Long-time residents of the community were saddened to learn of the passing of a dear friend, a former Portland “girl,” Sandra Wattwood Austin.
Sandra had not spent her adult years here but in her formative years she endeared herself to many. She was kind and a friend to all, a person that everyone loved.
We first became friends when her father, Phillip Wattwood, joined my father as partner in Portland Hardware Company on Main Street. My dad and Mr. Carlos Garrett had opened the store in 1948 and after a few years, Mr. Garrett decided he was ready to retire from the daily confines of running a business.
Mr. Wattwood decided to buy out Mr. Garrett’s share of the business. Phillip and his wife, Nancy, had two daughters at that time, Shirley, and Sandra, and I was delighted to have two new friends.
At that time, my family lived in an apartment upstairs over the store and Dad managed the offices and other apartments there at the time. We spent hours together, playing games and having “tea parties.”
In his late years their grandfather, Charles Wattwood, lived in one of the apartments there. We girls had a great time growing up together. Mother and Mrs. Wattwood, “Nancy,” became close friends and they would take us on shopping trips to Nashville where we would shop Harvey’s, Caster-Knot’s—ride the escalators—then have lunch at Wool-Worths.
Their home was in walking distance from mine, just up College Street - we spent lots of hours there with other children in the neighborhood—the Hesters, Roneys, Flannigans, Hunters and others. Later two brothers, Doug and Tony, were born to the Wattwood family.
At that time College Street turned from Broadway right beside First Baptist Church and circled around to where it connects to College Street now. In the area that is now a grassy lawn beside Occasions, the Portland Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) provided a Park with swings, slides, and other equipment to entertain the community.
We would walk home from school, then located in what is now Richland Park. When we arrived at Sandra’s her Mother would often fix popcorn for us, that was a great treat. The worst scolding I ever received from my mom was one day I decided to walk home from school with Sandra without asking or letting Mother know where I was. “I didn’t do that again!”
Sandra followed in older sister Shirley’s footsteps becoming an outstanding student all through school and extremely popular with everyone. Majoring in Science, Mathematics and Home Economics, she was talented and incredibly involved in many areas, among them cheerleading, basketball, 4-H, FHA, Student Council and Beta Club.
The Portland High School annual from the year she graduated, 1964, attests to her popularity. She received numerous awards, personal and academic, from faculty and her peers. Perhaps the two highest awards she shared with one of her best friends. She and Brenda McDonald shared the honor of Valedictorian with identical 4.0 grade point averages for their high school careers.
They also shared the highest faculty awards based on outstanding qualities of character, citizenship, personality, and scholarship with Brenda receiving the Gold Key and Sandra receiving the Activities Award. She was also selected by the faculty for Girl’s State and the DAR award. Her peers selected her as Miss Intellectual and Miss Personality. Did I mention she was also a “beauty,” inside and out?
Wattwood is an old family name in Portland. Two of Phillip’s uncles, Raymond Enders and Carlos Wattwood, were involved in the early leadership of The Farmers Bank. She had aunts who were teachers in the local school system.
After high school Sandra attended Western Kentucky University. After her first year she married Bob Austin from here whose family was also among the earliest Portland residents. She moved to Huntsville, Ala. where he was working and graduated in the first graduating class of the University of Alabama, Huntsville.
Sandra taught Mathematics in the school system for a time but later joined husband Bob in working in the NASA Space Program of the mid-1960s. That was an exciting period in the United States and many young people were interested in becoming involved in the Space program in pursuit of going to the Moon.
Sandra worked as a Computer Programmer on the Patriot Missile Project. As most of that work was done in secret, she was not able to reveal what she did, but it has been rumored that she was able to work under the famous scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Sandra was always interested in the beauty of nature and civic minded. She worked tireless hours in her free time on establishing and promoting the Land Trusts of Northern Alabama. She was presented the special award ‘1000 Points of Light’ by President George H.W. Bush for her contributions.
Sandra will be so missed by her family who survive; among them her siblings, Shirley, Doug and Tony and their families. Husband Bob died, not long ago. The bright spot is that their son Colin, and his wife Katie presented them with two beautiful granddaughters in the last few years.
It is heart-breaking to know that Sandra’s last few years were lost to a type of Alzheimer’s and her two precious young granddaughters never got to experience the person she truly was. She will be remembered by everyone who knew her as a friend who showed kindness and compassion to everyone and never missed an opportunity to help those who were in need.
I am confident her son, Colin and daughter-in-law, Katie, will instill Sandra’s outstanding attributes in their girls.
Johnnie Freedle is a member of the Highland Rim Historical Society.