Cathie Kirk McDonnell
Born October 18th 1957 - Died July 27, 1996
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When I first met Cathie she was already living at Pacific High School. I think she was 19 at the time. She was a native Californian having grown up in the Bay area since her adoption as an infant. Cathie always told me that her birth mother (whom she never met) was Spanish, which was not hard to believe when you think of her beautiful olive skin and big brown eyes. Her adoptive parents were 3rd generation Irish Americans, with fair skin and blue eyes. When I arrived at Pacific in 1979, she had already spent several of her summers gainfully employed; working with handicapped children, on a fishing boat off the Olympic Penninsula of WA, and as an organic farmer in Gilroy. She had also completed some classes at Foothill College toward her degree by that time. I believe she came to be at Pacific because she met people from there in some of her classes.

She was an extremely skilled and creative seamstress and once had her own high end drapery business, called "Hang 'Em High". She made one of the dwellings she lived in at Pacific which was a beautiful teepee. She sewed the canvas and planed the poles herself. She was a pretty good mechanic a skill which served her well, and often, because most of her cars during those years were apt to leave her on the side of the road at any time. Cathie was always busy. She was multi-tasking long before the term became, well...a term. The Tan VW Bug she drove while living at Pacific always had a spray of toothpaste on the back drivers side window, from where she brushed her teeth while driving down the road and spat out the drivers window. Cathie taught me how to "dumpster dive" down in Palo Alto, and reminded me that the mold on week old bread was "just penicillin". She was a wonderful cook and could put raw foods together in delicous concoctions. Tom Dodd wrote of her love and knowledge of baseball and her abilty to name players and their stats and her uncanny ability to remember the names of all the wildflowers whether on a hike in CA, or Nevada where she later lived. Her sense of community was very strong, often pitching in to help out with a neighbor's children or cooking a hot meal for a whole crew of people on a moments notice, after a long day of exhausting work; all the while keeping up lively conversation.

For my part, I can credit her with showing me the ropes to hitch-hke (a skill I havent used in recent years) She also taught me how to hike safely, backpack and in general, be more self sufficient. She once talked me across a ravine that was only about 2 feet wide but almost 100 feet to the bottom. I had one foot on one side of the gap and one on the other. I was frozen on the spot and it took her 45 minutes to talk me across. She could have just extended her hand and pulled me across, (an option that was not lost on me at the time) but she wanted me to feel the elation of having overcome the paralyzing fear I felt. When I finally did it, I wanted to hug her and strangle her at the same time. But...it was a great feeling to have done it on my own. These are the traits that seemed to just be part of her nature; resourceful; tenacious, creative, economic; inventive and so very generous with her time, talents and anything she owned.
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Cathie had tremendous love and respect for the outdoors. When reflecting on her life through a trail of photos, there were very few of them showing Cathie inside a house, or a room, or an enclosed structure of any kind. She loved animals great and small. She usually had at least one dog: More often, several! When we lived at Pacific together, she had a black lab named Charlotte. Cathie had made a backpack for her so she could carry her own food and water up the hill. Charlotte wasn't exactly enthusiastic about this duty, but Cathie felt that "everyone should carry their weight". This was long before dog backpacks became mainstream. Before I arrived, Charlotte had become accustomed to having the back seat of Cathie's very small car to herself. Being quite large, she couldn't lay down completely, but she always tried. The front passenger seat was most often filled with bulk fruit crates Cath had scavenged for the community. My choice was to walk, or share the back seat with Charlotte who was not happy about the arrangement. She would lean up against me and growl low in her throat for the duration of whatever trip we were on. Cathie thought that was hysterical and would goad her on.
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Cathie would get very indignant if someone killed an animal that they weren't planning on eating. Her willingness to show her indignance in no uncertain terms, was one of the hallmarks of her personality. At a memorial service which was held to honor her in the Ruby Mountains near Elko, NV, many people expressed in various ways that Cathie was not a "middle-of-the-road" person. Most used the word "intense" in some context. I suppose she was intense, but I she was also very light hearted and loved to laugh. Her first impression fostered a strong opinion one way or the other. Either you loved her, or you hated her. But one thing for sure, you definitely remembered her! In hindsight, think she would have liked that perspective.

The December prior to her death she became the first woman certified as a land surveyor in the state of Nevada. She wasted no time in hanging out her shingle "Applied Boundary Solutions" and was logging hours for several clients. She was nearing completion of a job on which she had been working diligently to uncover poorly documented monuments and boundaries from a Nevada survey done in 1872. This was to have been her first official survey as PLS #11830. It was completed shortly after her death by friends and colleagues who had been working with her. Although she wasn't available to personally stamp and seal this survey, it was dedicated to her memory with the caption" for her dedication to our Profession, commitment to detail and contributions to survey awareness and education in Nevada." Never one to do things half-way. Cathie had embraced her profession with passion.


She and her fiance came to visit me in Chicago in June of '96 about a month before she died. She was crazy in love, thinking of marriage, and had just bought a home in Elko. Life was good. She was so happy and beautiful; it was a wonderful visit! Cathie, who had always been so healthy and energetic, told me she had been suffering from extremely severe headaches for about a month. I thought it might be the working outside in the hot dry climate of Nevada, and teased her about getting older. As always, we laughed until our sides hurt. I gave her a hair cut which had become tradition any time we saw each other which wasn't often enough. I accused her of not having had one since I had last cut it in 1994. Cathie tormented me with threats about the stories she would tell my daughter, who was only 2 at the time, about our adventures together. I shot back that one thing was for sure, she would reach 40 before me. As it turns out, I was wrong. she never reached 40. I got a call early on Sunday morning, July 28, to tell me she had died of a brain aneursim the night before.

Something that has become crystal clear to me in the years since her death, is that Cathie knew how to be a friend better than anyone I'd ever met before, or since. She was not likely to tell you what you wanted to hear. She wasn't afraid to say the hard things or challenge with probing questions. She was willing to laugh at herself. She was kind and gentle, tough and discerning at the same time. I miss her intensity, and her fiery spirit. Most of all, I miss her friendship.

Written by Norma Swetnam Nesmith
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