She was a hacker turned military officer, a surfer, a sailing instructor, and a culinary artist who studied under Julia Child.
Now locals mourn the death of Judith “Mickey” Phelps, who died after battling lung cancer, saying she was one of the community’s most joyful creatures.
“Everyone just says the best things about her,” said her wife Barbara Hall Phelps, 63. “I didn’t realize how many lives she touched.”
The 47-year-old Scotts Valley resident was dubbed “Mickey” because of the twin Mickey Mouse tattoos on her arms and because of her size. She hated being called Judith, her friends say.
Phelps was born in London in 1974 and moved with her family to the Mediterranean.
In 1988 she started a computer store in Malta which grew into a chain with three branches and a video store.
In 1990, she started her own programming company and eventually led a team that worked on the Rastan Saga game for the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64.
Hall Phelps says her wife told her she was getting so good at tapping into emerging global telecommunications systems that the Pentagon gave her a choice: join us for a year or face the government’s wrath.
She chose to work for the U.S. military, Hall Phelps says, which allowed her to travel around the world. She spoke seven languages, including Arabic, Italian, Spanish and Maltese.
She also worked as a sailing guide in Greece in the 1990s.
Phelps earned a Certificate in Hotel and Restaurant Management from Management College in San Francisco and worked as a chef intern at Crown Plaza in San Francisco from 1998-2000.
In addition to her studies with Child, she was a protégé for Jacques Pépin in Le Cordon Bleu.
Phelps enrolled at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, in 2000, and went on to study law.
But she didn’t last long in that area, says Hall Phelps, who tells the story of how one case tested her determination to defend all customers.
“She knew the man was guilty,” she explained. “She said, ‘I just couldn’t.'”
Fortunately, Phelps was a jack of all trades.
She worked in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, where her translation skills came in handy. And she started a plumbing business with Fred Hart in 2008 serving both corporate and private clients before joining Sandabs Restaurant and taking a job as a chef at Scotts Valley Market and branching out to Crown Café Catering.
Her wife remembers the time they started Mickey’s Café and Catering.
“I was there with her every day,” she said, remembering the times she washed the dishes to help. “I didn’t do the food. I’m not a food person.”
And while the cafe wasn’t as busy as they’d hoped, the catering side of the business was starting to take off.
Phelps started making a name for herself with her famous crab cakes.
“Nobody has the recipe for them — she was the only one who knew it,” she said. “She said she had applied for a patent on it. I’ve never seen it. But that’s what she said.”
The license plate on her white Ford van reads CHEFMIK.
When Scotts Valley Mayor Derek Timm wanted to surprise his wife with a 20th anniversary celebration, he turned to Phelps.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it,” he said, explaining that he’d been to charity events with Phelps and her wife before. “She just always led with her heart forward.”
The enthusiastic way Phelps described the different dishes was part of the fun of the day, says Timm.
“She had everyone captivated,” Timm said. “She wasn’t just there as a caterer. She hung out there.”
The crab cakes were really all they were, says Timm.
He also recalled a poker tournament held to raise money for the Scotts Valley Falcon Club.
“Let’s put it this way, when we started the evening, everyone at the table knew each other loosely,” he said, adding that Phelps’s humor served as a social lubricant. “She had the ability to connect strangers instantly in a way that put them at ease and endeared you to her.”
Phelps would make pasta lunches every week for the Baymonte Christian School.
City Councilor Donna Lind says Phelps has been a fixture at events in Scotts Valley. She often cooked with the Scotts Valley Parks & Recreation Advocates on July 4 at SkyPark.
“She always gave back to the community,” she said, reminiscing about Phelps’ energetic nature.
In recognition of her dedication, the Scotts Valley City Council held a moment of silence for Phelps at a recent meeting.
Phelps first went to the emergency room in June and was diagnosed with lung cancer in August.
Hall Phelps was by her side when she died on Nov. 1.
“I just held her hand,” she said. “I had prayed that God would take her so that she would not suffer.”
Phelps leaves a son from her first marriage, three stepchildren, through her marriage to Hall Phelps, and two dogs.