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Heat May Have Killed `Rose Lady'

July 27, 2006|Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Around the neighborhood, she was known as the Rose Lady. On a street of handsome homes and meticulously kept lawns, Winnie Serpa's one-story house was ringed by bushes of pink and white roses, some rising as high as the roof. A gardener tended the flowers daily.

On Wednesday, the gardener caught a glimpse, through a window, of Serpa sitting on a sofa exactly as he had seen her on the previous day. He alerted police. Authorities arrived about noon and found the 91-year-old woman dead. Police have not confirmed the cause of death but are investigating it as heat-related.

"I thought she'd live to be 100," said her stepson, Chuck Serpa, 57, his voice quivering. Except for a knee injury that kept her from the ballroom dancing she loved, she was in good health, he said.

Although Winnie came into Chuck Serpa's life only after she married his father, Frank, in the 1950s, Serpa has considered her his mother since elementary school, and Winnie -- who never bore children -- saw Chuck as her son. Even after Winnie and Frank Serpa divorced in 1989, Chuck -- whose father later died -- continued to visit her. As she grew elderly, Chuck took her every Thursday to get her hair done and do grocery shopping.

"She was a great mom," he said. "She was a good woman."

She also seemed inured to the scorching heat, eschewing the air conditioning available in her home. "It wasn't about the money," Chuck Serpa said. He added: "Every time I came over I would flip on the ceiling fan."

When she was married, Winnie Serpa and her husband won state competitions in ballroom dancing and went out dancing weekly. After her divorce, Serpa, who retired from Valley Fig Growers as a secretary, kept dancing, frequenting clubs with a neighbor, Iley Herdje.

"She loved to dance," said Herdje, 78, who lives across the street. "Not the kind of dance that people do today. She loved the waltz, the jig, the foxtrot."

She also loved Chinese food and sweets. On Wednesday, her son found a stash of ice cream bars in her freezer.

Lately, due to her ailing knee and creeping old age, she spent most of her days watching TV, listening to the radio and reading the newspaper, according to her son. But she was a longtime resident in a neighborhood of longtime residents and everyone knew her.

"She was just a wonderful lady," Herdje said. "She was a fun person to be around."

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Times staff writer Carla Hall contributed to this report.

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