WATERTOWN, NY — Sarah “Sally” Purcell Tebbutt died peacefully surrounded by her family on Oct. 31, 2018. By her own words, she had a very lucky life.
She was born on Mozart’s birthday, Jan. 27, 1925, to two loving parents, James Stanley Dickson and Katharine Starbuck Dickson, in Gouverneur, NY. The family soon moved to Watertown, NY, where she enjoyed an idyllic childhood on Nellis Street. She sometimes boasted that she was usually the first one picked for the softball team because she was such a good hitter.
She spent summers during her childhood at the “Beehive” on Thousand Island Park, Wellesley Island, on the St. Lawrence River, a small cottage built by her great grandfather and so named because of the myriads of people going in and out. When Sally was thirteen her father built her a sailboat (Snipe) which she enjoyed greatly with her friends. It was at a weekend dance at the Wellesley Hotel where she first connected with Jack Tebbutt when they were 15. They bonded instantly and that night walked all the way to the Thousand Islands Bridge and back. Jack would later become her second husband.
Sally attended Wells College, graduating in 1946 with a degree in Sociology. She loved her college years and made many lifelong friends there. After college she returned to Watertown, NY where she began working for the Welfare Department. A blind date arranged by a mutual friend introduced her to Bob Purcell. After dating for about a year they married on June 26, 1948. Together they had four children and after moving around a bit with Bob’s work as a civil engineer, they eventually settled in Watertown, NY.
When her youngest child started school, Sally too returned to school. She taught junior high and eventually high school English. She took great pride in her students. Somewhat of a renegade, she often claimed to have discovered “The Catcher in the Rye” before anyone had heard about it and then encouraged her students to read it, despite its being on a banned book list. She was a stickler for grammar, often correcting her children, a trait they picked up and passed on to their own children. Sally was an avid reader, often reading two or three books a week. She lived for the Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times. She relished going out to the book store to purchase whatever two or three books she had picked out, but when walking became an issue she reluctantly and later fervently embraced the IPad where she could purchase all the books she wanted with the touch of a button. She once recounted running into a former student several decades after high school and when he boasted that he was reading a book a week, she responded, “That’s not nearly enough.”
Sally loved classical music and was an ardent opera buff. She often played the opera loud enough to hear throughout the house. Later she would blast the opera at Stave Island to deter fishermen from drifting too close to her dock. She relished her many visits to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and managed to visit most of the opera houses in Europe. In her old age, the ability to see a live opera at her local movie theatre through the “The Met: Live in HD” program was a godsend.
On the day school let out for the summer Sally would pack the station wagon to the gills, collect her four children and head to Thousand Island Park for the summer, first at the Beehive and later at a larger cottage on the coast. But her real love was Stave Island, a property she and Bob had acquired in 1957. In the early 1970’s they designed a home there, which they built with the help of their children. Two old barns were disassembled and the wood transported to the island where it was reassembled into a home. They eventually sold their home at Thousand Island Park and moved to Stave Island. Stave Island was Sally’s favorite place on earth.
As Bob approached retirement they decided to build another home, this time on Sanibel Island in Florida. Sons Tim and Eric helped build this house during the winter of 1982-3 while Mark stayed in Watertown to run the family business, Purcell Construction. Sadly, Bob died in 1986, but Sally continued to enjoy the Sanibel home.
After Bob’s death Sally decided to fulfill a lifetime dream and move to New York City. She thrived on the culture there, the theater, opera, ballet, and museums to name just a few. She would often say she had three island homes, Stave Island during the summer, Sanibel Island in the winter and Manhattan Island in the spring and fall.
After Bob died Sally rekindled her love for her childhood pal, Jack Tebbutt. They eventually married in 1994 and enjoyed several years together hopping from island home to island home until his death in 2001.
Sally is survived by her four children, Timothy Purcell (and Cathryn), Pamela Purcell, Mark Purcell (and Maria), Eric Purcell (and Monica); 11 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. She is also survived by her devoted caregiver, Deborah Collins.
A brother, James Starbuck Dickson, predeceased her.
A service celebrating her life will be held 10:30 a.m. Nov. 17 at Christ Episcopal Church, Clayton, NY. There will be no calling hours.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Hospice of Jefferson County.
Arrangements have been entrusted to Cleveland Funeral Home, Inc., 404 Sherman St., Watertown, NY 13601.