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Nurse to 'Miss Frick' guides visitors through Clayton

Thursday, March 04, 1999

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her life had spanned nine decades. As she sat with her nurse in the library of her childhood home, warming herself in front of the fireplace, Helen Clay Frick admitted that she felt trapped in an aged, frail body.

  Barbara Hunter, docent and former nurse to Helen Clay Frick, tells visitors to Clayton how Frick would sit in the windowseats recalling her childhood. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Chronologically, she was 93, but inside she was a 12-year-old girl prancing about the grounds of Clayton or taking lessons from her governess in the fourth-floor classroom or watching the grand entrances of party guests from the window seat atop the landing of the main staircase.

Sometimes, she would have the nurse bring her to those window seats where she'd sit and remember.

Barbara Hunter was that nurse. And when Hunter, now a docent at the Frick Art & Historical Center, talks about her time with Miss Frick, who died in 1984, she paints a moving portrait of the last years of a life far from ordinary. Hunter's reminiscences will be featured in a documentary on Clayton on A&E Sunday at 11 p.m.

Helen Clay Frick was the daughter of steel industry magnate, art collector and philanthropist Henry Clay Frick. The Frick name graces parks and buildings and museums, here and in New York City. Her childhood included governesses, mansions and trips abroad. Her family's Pittsburgh residence, a 23-room mansion called Clayton and its accompanying 5.5 acres, is now part of the Frick Art & Historical Center.

Hunter was among the center's first class of docents, volunteers who guide visitors on tours of Clayton.

"I wanted to be part of it," she said. "Having known the lady and knowing her love of Pittsburgh and love of this house, I thought I could share that.

"This is really like an oasis. You walk on the property and you step back in time without even knowing it."

Hunter, the daughter of a steel mill engineer from Hazelwood, came to work for the daughter of the steel mill millionaire in 1981 when Miss Frick returned to Pittsburgh to live out her remaining days.

She convinced Clayton's last housekeepers, Ed and Alice Boyle, to end their retirement in Florida and return to their old jobs. She also had a personal secretary, a cook, a chauffeur, a grounds keeper and laundress, who came in every week.

Nurses tended to Miss Frick around the clock. Not because she was sick, Hunter explained, but because of her advanced age.

Although she required a wheelchair and couldn't see her visitors if they sat on the other side of a room, Miss Frick was very alert and very much in charge.

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Determined to have things done her way, she made it almost impossible to keep nurses. When Hunter's nursing agency approached her about working for Miss Frick they described her as "a very challenging home case."

But as the mother of two sons, the hours fit Hunter's schedule. And since she had been doing home care nursing along with her emergency room work, she took the job.

"I had to be interviewed by the night nurse over the phone for two hours," Hunter recalled. "I came at 5 a.m. to be oriented to where things were."

Where they were was pretty much where the Fricks had left them when they moved to New York in 1905. Miss Frick was 17 then but had a lifelong affection for her Pittsburgh home. She kept Clayton as her voting address and returned often, sometimes living there six months at a time.

Hunter attended nursing school at the former Pittsburgh Hospital, now Forbes Metropolitan Hospital, on Penn Avenue, a few blocks away from Clayton. Though she had always heard of the Frick name, she never knew the mansion existed.

Today, however, she has an intimate knowledge of the estate and the last family member to occupy it.

"She was an incredible lady," Hunter said about her former patient. "Nobody ever said no to Miss Frick."

When it came to hiring staff, she could size up a candidate in less than two minutes. "Either you passed the test or you didn't. Honesty and loyalty was what she absolutely demanded."

Hunter, a 58-year-old flaming redhead with a gentle effervescence who looks a tad like actress Maureen O'Hara, obviously passed the Frick litmus test. She credits the support she received from night nurse Ruth Mansfield.

"She had been with [Miss Frick] and knew her very well and guided me. I think Miss Frick really could feel that I cared about her a great deal," Hunter said.

After about a year on the job the nurse found out that Miss Frick felt the same about her. She gave Hunter her secret handshake - three squeezes that meant "I love you."

Many nurses did not make the grade with Miss Frick. She went through 20 of them during the time Hunter cared for her.

Nurses either sat in the room with Miss Frick or sat at a desk in the guest bedroom across the hall.

Hunter's days at Clayton started about 6:30 a.m. with tea and toast and a chat with the housekeepers. She went up to Miss Frick at 6:45 a.m.

Her bedroom was originally the children's nursery and is one again, now that the house is a museum.

Although Miss Frick was in her mid-90s, she kept a fairly busy schedule, receiving visitors and supervising the handling of her correspondence.

Her older brother Childs' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren came often to visit "Granti," their abbreviation for great auntie.

"As was Victorian custom they would have to be announced," Hunter recalled. "Miss Frick loved children and she really enjoyed her young great-nieces and nephews."

She also gave them presents when they visited. But because of her poor eyesight and hearing, she could not tell what was going on when they visited. Once during a party for the children in the formal dining room where peanut butter sandwiches were served, Hunter sat next to her giving a detailed account of the festivities.

On Miss Frick's 95th birthday, Hunter rectified the problem by having the great-grand nieces and nephews take turns sitting on their Granti's lap and singing "Happy Birthday."

The nurse would often accompany her charge on drives through Schenley Park. "She knew every nook and cranny," Hunter recalled.

Once when Miss Frick wanted to buy a spring hat, the two women visited almost every shop between Shadyside and Squirrel Hill to no avail. They ended up finding just the thing at the former Sears in East Liberty.

In the waning days of Miss Frick's life, Hunter often worked 12-hour shifts. When she died, the nurse was invited to the funeral via telegram. "I have it in my scrapbook."

As she prepared for her next tour, Hunter said of Clayton, "I think it's a real legacy for the people of Pittsburgh to have this almost absolutely original home to visit and it was given certainly in love."

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