Margaret Diane "Penny" Watts, a Baltimore hostess who attracted a wide circle of friends, died Thursday at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital of complications following heart surgery. The former Guilford resident was 79.
Born Margaret Diane Nichols in Baltimore, she was the daughter of David Monroe Nichols Sr., a real estate developer who was active in projects on Kent Island in the 1950s, and Olive Jane Schenowith.
She grew up on Walbrook’s Chelsea Terrace and on Tuscany Road in North Baltimore. She was a 1956 graduate of the Friends School, where she participated on the school badminton team.
Her father, a member of the State Roads Commission at the time of the opening of the first Bay Bridge span in 1952, arranged to have her present at ceremonies marking the event. The family had a farm called Cloverfields, at Stevensville, and the young girl rode her palomino horse on the span before it opened.
“Riding across the bridge exemplified her spirit,” said Norine MacDonald, her daughter-in-law. “She was unforgettable and eclectic. She had friends from all walks of life.”
“She was high, high spirited, and was always fun,” said her brother, Dr. David Monroe Nichols Jr. of Buford, Ga. “She was a stylish dresser and thought nothing of wearing a tailored outfit, with jewelry, to go to a medical physical therapy session.”
She met John W. “Jack” Nicholson, who was then a cadet at West Point, through a friend of her brother. They married in 1956.
After his graduation from the military academy, she traveled with him to posts in Georgia, Germany and West Point. When he was assigned to Vietnam, she and her children returned to Baltimore. They later divorced.
“As a parent, my mother was very focused on her children getting a good education,” said her son, John William Nicholson Jr., a four-star general who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “She instilled in us the importance of living a life of good values. She was a tremendously supportive mom. She had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong.”
He recalled his mother’s concern for others, saying: “She taught me to treat everyone with respect. She would say, ‘Everyone is equal.’ She was also nonjudgmental and egalitarian.
“There was a time when she was a single mom and was very hardworking,” General Nicholson said. ‘She took a job with C&P Telephone and rolled up her sleeves and focused on providing her children with the best possible start in life.”
She also once served on the committee that ran Baltimore’s annual FlowerMart.
Mrs. Watts lived in Charles Street apartment houses for decades and appeared at arts and cultural events. She lived at the Washington Place apartments in the 1980s following her marriage to Sewell Stansbury Watts III, an investment banker and Center Stage board chairman.
“One of the things I liked best about Penny was her ability to relate to people across all levels of experience,” said George Johnston, a friend. “I recall first meeting her when I was a new resident at Washington Place. Some of the residents were not friendly and looked askance at me. Penny greeted me with open arms.”
Mr. Johnston said he developed a friendship with her. “She understood that getting people together, all people, is the thing that builds a community. She had an ebullient personalty, and if there was a party, she soon became that party.
“For all her delightful personality, underneath [she] was a strong person,” Mr. Johnston said. “She met life’s challenges and was a cat with 19 lives.”
She later lived in the Warrington, 3900 and Winthrop House apartments in North Baltimore.
“Even when she had a small apartment, she would ask, ‘How many people do you think I can fit in here?” said Gene Miller, a friend. “She had an Auntie Mame style about her. She was always the belle of the ball. She had connections with people everywhere. She practically had her own table at the Prime Rib.”
Friends said she was an animal lover and enjoyed tending to Lipstick and Brandy, her cats.
Services will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.
In addition to her son and brother, survivors include four grandchildren. A daughter, Kimberley Jane Nicholson Tufte, died in 2005. Her husband, Sewell S. Watts, died in 2004.