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Florence Helen Strange of Petaluma led a varied life that included teaching as a Catholic nun, researching tropical fruit in far-flung countries and leading Sunday school at a Unitarian Universalist church in Petaluma — but underlying it all was a life-long love of learning and education.

The longtime Petaluma resident died Oct. 9, two days after having a stroke during a trip to San Diego. She was 85.

Strange's love of learning was born when she was just a girl, attending Holy Rosary Elementary School in Medford, Wis., the town where she was born in 1928. She developed a respect for the nuns who taught her and decided to join the convent and become a teacher.

She did so at 16, eventually becoming a nun and earning a master's degree in education.

She taught several ages of children in elementary schools in <NO1><NO>California, Wisconsin and Indiana over the years, but her favorite grade was kindergarten, her husband, David Strange, said. Her background in the convent gave her "highly individualistic" ideas about things, he added, and she encouraged ingenuity and creativity in her students. Later<NO1><NO>, she was chosen to instruct other teachers at the Laboratory Campus School at Alverno College in Milwaukee. While a faculty member there, she edited a children's publication, Mime Magazine, and wrote and illustrated a series of publications for elementary teachers.

Then, in 1969, after studying the Catholic faith and considering her core values, she decided to no longer be a nun, resigned from the School Sisters of St. Francis and moved to San Francisco, where her brother lived.

Four years later, she met David Strange at a line dancing class in San Francisco.

"I remember seeing her across the room and thinking, 'There's a lady I'd like to know better,'<TH>" David Strange said. "We weren't in the class a very long time before we decided to start dating." They married in 1974 and moved to Petaluma from Marin County in 1987<NO1><NO> when Florence Strange was looking for more room to garden.

There, Florence Strange remained active after she retired<NO1><NO> in the early '80s. She and her husband attended the Unitarian Universalist church in Petaluma for about 10 years. For a few of those years, Florence Strange taught Sunday school there.

She had an inclination to teach herself, David Strange said. After she attended a lecture on tropical fruit, she became fascinated by it. She educated herself mainly through library research, becoming well-regarded in the field. With her husband, she traveled the world in search of rare fruit, flying to places like Borneo and Thailand to gather seeds. She would then try to grow them in her Petaluma yard, though the exotic seeds didn't always take to the California climate.

Florence Strange was also an artist and writer, exhibiting painting and sculptures, authoring one children's book and illustrating another written by her nephew, Edward O'Reilly.

"She had a big interest in learning, an excitement about life," said Lou Miller, former head of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University. He got to know the Stranges through the many classes they took at the institute.

"She was full of energy, lots of fun," David Strange recalled. "We had a wonderful time together."

She is survived by her husband, who lives in Petaluma; sisters Mary Jane Bonneau of Washington, Caroline O'Reilly, Frances Ruplinger and Joan Altenhofen of Wisconsin and Bernadette Vos of Minnesota; brothers Bernard Pernsteiner of Wisconsin and Richard Pernsteiner of Oakland; stepsons Mark Strange of Oakland and Keith Strange of Pacifica; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 17 at Petaluma Woman's Club, 518 B St., Petaluma.