On her 90th birthday earlier this year, Della Ann Wathen wore a glamorously sequined red dress, sparkly high heels and a tiara as she danced, smiled and celebrated with her friends and family.
“We always said she wasn’t your average 90-year-old,” her daughter, Shelley Cox, said. “She could do it all. She could look like a million dollars, and she could also put on her jeans and work shirt and be just like anyone else.”
Mrs. Wathen, who died Tuesday, is remembered as a symbol of Fresno’s history – someone who was in touch with the community and people around her, someone with impeccable style and a knack for hard work.
As the matriarch of the Wathen family, she took over as the CEO of Wathen Family Builders after the death of her husband, Spalding Gabriel Wathen, 11 years ago.
Spalding Wathen left his mark on Fresno’s landscape, from building houses after World War II for young veterans starting families to developing entire neighborhoods and opening Cedar Lanes bowling alley.
At 79 years old, Mrs. Wathen stepped into the business world with a high school education, little direct experience in the field and her famously big personality to keep the family business going, Cox said.
“She did something pretty miraculous,” said her youngest daughter, Cindy Wathen-Kennedy. “It’s such a complex world now, and she just stepped in and did it.”
Fresno’s historic amusement park, Storyland, was largely coordinated and funded by Spalding Wathen in 1962 but had to close its doors for a few months in 2015 because of low revenue. When it reopened in September 2015, Cindy Wathen-Kennedy remembered riding the train with her mother, who was so touched that the community had come together to bring the park back.
Mrs. Wathen was active in the community throughout her life, working with charities and organizations such as Infant of Prague, a nonprofit devoted to adoption services.
She had that beauty and glamor and style and charm that was just a part of Fresno’s history, and she carried that with her all of her life.
Cindy Wathen-Kennedy, daughter
Mrs. Wathen was born Feb. 6, 1926, in Clovis to Anna Meisetschlager Riebschlager and Anton Riebschlager, who were peach farmers, Cindy Wathen-Kennedy said.
She married her high school sweetheart, Spalding Wathen, in June 1945, then headed to Florida, where her husband was stationed during World War II.
Mrs. Wathen was known for big smile and charm – friends said she could talk to anyone about anything, in contrast with her husband’s quiet personality.
She played tennis, liked to be social and had a talent for needlepoint, said her 77-year-old friend, Faye Wearin.
Wearin and Mrs. Wathen were part of a friend group called “The Birthday Girls,” which Wearin described as “18 gals” who got together to celebrate about every month with a lunch or dinner party.
“Della was the oldest,” Wearin said. “We always looked up to her; she was just fabulous. She always said what kept her young was having younger friends.”
Cox also mentioned her mother’s younger crowd, saying that no one her mother’s age could have kept up with her. She always had plans, trips and things to do.
For Mrs. Wathen’s 90th birthday on Feb. 6, Wearin helped coordinate the gifts: Every month, one of her friends or family members would pick an activity and take Mrs. Wathen out to celebrate.
Della Ann Wathen
▪ Born: Feb. 6, 1926.
▪ Died: July 19, 2016.
▪ Education: Graduated from St. John’s High School, attended business school.
▪ Employment: CEO of Wathen Family Builders.
▪ Other: Member of the Candlelight Guild; Infant of Prague; the mothers’ club of San Joaquin Memorial; and St. Anthony’s.
▪ Family: Preceded in death by her husband, Spalding Gabriel Wathen. Five daughters: Judy Wathen-Farris, Shelley Cox, Leslie Casillas, Terry Lombardi, Cindy Wathen-Kennedy.
▪ Services: There will be a rosary recitation at Whitehurst Sullivan Burns & Blair Chapel on Tuesday, July 26, at 7 p.m., and a service at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church on Wednesday, July 27, at 10 a.m., with interment at St. Peter’s Cemetery.