Olga Cleveland, a World War II refugee who worked hard to make a better life for her family as a Sacramento waitress, died July 24 at 79.
She died of complications from emphysema and congestive heart failure in Ocala, Fla., where she had lived since 2010, said her son George.
Mrs. Cleveland was divorced with four children and little money when she moved her family from Panama to California in 1976. She planned to settle in San Jose but ran out of gas in Sacramento, where she landed a job at Del Paso Country Club.
For more than 25 years, she waited tables and became a favorite among the club's influential members and guests. She knew broadcasting personalities Stan Atkinson and Rush Limbaugh and members of the Niello and Hubacher auto magnate families.
She went home after work and told her kids about meeting actors Gary Collins and George C. Scott. She charmed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who promised to give her a personal tour of the U.S. Supreme Court if she ever visited Washington. (She never did.)
"She was a very nice lady," Richard Niello Sr. said. "She was very well liked by all the members of the club. When she did leave, we missed her."
Mrs. Cleveland left in 1989 to live in Kansas. She returned to Sacramento in 1993 and went back to work at Del Paso Country Club until she retired by 2008.
"She loved it there, and she had a lot of friends," her son said. "My mom was always a hard worker. She didn't have a lot of money. She'd always been poor."
The former Olga Madorny learned about hardship as a child in war-torn Europe, where political upheaval in the Soviet Union clouded her early history. She was believed to have been born on Jan. 1, 1937, in Belarus, where her father was suspected of opposing the Soviet government. She fled persecution with her parents and sister during the German invasion in 1941, only to be captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a labor camp in Leipzig.
She later recalled the terrible conditions during the war, including constant hunger that was eased occasionally by "good Germans" who sneaked food to her family.
"For the rest of her life, the way she showed love was to always feed you or get you to eat," her son said. "She didn't want you to be hungry."
Fearing Soviet rule after the war, Mrs. Cleveland's father smuggled the family out of East Germany to the U.S. occupation zone in Augsberg, Germany. She taught herself German and English and met an American GI, Walter Cleveland. They married in the 1950s, had a family and lived in the United States, Venezuela and Panama before the marriage ended in divorce.
Mrs. Cleveland raised her children in Carmichael. She was proud that all served in the military, including her eldest son, Charles, a lieutenant general and commander of Army Special Operations at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"She was fiercely patriotic," George Cleveland said. "They didn't have anything in postwar Germany, and the GIs gave them chocolate and candy. She always said, 'The soldiers were our heroes.' "
Mrs. Cleveland is survived by her children Charles of Fort Bragg, N.C., Debbie Johnson of Ocala, Fla., Jim of Sierra Vista, Ariz., and George of Gilbert, Ariz.; a sister, Nina Miller of Panama; 12 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A service is set for 10 a.m. Aug. 12 at Good Shepherd Memorial Gardens, 5050 S.W. 20th St., Ocala, Fla.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.