CALISTOGA-- Virginia Dooley, a petite woman with lovely white gray hair and a cheery smile, welcomed me inside her cozy California bungalow on Maggie Avenue in Calistoga, the first week of May.
She moved about the kitchen on steady feet as she poured coffee and put together a spread of cookies. At 99 years old, Dooley is living proof that aging doesn’t have to be viewed as a losing battle. Between her mind and body, she says she feels about two decades younger.
Dooley attributes her long life to a healthy lifestyle — she doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol (except for an occasional rum and Coke). But after spending the evening with her, it’s clear that other factors play a vital role too: her positivity, generosity and affection for others.
Dooley has been a fixture in Calistoga for 63 years. She is best known for being a teacher at Monticello Elementary School for four years and St. Helena Elementary School for 21 years. Since then, she’s been an active member of the community; she volunteers for civic and religious organizations and is a member of many local clubs.
Dooley was born on Nov. 7, 1919. She grew up in a quiet neighborhood outside of downtown San Francisco. As a young girl, she used to race through dinner so she could play with the neighbors before dark.
“We played in the big sand dunes by the ocean, which are long gone now,” she said. “We roller-skated on the sidewalks and we played a lot of kick-the-can too. The best times were when the iceman came around. All the kids would run out to see him because bits of ice would fly off when he chiseled blocks for each family. It was like an ice cream truck but it was just ice.”
Dooley had a steady boyfriend when she went to the State Teachers College in 1940.
“I was lucky, I didn’t need to worry about dances or getting to school,” she said. “My boyfriend was cool, he had a car. But he was kind of like a big brother. He was a very good dancer, that’s why I liked him. But I didn’t feel like marrying him.”
When I asked her how she knew her late husband Jess was the one, she waved her hands and exclaimed, “BANG!”
The first time Dooley went to visit Jess, she learned how to milk a cow and make butter and cream. He lived in the countryside near Susanville.
“I remember reading certain books, certain sexy-type books. I wondered, what do they mean they fall in love like that? Well, then I did.”
They met at Camp Roberts while Dooley was on summer vacation; she had just finished her first year of teaching first grade at the Ambrose School in Pittsburg in Contra Costa County. She and Jess dated for a year and married in the summer of 1942. Their first of five children, Georgie, was born in 1943.
When they were first together, Jess studied to be a teacher like Dooley. He completed two years of college when the military drafted him in the Army's Field Artillery, where he fought in France on D-Day, Belgium and Germany. She looked at me inquisitively. “Do you know about D-Day?”
Once the war was over, Jess returned home. They moved around for a few years — Susanville, Sebastopol, Santa Rosa. They had three more children: Nancy, Bobby and Donnie.
In Ukiah, Jess received an emergency credential to teach at a one-teacher school with Dooley. They put a divider in the middle of the classroom so she could teach grades one through three and he could teach grades four through eight. After the winter, they moved to Monticello and taught there before the town was razed to create Lake Berryessa. The government moved the whole town out and they finally landed in Calistoga in 1956.
After the Dooleys made their final move to Calistoga, daughter Janice was born at St. Helena Hospital.
It was a happy move for the family. Dooley began teaching at St. Helena Elementary School, where she stayed for the next 21 years. She loved her career; the third and fourth grades were her favorite to teach. Dooley still stays in touch with many of her former students and knows where life has taken many of them.
“My little Tim is in charge of Mondavi. Do you know that winery?”
Greg Hunter, who was taught by Dooley in the fourth grade, told me, “Mrs. Dooley, like numerous Napa Valley wines, has aged well, and she continues to have a positive impact.”
As Dona Bakker’s fourth-grade teacher, Dooley became an integral part of her life.
“I was taken under Mrs. Dooley’s wing,” Bakker said. “She genuinely felt sorry for me because I had lost my mother and was living with my grandparents. She became somewhat of a surrogate mother to me that entire year. She was so gentle and kind, just what I needed at such a traumatic time in my young life. Mrs. Dooley kept in regular contact with me throughout high school and even to this day.”
After her retirement, Virginia devoted herself to the community. She volunteered at the Respite Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Sharpsteen Museum, the American Legion Auxiliary, Friends of the Library, the Community Presbyterian Church, and she’s a member of the Pinochle Club, the Travel Trailer Club, and a Garden Club. Between school, church and the wider community, Dooley has an abundance of friends and family who keep her connected.
Several of her adult children live in Napa Valley too. Dooley stays busy with her 12 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren. Her home is decorated with hundreds of family photographs.
Dooley still goes to church every Sunday. Years ago, she would hop from service to service.
“Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, et cetera. I used to go to my friend’s church at 10 a.m. to see liturgical dancing. Then at 11 a.m., I would run down the street for the service at The Green Church. Maybe that’s why the Lord has helped me live this long.”
Dooley stays in touch with friends who are suffering from infirmities. Her friend Betty, for example, can’t eat or walk on her own, so Virginia sends cards and stops in once a week.
“Maybe that’s what the Lord has given me, time with Betty,” she said.
During the interview, Dooley never dwelled on the hard times or the sad times. Instead, she put a positive spin on everything, even on outliving her youngest sister and her husband.
“It is hard. But then I picture them in a heavenly place without pain,” she said.
Dooley’s marriage lasted for 71 years and they only had “three or four big arguments” their entire life together. When asked about long-lasting love, she said, “You have to cooperate, you have to get along and find a happy medium. For one thing, my husband was just a good man.”
The rest of the evening we chatted and played cards like we were old friends. When I finally looked at the time, I realized I had been there for three hours. I asked Dooley for any final advice to give our readers.
She said, “Spread love, not hate. Accept things as they happen. Have faith and courage. Be loving, be forgiving, and remember the happy times.”