History buff’s bequest a boon to local institutions

Frances Pendleton didn’t build any skyscrapers. You won’t find her name on the masthead of a big corporation. She never ran for office.

Pendleton was a public school drama and English teacher in Sacramento whose estate fit into a tidy ranch-style home with a single rosebush on the front lawn. Her collection of antiquities included a few old cameras, some tea sets and enough beaded necklaces to cover a dining room table.

With only a small circle of dear friends and no surviving relatives left to mourn her death in 2011 at the age of 82, Pendleton asked that nearly one-third of her modest wealth be given to the institutions she cherished, those dedicated to preserving the history of Sacramento. After her home in Greenhaven was sold and her estate settled, those donations eclipsed $80,000.

Last week, the City Council accepted $13,359 bequeathed from the estate to be given to the Old City Cemetery, where Pendleton spent nearly 20 years leading tours and dressing in homemade garb as British royalty and city founders. Now her headstone sits among the tall pines not far from graves and mausoleums inscribed with the names of the powerful men and women who built this city: Crocker, Hopkins and Sutter.

Pendleton’s gift appears to be the largest private donation the cemetery has ever received and is equal to more than 15 percent of the facility’s budget. The money will be used to make badly needed repairs to burial plots, many of which date back to the 1800s and are maintained by prison crews and volunteers.

“Isn’t that the ambassador of goodwill that we all should strive to be?” said the cemetery’s director, Liz Brenner.

Pendleton, an avid baseball historian, also left nearly $27,000 to the Sacramento County Historical Society; its members said they think it’s the largest private donation made to the organization in at least 25 years. Pendleton helped write a newsletter for the group, which is preparing to publish a book she started on local baseball.

Another $27,000 will be given to the Sacramento room of the downtown public library, where Pendleton and a close friend spent hours researching the city’s historical figures. She also left the library her vast collection of photos, books and yearbooks from city schools. Some of the money she donated will fund an intern who will work on digitizing library records, making them more accessible to the public.

And finally, the Crocker Art Museum is set to receive a little over $13,000. Pendleton was a member of the museum for three decades. She had an affinity for the institution’s founding family, expressed by her dramatic impersonations of Margaret Crocker, whose donation of the family’s collection and gallery are the centerpieces of the city’s premiere art institution.

“It’s people like her that make our world better,” said Kerry Wood, the museum’s director of advancement. “They maybe don’t have a lot, but they support the organizations they care about anyway.”

Pendleton cared most about history, especially Sacramento history.

She began giving tours at the City Cemetery in 1990 and continued until her knees and eyes finally gave out. Pendleton was fascinated by the city’s personalities, from railroad barons to brewers and ballplayers. A nostalgic and proper woman – Pendleton spoke with perfect diction and enjoyed breaking for tea – she also had a curiosity about “ladies of the evening,” said Marilyn Demas, a close friend who spent hours at Pendleton’s side in the city library.

“She was a perfect lady herself, and yet these women fascinated her,” said Demas, the executor of Pendleton’s estate.

Many things in Pendleton’s life were placed into historical context. She was born on April 18 (Paul Revere Day, she would tell you) and died on June 6 (D-Day). She tended to gossip about historical figures as if they were modern-day celebrities and spoke fondly of dressing up as Queen Victoria for a mourning event at the cemetery. When she did her impersonations, she dressed in costumes she made herself.

“She became the person she was portraying,” said Bob LaPerriere, a Historical Society member for more than 25 years.

Pendleton was also an admired expert of local baseball history. She barely watched the modern game, but recalled childhood memories of walking from her family’s midtown home to games at the former Edmonds Field, which stood across Riverside Boulevard from the City Cemetery. Her grave is set atop a small hill, with a clear view of where the old baseball stadium once stood.

In her later years, Pendleton worked on a book titled “Dusty Diamonds” that explores baseball in Sacramento from 1849 to 1889. The book, set to be published next year by the historical society with help from local baseball historian Alan O’Connor, takes a parallel look at Sacramento in its early years, focusing on the Gold Rush.

“We enjoyed listening to her, but we had to hurry her up once in a while,” said O’Connor.

And while her friends were devoted, spending hours on the phone with her to discuss a difficult clue in a crossword puzzle or poring over old newspapers, Pendleton was most at ease when her thoughts and actions drifted to people long since dead.

“It wasn’t loneliness,” Demas said, “it was solitude, it was peace. We would talk history like it was now.”

“These people were real to us,” she added. “Fran was just born out of time.”