She was a hacker turned military operative, a surfer, a sailing instructor and a culinary artist who studied under Julia Child.
Now locals are grieving the death of Judith “Mickey” Phelps, who died after battling lung cancer, saying she was one of the community’s most joyous 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 called “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 to the Mediterranean with her family.
She started a computer store in Malta in 1988 that expanded into a chain with three locations and a video shop.
In 1990, she started her own programming business, eventually directing 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 got so good at tapping into the emerging global telecommunications systems that she was given a choice by the Pentagon—come work for us for a year or face the wrath of the government.
She opted to work for the U.S. military, Hall Phelps says, which allowed her to travel all over the world. She could speak seven languages, including Arabic, Italian, Spanish and Maltese.
She also worked as a sailing guide in Greece in the 1990s.
Phelps got a Hotel and Restaurant Management certificate from Management College in San Francisco and worked as a chef-intern at Crown Plaza in San Francisco from 1998-2000.
Along with studying under Child, she was a protégé for Jacques Pépin at Le Cordon Bleu.
Phelps enrolled at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., in 2000, and went on to pursue law.
But she didn’t last long in that field, Hall Phelps says, telling the story of how one case tested her resolve to defend all clients.
“She knew the guy was guilty,” she explained. “She said, ‘I just couldn’t do it.’”
Luckily, Phelps was quite the jack-of-all-trades.
She worked at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, where her translation abilities came in handy. And she started a plumbing business with Fred Hart in 2008 that serviced both corporate and residential customers before working at Sandabs Restaurant and landing a job as the head chef at Scotts Valley Market and branching out into Crown Café Catering.
Her wife recalls when they started Mickey’s Café and Catering.
“I was there every day with her,” she said, remembering all the times she did dishes to help out. “I did not do the food. I’m not a food person.”
And while the café wasn’t as busy as they’d hoped, the catering side of the business started to take off.
Phelps started to make a name for herself with her famous crab cakes.
“No one has the recipe for them—she was the only one that knew it,” she said. “She said she applied for a patent on it. I 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 gathering, he turned to Phelps.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it,” he said, explaining he’s 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, Timm says.
“She had everyone captivated,” Timm said. “She wasn’t there just as a caterer. She was there hanging out.”
The crab cakes really were all they were cracked up to be, Timm says.
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 night, everyone at the table loosely knew each other,” he said, adding Phelps’ humor served as a social lubricant. “She had this ability to immediately engage strangers in a way that made them comfortable and endeared you to her.”
Phelps would make pasta lunches each week for Baymonte Christian School.
City Councilwoman Donna Lind says Phelps was a fixture at Scotts Valley events. She was often cooking alongside the Scotts Valley Parks & Recreation Advocates on the 4th of July at SkyPark.
“She was always giving back with the community,” she said, reminiscing on Phelps’ high-energy nature.
To recognize her devotion, Scotts Valley City Council held a moment of silence for Phelps at a recent meeting.
Phelps first went to urgent care in June, and learned she had 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’s how God would take her, that she wouldn’t suffer.”
Phelps leaves behind a son from her first marriage, three step-children, through her marriage to Hall Phelps, and two dogs.