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Family is the canvas of resident’s life

When Alex Washburn talks about her family, she talks about her late husband, the Reverend Doctor Steven Washburn who built a career as a minister in the Midwest, as well as her now 40-year-old son and her 10-year-old grandson.

But her story also opens a window into a long, interesting, and artistic history.

That might take you to a conversation about a long-ago ancestor and his brother-in-law who worked as merchant ship captains and are immortalized in several “primitive” early 19th century paintings. Or it could open discussion about her father, a Captain who headed the International Ice Patrol tasked with recording iceberg flows in an effort to prevent tragedies like the “Titanic”. There’s also the father-in-law who served as dentist for the wife of Chicago’s mayor, and the aunt who served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and was deployed during the Battle of Britain in World War II.  

And the remarkable tale of her “triple great grandmother” Catherine E. Read Williams, who Alex described as a “self-made” woman, who worked as a satirist, an historian and as the first True-Crime author in the United States.

“’The Tale of Fall River’ was written in 1833 by a person born in 1790,” Alex said. That wasn’t my husband’s favorite plot line, because it was about a minister who had murdered an inconvenient girlfriend.”

The story Alex tells of her family lives in the many pieces of art she has hanging on her walls inside Wichita Presbyterian Manor.

“The government put a professional artist aboard my father’s ship, named the ‘Tahoe,’” Alex said. “I have five paintings, all by the same artist, Aldis Browne II. The story was covered by Life Magazine, and I just had that framed article from the art store. It’s a very colorful article.”

“Out of sheer ego, I have two portraits of myself that I hope are displayed in an un-ostentatious way,” Alex laughed.

The letters and books written by Catherine Read Williams have been donated to Brown University, along with the journals and letters of Gen. Henry Hardy Dewolfe, co-military leader of a failed revolt to allow tenants to vote.

Alex, who also enjoys the name Alexandra, is originally from Rhode Island. She met Steven in Maryland, and the couple traveled to Manhattan, Kansas, where Steven took his first ministry role. Eventually, the couple moved to Wichita where they settled into the College Hill neighborhood for many years.

She has two Master’s degrees, and nearly completed her Doctorate. For some years, she worked as a college English instructor. Steven passed away in September, and Alex made the transition to Presbyterian Manor in March.

“People are very helpful. I think it’s been a good transition,” Alex said. “The more I put on the walls to remind me of home, naturally, and to distract my eye from the lighter tones, the happier I become. It’s been a good simplification. Having people to help with cleaning and preparing meals, and a reduction in housekeeping duties, that’s a help.”

Additionally, her son and grandson are only an eight-minute drive from her home. “They live in the next town over, and it’s a big advantage,” she said.

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