For some people, it would have been a difficult first name to live up to. But not for Love Pope Balkwill. She showered it on bathers as they arrived at Club Almaden, the south San Jose swim resort where families flocked in the 1950s, making the welcoming of each car an expression of irrepressible Love. "She was the first person to greet everyone," said Laurie Pope, one of her six children, "and people just loved her."

Love maintained her affection for the people who crossed her path until the day she died, Feb. 16. She was 85.

She was born Love Brown in Virginia, the first name adding needed color to the latter. "In the South, it was not that unusual to have names like Delight or Love," said Pope. As her surname changed -- she married Norman Pope at 19, then the late John T. Balkwill after her first husband died -- Love herself provided all of the color that one life could contain. She was matriarch of the last family to occupy La Casa Grande, a 27-room thicket of crystal chandeliers and hand carved mother-of-pearl fireplace frames, then spent her final years designing detailed Victorian dollhouses.

"Sliding down the banister and playing hide-and-go-seek in the old home was really something," said Cherie Foster, Love's youngest daughter. "It was definitely a Peter Pan childhood for me."


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Sculptured grounds

Club Almaden wasn't the only swim club in San Jose when Love and Norman Pope bought it in 1950. But it stood out because of its historic home, built in 1854, which served as center of high society in the village of New Almaden, once welcoming the empress of China.

"It was really an incredible existence," said Pope. "Of course, when you're young and all your friends live in neighborhoods, there were times when some of us just wished we were in a tract house with a sidewalk."

The grounds at Casa Grande were landscaped by John McLaren, who also designed San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Two huge swimming pools were set like jewels among nine acres of rolling lawns.

"Back in those days, a lot of people didn't have swimming pools," Pope said. "And there weren't country clubs as we know them today. My dad would show Disney movies on the weekends for the kids."

Love helped run the business, while raising six children. "We always had built-in summer jobs as lifeguards, or working at the snack bar," said Pope, "and it really was a family affair."

Club Almaden was the center of summer life for many Bay Area families until it was sold in 1968 -- Casa Grande is now home to the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum -- at which time Love embarked on a 23-year career as secretary at Reed Elementary and Randol Schools.

Detail oriented

She married Balkwill, an English glassblower she met in the senior mobile home park where they both lived, in 1991, and together they created a collection of astonishingly detailed dollhouses.

"My mother would design the rooms, down to every single little detail," Pope said. "And my stepfather would wire them for lighting."

Her attention to detail was always evident in her fashion sense, which didn't wane even after she was confined to a wheelchair, wearing expensive Italian shoes that never touched the ground.

"She practically invented the term fashionista," said Foster. "Even when she was a school secretary, she would be dressed to the nines. In fact, when we were planning her memorial, the family joke was, 'Should we do it at Nordstrom cafe?'"

Instead, Love's life will be celebrated at a private gathering in Morgan Hill March 23. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested donations in Love's memory to the Myelodisplastic Syndrome (MDS) Foundation.

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.