Whatever Happened to Eva Mae?

Neighbors fret over the fate of an elderly recluse who left without saying goodbye.

He walked over, called out to his neighbor and asked if she was all right. The door cracked open an inch or two. Eva Mae said she was fine, and immediately closed the door.

Such behavior might have seemed odd coming from anyone else.

But Eva Mae had spent a lifetime building a wall around herself that most people eventually grew tired of trying to scale.

Donna Nichols, Eva Mae's neighbor of four years, led the search for the missing woman.
Kevin Scanlon
Donna Nichols, Eva Mae's neighbor of four years, led the search for the missing woman.
Eva Mae often left letters on her neighbor's porch, thanking Donna Nichols for being a friend.
Eva Mae often left letters on her neighbor's porch, thanking Donna Nichols for being a friend.

Her friends took her at face value, and accepted what few details she chose to share.

One of those details concerned her poor health, which friends say forced Eva Mae's parents, Harry and Martha, to move their only child from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Arizona in the 1940s.

Her health was a constant issue, and Eva Mae required daily medication.

"You'd hear her heaving and coughing, trying to catch her breath," Robinson says, remembering days working outside when the sound of her sickness carried over the fence separating their homes.

Harry Wilson died when Eva Mae was barely in her teens, she told a few people. But she and her mother stayed in Phoenix, eventually moving to the Coronado neighborhood and buying a two-bedroom stucco house on Palm Lane in 1972.

At the time, Eva Mae was a secretary for Honeywell, which had bought the computer division of General Electric in the late 1960s. She was a diligent employee, according to co-workers, but she rarely spoke and never attended company events.

"She was a very private person," says Bill Dunham, the company's former director of training, who supervised Eva Mae for about a year. "[There] weren't too many people who got too close to her."

To some, she seemed weird, but never rude.

"She could be friendly. Distant, and friendly," says Evelyn Miranda, who worked with Eva Mae in the 1970s. "I got the feeling she didn't really want to get too close to people. I don't think she really wanted people to go to her house."

Martha Wilson was blind, friends say, and needed constant attention.

Even though her daughter talked little about her past, co-workers say Martha helped shed some light on Eva Mae's odd personality.

Martha Wilson told some that people had targeted her daughter and picked on her, making mean jokes at her expense. The constant teasing helped erode any self-confidence the young woman might have had.

And perhaps that's why she retreated from people.

Among other things, she feared that someone might find out personal information, such as her health problems.

Dunham discovered this fact after hearing that Eva Mae had refused to fill out company insurance forms needed to provide payment for her health benefits. Instead of giving out personal information that would have allowed her to save money by using the plan, he says, she chose to pay out of pocket for frequent doctor visits.

Eva Mae never shook that fear. Employees at the Fry's at 30th Street and Thomas say that Eva Mae refused to take advantage of a senior citizen discount voucher because the form required her address and social security number.

By the 1980s, Eva Mae's health worsened to the point that she could no longer work. She left her job and assumed full-time care for her ailing mother, co-workers and friends say.

In September 1985, according to social security death records, Martha Wilson died at the age of 81, leaving Eva Mae all alone.

A few months later, Eva Mae took a bus tour across the Southwest.

It was one of the last times friends can remember her leaving the security of her house and neighborhood.


Over the next 16 years, Eva Mae slowly withdrew from society.

She kept to herself, caring for a menagerie of pets and tending to her yard. She occasionally went shopping or out to dinner.

She didn't own a television, but read constantly, subscribing to numerous magazines and newspapers. She continued writing poetry, and drew small sketches on letters she mailed to friends.

In her poems, Eva Mae pined for a different life, a life outside the small world she inhabited.

"I live in my mind. The more awkward; the more wearisome; & the more discouraged I could become, the more I reach out with my mind," she wrote in June 2001. "I live in my mind. With determined prayer ~ & ~ with concentration. I strive to keep wholesome ~ optimistic ~ imaginative ~ expressive thoughts and daydreams."

By mid-February, neighbors in the Coronado community had not seen her in weeks. Her house was empty, her newspapers were piling up outside and her yard, once carefully groomed, had been uprooted and turned to dirt.

Garthanne deOcampo, a preschool teacher at Emerson Elementary School, noticed Eva Mae's absence when she took her students outside to play.

DeOcampo had often seen her across the street, wandering the sidewalk in bedroom slippers, seemingly lost.

"She was getting more and more disoriented," deOcampo says. "She seemed to be lost all the time."

DeOcampo would walk around the fence that encloses the school playground, stop Eva Mae and help her shuffle back home. That Eva Mae would accept her help was something of a minor victory. It had taken nearly 10 years of seeing each other from across the street, Eva Mae in her yard and deOcampo on the playground, before the old woman would speak.

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