98-year-old Isla Vista resident Nora Finley (left) with friend Olivia Gleser
Paul Wellman

When you first meet 98-year-old Isla Vista resident Nora Finley you may be in for a shock – and not just because she’s lived in the seaside community for a lot longer and a lot later into her life than do most people. If you’re expecting someone who might be described as “tired,” “resigned,” or “old,” you’ll be surprised. More appropriate adjectives would be “vibrant,” “interesting,” and “lively.” In her attractive red shirt with a floral patterned shawl, she is someone who appreciates every day.

Finley – who has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and even the Isla Vista riots – knows what it’s like to go through hard times, but she never let it kill her spirit. What’s her secret, you might ask? “If you’re grateful for what you have, then you’re blessed with more,” Finley said sitting in a comfortable chair in the I.V. duplex she has lived in for about 50 years.

Cat Neushul

But a positive attitude can only get you so far. Finley also has another secret – she’s taken what life has thrown her and molded it into something positive. When her parents left Italy when she was five and moved to Ohio, she learned English quickly and fell in love with poetry. When the effects of the Great Depression left her parents unable to pay for her college education, she became a waitress. And when her husband died when she was in her forties, she picked up and moved to Isla Vista becoming one of the first teachers at the newly built Isla Vista Elementary School.

Always a go-getter, Finley described how she got her job at the school. She had written to a principal at the Hope School District to ask for an interview while she was still in Oregon, and she ended up with two offers, one at her local school. She ended up at I.V. Elementary where she taught a fourth-fifth grade combination class. She recalled that one of the highlights was teaching them about Hawaii, having a luau, and listening to music. But she also remembers how hard it was for the many children in her class who were still learning English. “Children learn to speak English quickly, but it’s not an easy situation,” Finley said. She started writing songs and creating place mats to help children remember important information. “I thought children learn much better when singing together than [when being taught] one-on-one,” she explained. One of her place mats features facts from the Apollo 17 space mission. “I have a letter from NASA saying it was all correct,” she added.

Finley’s mother was the first to pick Isla Vista as her home. “She knew I loved the ocean,” she explained. Isla Vista, in the late 1950s, was very different than it is now. The second apartment in her mother’s duplex was renting for $100, Camino Pescadero was a dirt road surrounded by trees and a few houses, and the current UCSB site was a military training facility. There’s still one of the original houses over on Sueno Road, Finley said. Other than that, she said things have changed. Once UCSB moved to its current site, duplexes and apartment buildings started to go up around her.

When describing the 1970 Isla Vista Riot, she said, “That was interesting.” Living on Camino Pescadero, Finley was in the heart of the riot. She remembers students throwing mattresses into dumpsters, the police chasing them into local houses, breaking down the doors, and shooting warning shots. When embers from the flames started to land on her roof, Finley called the authorities. She was told, “Lady, we can’t come out there. There’s a riot going on.” They told her she’d have to wait until morning before they’d come to her aid.

Even with the bad times, Finley is an optimist. She talks fondly of her son Larry, her friend Olivia, who lives in the second apartment of the duplex and comes over to chat or bring her butternut squash soup, and she talks of the things she’s going to do. She can’t play piano or write music anymore because of eyesight loss, but she still has plans to use a new, shiny Apple computer her son bought her. “Eventually, I will use it. Maybe.”

She is also experimenting with tangrams to see how them might be further utilized as a memory tool.

When asked how she’s lived such a long, full life, she summed it up with, “It’s due to pasta, pizza, and polenta, corn meal.” So bring it on.


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