“Billee” Mary Wilma (Graham) Zabriskie, 85, died on Oct. 25, 2020, in Fountain Hills. She was an unforgettable woman who made her mark wherever she went, leaving every place and every person a little sunnier than before.
Mary Wilma was born on May 30, 1935, in North Dighton, Mass., the third child of William “Bill” and Marguerite A. (Flynn) Graham. Her father, so convinced that she was going to be a boy, decided to name her after him anyways; he called her “Billee,” a nickname by which she was known for the rest of her life.
Billee (also known as the "Dighton Dolly”) graduated from St. Mary's School in Taunton, Mass., and headed out of state — a radical decision back then — to attend Barry College in Miami where she studied early education with a minor in literature. During her first semester finals, however, tragedy struck: Billee’s mother passed away.
Billee returned home and got a job at Reed & Barton Silversmiths, where she worked as an industrial editor for their employee magazine. A few years later, and ever-ambitious, Billee was recommended to another job — and soon accepted the role of industrial editor for Towle Silversmith's newspaper in Newburyport, Mass.
At the time, most women weren’t going to college or pursuing careers, let alone moving to new cities to become industrial editors. But Billee wasn’t like most women. So, she got into her new black VW Bug and set off on another adventure. The year was 1955, and Billee was a 20-year-old bachelorette with her own job, car, and apartment.
The independent platinum blonde was introduced to Newburyport's eligible bachelors and met her soulmate John Zabriskie whom she wed on July 5, 1957 at 22 years old after dating less than one year. John would worship the ground Billee walked on — for a good reason! — for the next 54 years. The couple bought an 1800s colonial farmhouse with a wood stove and squeaky floorboards, and they set about filling it with babies and pets and love.
Though Billee was busy raising her six children, she also was John's partner in their shared business Zabriskie's Pharmacy. She did all the billing and bookkeeping while cooking dinner for eight every night. After the first five children left the nest, Billee studied for her real estate license and quickly became one of the highest-grossing realtors in the area working for Carlson Real Estate.
Once their kids were grown, she and John decided it was time for warmer pastures, which they found in Venice, Fla. For the next two decades, they created a new and fulfilling life centered around Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center as members of the volunteer group fondly known as Father Charlie’s “Angels.” They developed a group of wonderful friends and enjoyed many adventures together.
When John passed away in 2011, Billee lived another four years independently in Florida enjoying the company of her close friends. In 2015 after she turned 80, Billee moved to Arizona to be closer to her daughter. Billee came for the Thanksgiving holiday, and she never left. She moved into Fountain View Village, where she made it her goal to sit with a different resident each day. Within a year, she became an official "Ambassador," welcoming each new resident — and even making the front page of Senior Lifestyle's “Be Inspired” Newsletter as the “Silver Star.” Billee enjoyed maintaining the library as well as being an active member of the Book Club.
Just like everywhere she'd ever lived, Billee had an impact at Fountain View Village. It didn't matter where she went, people were drawn to her. She was a listener, a connector, a giver of excellent advice. She engaged and empathized with everyone and created tight-knit communities along the way. She made each person feel like they mattered (and made each of her children and grandchildren feel like they were her favorite).
Billee was endlessly positive, highly intelligent, and deeply kind. She believed that improving another person’s life improved your own, and she viewed every glass as half full. She filled her time with reading, painting, knitting, hosting group dinners that lasted hours — and watching CNN. She was a lifelong, well-informed Democrat who had strong opinions about current events. Billee cherished her annual Christmas cards from President Obama.
Billee will be remembered for her electric blue eyes and gorgeous smile. For her willingness to take on any adventure, including life as a sheepherder and an amateur genealogist. For her love of lobster rolls and champagne and any brunch that served mimosas. For her Thanksgiving Eve tradition of gifting books, which created a family of readers. For her infamous chicken junque, which the family still craves on every birthday. For never leaving anything left unsaid. We love you special, Mom — thanks for teaching us, well, everything.
Services will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to “Billee’s Book Fund for Migrant Children,” administered by Urban Librarians Unite (urbanlibrariansunite.org). Billee was introduced to the Library by her own mother at a very early age which sparked a lifetime passion for books and reading. To honor Billee’s love of reading and her passion for social justice, her family has established a memorial fund that will help get books to disadvantaged kids, particularly in the regions where she lived.
A website has been created to honor and preserve her memory located at RememberingBilleeZabriskie.com.
Billee is predeceased by her husband of 54 years, John T. Zabriskie. She is survived by her children, Albert W. Zabriskie (Susan), John T. Zabriskie (Susan), Marguerite H. Zabriskie, Sarah Nolan, Mary Zabriskie (David Hart), Christian Zabriskie (Vicky); her grandchildren, John Thomas “Jack” Hart, Marlene “Marlee” Zabriskie, Patrick Hart, Mary Margaret “Molly” Hart, Carter John Nolan, Riley Thomas Nolan, Mayree Patricia Nolan, Sydney Zabriskie; and her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hart.