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Viola Wrigley was a Downtown, Old Town Auburn business builder

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Viola Wrigley, who helped shape a business renaissance in Old Town Auburn and went on to leave her colorful, nostalgic design imprint on Downtown, has died at 96.

Wrigley died Dec. 18 in Auburn from medical problems due to old age, her son, Gary Harwell said Thursday.

Wrigley was born in the Central Valley community of Exeter on June 16, 1916 and had lived in Auburn since the late 1950s. Her work in Old Town Auburn started in the 1960s as she partnered with her husband, Louis Clay to revitalize buildings like the former Placer Bank on Commercial Street and the center section of Old Town.

In more recent times, Wrigley was a major force in Downtown Auburn. She bought and restored buildings that house the Big Salad eatery, the Koffee Kup, the Avantgarden, and the White House, home to Latitude’s Restaurant until this past September.

Harwell, Wrigley’s son from her first marriage, said that she was a “builder and a beautifier” with an impeccable sense of color and the grit to finish a job on her terms.

“She was detail-oriented and a perfectionist at her trade,” Harwell said.

Wrigley was still looking for new challenges in her last days, he said.

“At 96 years old, she still wanted to go to work,” Harwell said. “She wanted a project at 96.”

Wrigley was also a generous benefactor to projects large and small but unwilling to publicize the gifts she made.

In a 2010 interview with the Journal on her $125,000 gift to the Auburn State Theater restoration fund, Wrigley said she was reluctant to shine a light on her donation – one that provided funds for the theater’s sign.

“I’m not a publicity seeker,” Wrigley said. “I’m a doer. I’ve been that all my life.”

Wrigley outlived three husbands – Ed Harwell, Clay and Francis Wrigley. Harwell said that no formal funeral service is planned for his mother.

Margareta Asgharzadeh of The Golden Swann said that she will remember Wrigley as a generous, good person who never advertised all the things she did to help people, particularly women.

“She had a heart of a giant,” Asgharzadeh said. “She was very astute and did things the right way.”

Harwell said Wrigley’s legacy can be seen throughout the city and her influence was wide-ranging. At one time, Wrigley bought dozens of straw brooms, put ribbons on them and then had them distributed to all shopkeepers on Lincoln Way in Downtown Auburn, he recalled with a smile.

Wrigley had moved to Hawaii late in life but returned after five years because she missed Auburn, Harwell said.

“She really liked this town,” Harwell said. “She really liked Old Town and Downtown.”