.
Peter worked with his brothers to operate the family dairy for three or four years, but then they sold the dairy and switched to beef.
For Louise, the move to West Marin was not easy. Although Louise was a relatively quiet person, she liked to socialize, enjoying bridge and tennis with friends. Hicks Valley was remote.
“It was a pretty big change,” she recalled during the Story Shed interview. “You know, you’re not really one of the community at all. I mean they know who you are and they’ll wave to you, but…you’re just sort of nobody.”
Not long after the move, one of the family’s hardest struggles arose: the couple’s oldest daughter developed a debilitating mental illness, Louise’s greatest sorrow in life.
When a new opportunity arose for Louise—a teaching position at Lincoln School, which served students from kindergarten to sixth grade—it helped her cope. “When you start teaching, you don’t think about anything else,” noted Louise, who started work at 7 a.m. and taught till the late afternoon.
She told Ms. Charles that the position filled “a great social need.”
Peter agreed: “She was a foreigner to the area,” he told Ms. Charles. “That’s very difficult because people are quite staid in their ways, and somebody that comes from somewhere else is usually held at arm’s length. Well, they sent their children to the school, and [the children] fell in love with the teacher. And the parents then fell in love with the teacher, so it was a lovely amalgamation that took place.”
To many people, the idea of a one-room schoolhouse seems strange and anachronistic. Sam Dolcini, Louise’s nephew and her student in the 1980s, recalled the collaboration among students and the one-on-one attention they received that can be rare in larger schools.
In the Story Shed interview, Louise said it was “hard to describe” how the one-room schoolhouse was different. The school day was slightly staggered—the younger kids arrived first, in the middle of the day all of students were present, and near the end of the day, the older kids had an hour to themselves. Like Sam, she said “the younger ones learn from the older ones,” and that “somehow or other, you cover all the curriculum.”
Soon after Louise took the job, a new teacher’s aide began helping her with her busy workload: Peter, who had actually attended Lincoln School in the 1930s. The former aide apparently had quit during the war-time gas shortage. And Peter had less work at the time, as beef ranching was less time-consuming than running the former dairy.
The two of them, according to family members, were a perfect duo in the classroom, just as in life. “Between the two of them, they could cover every subject,” Elaine said.
Peter loved children, and with his chemistry background, he could easily handle upper-grade science, while Louise had an aptitude for English and grammar. A bookmobile sometimes brought books to the school. They both loved bird watching and wildflowers, and they took students on hikes—often on their own ranch, which they privately called the “los flores wilderness area in el valle de los flores” and where they carefully documented their property’s many species.
“As a teacher she was really very patient,” Sam said. “She had a great way of sharing her passion for the outdoors with her students.”
Louise is survived by her sisters Mary Ellen, Patricia and Peggy; her brother Thomas; her six children, Lucille, Thomas, Marilyn, Carol, Elaine and Barbara; 13 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.