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A YouCaring account has been set up to help Lynette Williamson's family with expenses. To donate, go here.


Lynette Williamson was no sparrow, despite identifying with the common, humble bird just as Hamlet did while trying to accept his fate.

An English teacher and mentor for thousands of students who cycled through her classroom and her debate team at Analy High School in Sebastopol over a 30-plus-year career, Williamson was a masterful speaker and thinker. She set young minds afire with literature and her signature wit.

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” she wrote, quoting William Shakespeare’s protagonist in an essay published on Salon.com three days before her death.

Williamson died Saturday at her home in Monte Rio, surrounded by her family. She was 55.

In the last months before she died, Williamson wrote the essay reflecting on how she had coped for 18 months with the nerve disease ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She typed the piece with the thumb of her non-dominant hand, pounding into the keyboard at a rate of three words per minute the thoughts and literary quotes still racing through her vibrant mind as the disease took its toll.

‘Do not seek to be master of all ...’ she wrote, recalling something else she’d read.

“At first I assumed those words hearkened from the New Testament or possibly the humanist Shakespeare,” she wrote in the essay.

“But when Google insisted that Sophocles quilled those lines, I found myself sharing the tragic stage with Oedipus as his brother-in-law Creon admonishes him for failing to learn that fate cannot be circumvented.”

For the students who sat in her classroom and whom she coached on the debate stage, her tough, no-nonsense influence looms large. Williamson’s calm-under-fire style is guiding Marie “Mimi” Pinna, 21, through finals week at UC Davis, and she described her former teacher’s poise when under stress.

“Even in the most crowded, sweaty room with hundreds of annoying teenagers and parents, she’d be standing there and would look like she was in a bubble of comfort, totally Zen,” said Pinna, a 2014 Analy High graduate.

Williamson showed Nate Rosen, 24, of San Francisco how to use his hyperactive mind as a tool rather than a distraction.

“The way she handled kids like myself, she used a beautiful blend of sarcasm and humor to connect with us,” said Rosen, a 2010 Analy graduate with a linguistics degree from UC Santa Barbara.

Her influence pushed Robin Sheehan, 30, of San Francisco to shed a cloak of shyness and craft arguments on the debate stage, lessons that propelled her through law school at the University of San Francisco.

There are countless others.

“From the time we hired Lynette, you could tell she was something special,” said Martin Webb, who retired as Analy’s principal in 2008 after 36 years at the school. “She took that debate program over and ran with it.”

Williamson was born Lynette Marie Kay in 1961 to Jeanette and Daniel Kay in San Francisco. She grew up in Novato, attending school at Our Lady of Loretto Church and then St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma.

“She was an overachiever from day one, winning every academic trophy out there,” said her younger sister, Nadine Finn of Petaluma.

She dabbled with rebellion once when she took her sister on a detour away from church toward a donut shop. Their mother, who raised the girls on her own after their father died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 1979, had a sixth sense something was amiss after dropping them off and doubled back, intercepting their getaway.

“Everybody thought it was my idea, but guess who it was? It was Lynette,” Finn said.

Williamson met Don Williamson when they were both students at Fresno State University, taking a seminar on the history of jazz and rock and roll.

“I had a class after that, and she would always have some reason to walk with me in that direction,” said Williamson.

At 18 and 19 years old, they fell in love. They married two years later in 1981. They have two children, Eric, 29, an engineer living in Taiwan and Gabrielle, 25, who just earned a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education from Humboldt State University.

Williamson got her first teaching job back at St. Vincent in Petaluma, then moved to Analy High School several years later.

Williamson spent decades at the front of a classroom until retiring in 2015, showing students how the world’s great writers grappled with loss, ambition and joy. Less public was her role as a colleague.

There was the time she brought a granola bar to a new teacher hiding under her desk after one of those hard days teachers know well. There were her irreverent Valentine’s Day cards and her Christmas parties, which also drew returning students long after they had graduated.

And there was the firm, determined example she demonstrated in her work, said Betsy Amirkhan, Analy’s veteran mathematics teacher of 24 years.

“She made me so proud to be a teacher,” said Amirkhan, 60, of Cloverdale.

She loved historical movies about the Roman Empire. She loved R&B music, especially Earth Wind and Fire and New Orleans jazz. She loved gardening and fortune cookies.

“She was close to almost everyone who met her. Some of us were lucky enough to know her beyond the classroom,” fellow English teacher Patty Ernsberger Pifer said.

Ernsberger Pifer received a text from Williamson on Saturday, the day she died: “Happy birthday Patty, this is your year to party.”

She battled with her sister to find the snarkiest birthday cards, some years giving each other a stack instead of just one.

She wrote lines in recommendation letters like: “I give Kyle my strong recommendation and my hope that he brings back some fresh philosophy with which to inoculate our debate team.”

She gave a name — “Good in the Sack” — to Ernsberger Pifer’s idea to start a business in retirement to sell oil-cloth totes packed with goodies. She named her own retirement business scheme, to sell small herb bouquets for recipes, “Saucy Bouquet.”

In her final years, she kept a little card identifying herself as having ALS in her wallet with a message she crafted for the back: “I’m smarter than I sound. If you can’t understand me, give me pen and paper.”

Williamson is survived by her husband, Don Williamson, her two children, her sister and mother. She insisted that her obituary also must list as survivors her favorite authors, Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison.

Williamson’s family is holding a private celebration of her life. Memorial donations can be made to the Living Room, www.thelivingroomsc.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.