Published on May 23, 1999
Patsy Oliver had a strong empathy for kids
Her life paralleled El Sobrante's transformation from a farming town to a modern community 
Patsy Mae Oliver
Born: March 19, 1927 in El Sobrante.
Died: May 18, 1999 in Pinole.
Survivors: Husband of 50 years, Bill, sons John and Richard, grandsons Lucas and Adam, all of El Sobrante.
Services: 11 a.m. Monday at Hilltop Community Church, 3118 Shane Drive, Richmond, followed by burial at Rolling Hills Memorial Park, Richmond. Visitation noon to 5 p.m. today at Wilson & Kratzer Civic Center Chapel, 24th Street and Barrett Avenue, Richmond.
Memorial gifts: American Diabetes Association, 631 Howard St. Suite 520, San Francisco, CA 94105.
By Tom Lochner
EL SOBRANTE -- Patsy Oliver personified El Sobrante -- the new and the old.
A half-century of hardware buyers knew her as bookkeeper at Oliver's Hardware, a thriving business in a fast-developing area of residential subdivisions where horse and dairy farms once reigned.
Those whose memories go back to World War II remember her as "the milkman," the only female milk truck driver for the Richmond Farm Creamery on San Pablo Dam Road.
Bob Sharp, president of the El Sobrante Chamber of Commerce, never saw Oliver drive the truck, but he remembers her riding her horse -- and doing lots of other physical stuff.
"I went with Patsy to the Sheldon School, a one-room, one-teacher, six-grade school in the '30s," Sharp remembered. "At Sheldon, there were only five or six kids per class, so all the girls had to play football and baseball with us. She was very outgoing and athletic. She was one of the gang."
Sheldon School stood at the modern-day site of the Sherwood Forest subdivision.
Oliver's roots go back to an El Sobrante before there was a Dam Road -- or even a dam. Her grandfather, Soren Skow, started the family dairy farm and creamery in 1899. Today the farm lies on the bottom of San Pablo Reservoir.
But not the farmhouse. When the water company built the dam, it moved the house to San Pablo Dam and Clark roads, where it stood until about 10 years ago. Today, subdivisions occupy the site.
The Skows also owned the land on the other side of Clark Road. In the early 1950s, it became the site of the "Smith Flattops," the popular name of a tract of about 100 flat-roofed houses.
For Soren Skow, an immigrant from Denmark, America, particularly El Sobrante, was the land of opportunity in the true sense of the phrase.
Skow was a sailor boy, indentured to serve on a German ship -- a "slave ship," according to family folklore.
"He was a cabin boy, and he was being mistreated," said Bill Oliver, owner of Oliver's Hardware and Patsy Oliver's husband of 50 years.
Opportunity struck during a stopover in a Danish port, when Skow took advantage of his masters' inattention and jumped ship -- to the ship in the next berth, whose sympathetic sailors helped him elude capture.
"They (Skow's masters) were looking for him. They were going to Shanghai him," Bill Oliver said. "But these guys (the sailors) rolled him up in the sail and hid him."
Skow eventually made it to San Francisco, where opportunity beckoned again. He jumped ship and drove horse-drawn streetcars before establishing the creamery in El Sobrante, Bill Oliver said.
Patsy was born in a house across the street from the relocated creamery property. Her mother died when she was 11. Her father, Harry Skow, who coached semi-pro baseball teams in Richmond, remarried and moved away. Patsy was raised by her aunt and uncle and grew up as a farm girl.
"Patsy used to herd the cows up the Dam Road in the '40s," said Bill Oliver.
Her uncle was part of the volunteer fire department. The fire truck was parked at the creamery. When a fire broke out -- there were many grass fires in the summer -- the kids would pitch in, beating the burning grass with wet gunnysacks. For the kids it was a fun adventure -- most of the time.
There were also tragedies, like one in the early 1930s. Patsy Oliver described it in a 1987 interview with the Times.
"I remember one Sunday night when the hog ranch caught fire," she told the Times. "It smelled like roast pork up and down the Dam Road. It was a heck of a fire."
In 1946, Patsy Oliver met her future husband, Bill. They married in 1948. That same year, Bill Oliver bought Oliver's Hardware from his parents, along with the Chevron station next door. She would work at the creamery for two more years, and her farm days were over -- although she would always remember them fondly.
Bill Oliver remembers his wife as "just a super-generous person."
"She would help anybody," he said. "She would do anything. Her big thing was kids. She was so family-oriented, maybe because of her childhood."
The experience of being shuffled off to relatives as a young girl may have instilled in his wife a strong empathy for all children, Bill Oliver said. And not just the couple's own sons, John and Richard.
"Everyone who had a kid, it was as if it was her kid," Bill Oliver said. "They called her Mrs. Claus. They thought she was Santa's wife."
Patsy Oliver was 72. She had been suffering from diabetes for more than a decade, said Bill Oliver.
On May 3, she broke her hip in a fall. The next day, she suffered a stroke and never recovered, her husband said.
Until his wife fell, "she was doing OK," Bill Oliver said. "She'd been going to the Lakeridge (Athletic) Club. She had a personal trainer."
At the club, she would occasionally run into Sharp. One thing remained the same, Sharp said, even as El Sobrante and rest of the world changed.
"Patsy was a great gal." 
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