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15 Nov 2002

Source: The Hartford Courant, December 30, 2001.

The Story Of 'A Genteel Lady'

Ottilie Lundgren's Very Private Life And Very Public Death

By MARYELLEN FILLO, Courant Staff Writer

Weeks before her death (case 23), 94-year-old Ottilie Pauline Wilkie Lundgren reminded her niece, Shirley Davis, that when she died she wanted to be dressed for her wake in the pastel peignoir set that had been a special gift from her late husband, Carl.

But the Oxford resident's last wishes could not be carried out because, in the frenzied aftermath of her death Nov. 21, no wake was held. The woman who had survived the worst the 20th century had to offer - two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, polio epidemics - died of inhalation anthrax amid a nationwide alarm over acts of biological terrorism using anthrax-tainted mail.

Exactly how Lundgren contracted the deadly disease remains a mystery, but the most plausible explanation is that cross-contaminated mail was delivered to her Edgewood Road home earlier in the month.

Besieged by national and international media, Lundgren's family also had to contend with the time-consuming and maddeningly inconclusive investigation into the cause of her death. Most distressing was the official assault upon Lundgren's carefully nurtured privacy. Investigators stormed into her once-pristine home, removing precious personal belongings, including photos and knickknacks, and leaving behind a disrupted household and a barrel-strewn yard.

Hers was a very public death, the end of the very private and independent life of a well-mannered, stylish Waterbury native who chose a career over marriage long before it was fashionable. As a young woman in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, she was a legal secretary and office manager. She sailed to Europe in the mid-1940s on the Queen Elizabeth, tended her own apartment in Waterbury and, when she wasn't working, spent hours reading. A voracious reader even at 94, she enjoyed everything from history and art books to her favorite genre, mystery fiction.

Ottilie Pauline Wilkie bucked tradition again when she married at 52. In her later years, after nursing her well-known husband, attorney Carl Lundgren, during his ultimately fatal battle with multiple sclerosis, she lived a quiet life filled with her faith, a few close friends and family members.

"Her life was an amazing one, given all that she had seen," said Davis, the 71-year-old niece who for years had watched over and cared for the woman many described as "gracious."

"She was always a lady and always kind," Davis said. "But her privacy was very important to her. Her business was her business and if she wanted you to know something, she'd tell you."

The youngest of six children, Ottilie Wilkie was born July 10, 1907, to Gottleib and Pauline Wilkie in Waterbury. She was a student at Mary Abbot School, a former neighborhood public school, when in 1918 the Spanish flu pandemic struck down thousands in Connecticut, including 500 in her hometown.

The 1924 Wilby Annual, the yearbook for Wilby High School, includes a picture of the stunning Ottilie Wilkie, tall and slim with carefully coifed hair. The write-up reflects a slightly vain young woman, who, for the yearbook, changed her middle name from "Pauline" to "Paula" to appear more sophisticated.

"She told us how she would walk to school and stop at a little store to change from her boots to her shoes because she didn't like wearing the boots into school," said Peg Crowther, who with her husband, Bill, had been Lundgren's closest friends in recent years.

She refused to confess her future plans to the yearbook. "Ottilie opened her expressive eyes on July 18 but just like any woman - she wouldn't give us the year," the yearbook reads. "She wouldn't tell us what she intends to do or be in the future." But, like any teenager, she had her crushes. "Ottilie always loved the teacher in room 11," the yearbook confides. "Guess the rest."

While she did not share her plans for the future with her classmates, the then-expected course of marriage, children and domesticity was not what the young woman had in mind. Instead, she began working in the 1920s at a Waterbury law firm, Carmody, Perkins and Torrance, now known as Carmody and Torrance. She honed her business skills and continued to educate herself on a variety of topics, ranging from world issues to the law.

"Oh, I remember that when we would visit Grandma and Grandpa Wilkie's, we were told, `Don't you bother Ottilie. She's reading,'" Davis recalled. "It wasn't that Ottilie was uppity - just that she was always wanting to better herself."

Fashion and traveling were among the few luxuries she enjoyed, according to her friends.

"She liked quality in things and was very fashion-conscious. Always went out in a dress or suit with coordinating jewelry and shoes," Peg Crowther said. "She had a watch with two bands and went to the jeweler's twice a year to have them changed to coordinate with the season. White for between Memorial Day and Labor Day, black for between Labor Day and Memorial Day."

There were several trips abroad, including one to Europe during which she attended a session of the League of Nations.

She and her sister, Emma, shared an apartment in Waterbury which, according to Davis, was meticulous and tastefully decorated, reflecting Lundgren's good taste and attention to detail.

After working for years at the private law firm, she left for the Connecticut Unemployment Commission office. Her boss was her future husband, Carl Lundgren, who was appointed to the post in 1943 by Raymond E. Baldwin, the Republican governor at the time.

Ottilie Wilkie closely followed news of World War II.

"She hated the wars, and the people whose lives would never be the same because of them," Davis said.

She participated in the country's rationing program, bought war bonds and volunteered in church and civic efforts, sending letters and holiday cards or care packages to members of the armed services.

It would be a few years before her professional relationship with Carl Lundgren blossomed into a romance, but when she announced plans to marry, even those who were close to her, including a new boss, were surprised.

"I didn't even know they were dating seriously," said Thomas Condon, who succeeded Carl Lundgren in the appointed post.

"We were extremely surprised," Davis said, recalling her aunt's announcement at the time. "We didn't even know she was dating."

Although Condon was a staunch Democrat who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Abraham Ribicoff, he held on to Lundgren as the office manager.

"She was an incredible woman, bright, articulate, organized, amazingly good at her job," Condon said. "And her devotion to her husband once they were married was incredible. He was lucky to have her."

That devotion is mentioned by virtually everyone who knew the couple after they married in April 1960. Following a small, private wedding, the two honeymooned on a Caribbean cruise, the first of many they took during their marriage.

"Oh, they were made for each other," said Ottilie Lundgren's sister-in-law, Irene Lundgren, who lives in California. "They were both very taciturn, didn't waste words or mince them. They were both private, but madly in love. You could tell."

Davis said Lundgren never appeared happier than during her marriage. To Lundgren, love was about the heart. Material things mattered little, although the two enjoyed a comfortable life.

"When they got married, Carl gave her a simple gold wedding band. A year later, he insisted he wanted to her have a diamond one even though she kept saying the gold one was all she wanted," Davis said. "Ottilie gave in and wore that diamond band along with the gold band, but she told me that when she died, she wanted to be buried with him, and that the gold ring should be buried with her."

Soon after their marriage, Carl Lundgren's multiple sclerosis worsened. His wife's life was about to change again.

"She was an angel, an absolute angel when it came to Carl," said James C. Lyons, who was a young attorney when he joined Carl Lundgren's firm in the 1962. Although Carl was beginning to struggle because of the disease, he was able to continue his practice because of his wife.

"She would come to work with him every day once he went from canes to crutches to barely walking," Lyons said. "She would bring a book, sit in a chair in the lobby, and tend to his needs so he could continue to work.

"And it wasn't easy for her. Carl was proud and the disease, well it was difficult for him. But Ottilie would never let his mood fluster her. She always had a smile, was totally dutiful to him and never betrayed any sense of distress. There are no words for what she went through and the way she carried out her responsibility."

Many said her religious beliefs provided the strength she needed in life. A devout and dependable member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Oxford, Lundgren was described as a person who knew the difference between right and wrong - and lived it.

"She was a genteel lady who recognized her own shortcomings," recalled the Rev. Edward W. Sproul, who served as church pastor about 10 years ago. "She was not flashy or flamboyant, but let me know each Sunday if she liked the sermon or not. She came from a lifelong Lutheran family, so church was important. She would sometimes say something that could be construed as judgmental, would catch herself and quickly say, `I shouldn't have said that.'"

Ottilie Lundgren was 70 when her husband died. By then, she was also losing some of her dearest friends, but she was making new ones, thanks to a swimming class at the Naugatuck YMCA. Several of those older women were enrolled in a therapeutic class for people suffering from arthritis. While they took the class, Lundgren swam laps. Their weekly athletic outings soon developed into special occasions and special friendships.

"Oh, how I miss seeing her," said Beulah Renker, the Republican registrar of voters in Oxford and a former seamstress who met Lundgren more than 30 years ago, when she needed clothes altered. The two hit it off, and soon the business relationship became a friendship.

"She was one of the kindest women I ever knew," Renker said. "And so practical. I made drapes for her bedroom probably 30 years ago. She still had them hanging in there, insisting that they still looked good so why change them."

Renker used to meet Lundgren for lunch every Tuesday and Friday. The two were also among a group of 13 women who got together once a month at a local restaurant or home to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion.

"Ottilie was always at the head of the table when we got together," Renker said, trying not to cry. "When we met a couple of weeks ago, someone else sat there. It felt funny."

Friends and relatives agree that if Lundgren had one regret, it was that she never had children.

"She was so attentive to children, in a real way, not just in a tolerant way," said Cathy LaFrance, secretary at Immanuel Lutheran Church "She wrote poetry and always asked us how school was going. There was no finer lady."

Davis said many people did not realize the inner strength her aunt possessed and how, at an age when many people expect to be cared for, Lundgren was still trying to care for others.

"She may have slowed down some, but she was appreciative of every nice thing anyone did for her," Davis said. "And she was a shoulder to cry on. When my husband passed away, she told me, `If you need to cry, I'll cry with you. I know what you are going through.'"

Relatives and friends feel the loss of a woman who once worked as a hospital volunteer, loved the color green, always tore her mail in half before throwing it away, was outraged at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

She was keenly aware that her life would not go on forever. It is the freakish nature of her death that has made it so difficult to absorb.

"It's not right that she died the way she did," said Sproul, who now works for the New York Synod in Syracuse. "But you can't get angry over a 94-year-old dying. She had a good life and she knew it."