Freda Fox – March 11th, 2009

GEDC0128I drove up to Freda Fox’s home on Ornbaun Rd in Boonville last Wednesday morning and was greeted by Freda who immediately said, “I have to tell you I don’t want to do this – who wants to hear about me?”…After assuring her that several people had asked me to interview her, and that I knew she had a tale to tell, we sat down and began to chat…
Freda was born Frieda Theil on March 26th, 1918 in Youngstown, Ohio, the seventh daughter of John Theil and Maria Brantsch, a couple who unknowingly had grown up just five miles apart in the Saxon region of Transylvania – now Romania. They had arrived in the United States in 1900 and 1899 respectively and were proud of their Saxon heritage – they would never refer to themselves as German, although their names certainly have that connotation. Furthermore, when Freda went to school in the years following World War 1, with anti-German feeling high, the teacher felt she should drop the German spelling of her first name and so the ‘i’ disappeared.
“I was the last daughter because after me came the son my parents wanted so much. It was very important to my father. I think they probably wanted to throw me away when I became the seventh girl! When John was born he was ‘ the greatest’ and I was somewhat forgotten in the mix. My sister Elsie took me under her wing and became like a mother to me…. I remember a neighbor had just one child and wanted to adopt me – I thought it was a great idea!”
In the mid-twenties, the family moved to a rural part of Ohio near to the Pennsylvania border, to a town called Lowellville, a small town about the size of Boonville. The depression soon followed but, unlike many, Freda’s father kept his job as a railway supervisor and whilst not well off they did not suffer as so many did. She attended High School in Lowellville where she was a good student who particularly liked math and science. She liked to read – discovering and learning much from ‘Gone with the Wind’ when it was published in 1936 – and was good at sport. She graduated in 1936 but could not afford to go to college. “I knew I wanted to leave this small town and so my father agreed to put me through nurses school costing $125 for three years. I moved back to Youngstown and began my vocation; specializing in anatomy and physiology…It was very strict for us nurses there. We lived like nuns! We were in nurse’s quarters and lights out was at 10pm. We had a very strict Director of Nursing, Dorothy Winley, but she was fair and saw to it that we all progressed through our studies. I graduated from there in 1939 and went to work in the local hospital for $60 a month with room and board.”
For the first time in her life Freda had some freedom and some money to spend. “I loved clothes and had bought hardly any for three years so I went out and bought lots. We also would go out on the town sometimes and I had met an Ohio State graduate, Karl, and we dated for a time. He wanted to get married but I was not going to. I was twenty-one and had made a conscious decision to wait until I was twenty-five at least. I wanted to live first, to be independent. One night I almost agreed to his proposal when we were dancing under the stars but I said ‘no’ in the end.”
With war raging in Europe, patriotism was very strong in this country and Freda’s father encouraged his children to do what they could – “he hated the Germans and Russians.” Freda joined the Army Reserve Nurse’s Corps in the fall of 1941 – “I’ve done some dumb things in my life” she jokes. She was stationed in Ft. Knox, Kentucky and worked in the Army Hospital. “If you joined the Reserve it was just for one year, whereas the Army was for three years. I didn’t want to do that. I also had ticked the box that said ‘No’ to going overseas. However, in the eventuality of war you were classed as Army – you’d stay there until the war was over, plus six months if necessary…We nurses were extremely popular amongst all the army officers and there was a good social life to enjoy. We had a ‘formal’ (dance) every week, which I loved because dancing and wearing nice clothes were two of my favorite things to do. I played tennis, I drank, I smoked. I had a wonderful time. Then one day as I came off the tennis court to go for a drink at the Officers Club where we would hang out, I heard a news bulletin on the radio – it was December 7th, 1941, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. I knew things were going to change very quickly – and they did. Looking back I suppose I thought I was so sophisticated then – I wasn’t – and now I was about to experience a whole other world and existence.”
Thirty-nine nurses we initially called up to go across to Europe with the first wave of U.S soldiers. They were recruited from Ft. Knox, and Freda was one of them. “We were told to send all of our clothes home and keep just one outfit. I sent most of mine to my sister Ruthie but just couldn’t send them all – I kept a formal, a bathing suit, and some fancy shoes. I don’t know what I was thinking. We shipped out from New York in January 1942 and arrived in Londonderry, Ireland a few days later. Before we left, Karl had again asked me to marry him – I would not have to go if I was married. Again I turned him down. He was not the only love of my life.”
“We were the first Americans to get over there and were wined and dined and I met many very nice pilots. We were stationed in stone barracks. It was cold, freezing – thank God for Scotch! And it was always raining – I could fully understand why it was so green!…The local people were very good to us – I was taught how to make a cup of tea correctly. By the winter of 1943 I was moved to Belfast Hospital and the casualties were increasing. We worked very hard and saw a lot of tragic things. However we nurses did have lots of fun together and became very close. I was promoted a couple of times and ended up as a 2nd Lieutenant, and eventually becoming a Captain at the War’s end.”
“We went to many dances and parties with officers – the enlisted men were not allowed to mix with the nurses even though we worked with many of them on a daily basis. We would even get to London on leave sometimes and stay at the Savoy Hotel. My girlfriend, Bernie Wheatley, was dating a General’s Aide, Captain Derby – they made a film about him – and I was accompanied by the adjutant… Towards the end of 1943 we moved to the Manchester Hospital, in England. It was a real hospital – not tents with dirty floors etc. There I saw up close my first real experience of racism. There were quite a lot of black soldiers and the Doctors who were from the Southern States had a real problem with them socializing with the local English girls in the pubs etc. There were also many black nurses at this hospital. We got on fine. We’d be trying to curl our hair and they’d be trying to straighten theirs! Then, because black nurses would have to be welcomed too, they made the decision to close the club. That was an awful reason to do such a thing. I had never been confronted with these sort of issues before.”
1944 saw the Battle of the Bulge take place and as a result a huge numbers of casualties were arriving for treatment. “It was really bad but we were all promised leave to go home. I was really looking forward to Christmas 1944 at home but leave was cancelled because of all the casualties. However, for reasons never explained, all of the nurses eventually did get their leave – except two, and I was one of those. I ended up staying in Europe for over three and a half years without returning home to the States once – when I finally came back I even I had something of an English accent.”
“When the war ended in Europe – V.E. Day, May 8th, 1945 – we went out and celebrated. We had a wonderful time that night, playing bridge, dancing, drinking champagne. That night was a night to remember forever. We were so happy and I drank a lot – that’s fine, but don’t drink when you’re not happy; if you’re depressed and unhappy, drink is not your answer…”
Freda was sent to Birmingham, England to await her trip back to the States. “We were there for a few months, sitting around doing very little. It’s a bit of a blur – perhaps I drank too much – but when the war against Japan ended with V.J. Day (August 15th, 1945), we were put on a ship, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and sailed across the Atlantic to New York.”
“As we entered New York harbor the emotions were overwhelming. It was incredible. I cannot explain it. I was so happy to be home and yet so sad – I knew a very important part of my life was over. I had made so many special friends. You get very close to people you work with, particularly in the line of work we had been doing – we were a family and that family was breaking up. I had never felt like that, so emotional. It still makes me cry occasionally.”…And here in 2009, well over sixty years later, Freda shed some tears once more.
Freda explained that this was most unusual and of course I understood. She made us each a cup of coffee and I suggested that we move forward quickly through the next twenty years. “Sounds good to me – I thought we were done already,” she quickly responded with a smile.
Upon her return to the States, Freda soon enrolled at the Case Western College in Cleveland and studied Biological Sciences for three years until graduating in1948. She then returned to Lowellville and briefly taught at the local hospital. She was discontented and felt her life needed something more. So she bought a ‘lemon’ of a Dodge and, together with her sister Ruthie, set off to drive across the country to see her friends from the war years. “I had only got my driver’s license the day before we left so Ruthie did the driving. We saw many of my friends but when we were in Berkeley the car broke down. We were low on money and decided to each get a job. I went to the Veterans’ Administration in Oakland and got a nursing supervisor’s job that same day and Ruthie got one too – in the office.”
“For years people had been trying to get me married off – always suggesting possible candidates, but I had not wanted to. I liked men and had dated my fair share but I felt I did not need to get married, nor want to. Then one day at work I met Joe. We fell in love and he asked me to marry him. I told him I wanted two kids and if he didn’t like that idea then he could forget it. He agreed and we were married on April 29th, 1951 – we went to Acapulco in Mexico for our honeymoon.”
Three children followed over the next five years or so – Jeff, John, and Terry and Freda became a stay-at-home Mom. ‘I didn’t like not working. I had always had my own money. Now I felt it wasn’t mine and I desperately wanted to get back to work at some point but had committed to being at home with each of my children until they were five years old. So when Terry turned five in 1962 I went to work at Highland Hospital in Oakland.”
Joe had always wanted to fly and had obtained his flying license in 1958. They flew together a lot and Freda also learnt. Joe had a dream of flying to his home somewhere in the countryside and taxi-ing right up to the front door. A realtor friend, Stu Skyler, suggested they check out the small airport and surrounding properties in a place called Anderson Valley so they flew up this way in the summer of 1964. They liked what they saw and bought property on Airport Drive; Freda, the three kids, and the dog moving up soon afterwards with Joe not moving full-time until a few years later. “We lived in that house until 1985 when we moved here. We still have that house – Terry lives there – and we bought a further forty acres alongside and Joe and my son Jeff built the hangers down there. They worked together and got a lot done but boy did they argue – that nearly put me in therapy. They each thought they were right – in fact they were both wrong!”
“I didn’t want to move here. It was the middle of nowhere remember – it has changed a lot since the early sixties…But, I learned to love it and the people here certainly helped in that – everyone has always been so friendly to me here although my friends from those days have all passed away except Carolyn Short. My life has gone full-circle I suppose. I grew up in a small town, did many things out on my own in the world, and have now come back to a small town.”
During her time in the Valley Freda was, from 1972-83, the school district nurse, finally retiring for good at the age of sixty-six. For many years she would visit her family back East but now she is the last one and does not go back. She has kept herself in good health by doing aerobics for twenty years with Linda Boudoures and more recently she has been involved in Linda’s exercise class. She and Linda are very close and in the recent Valley Variety Show Freda appeared on stage with the rest of the class performing a dance routine. “I was at the back – hopefully people didn’t notice me…. The group helped me a lot following Joe’s death in 2001 and I think that the physical exercise has helped me mentally. I believe that if you expect your brain to work you had better stay active and not sit around.”
I now turned to asking Freda about a few of the topics that frequently concern Valley folks…The wineries? – “Well I’m for them, I guess. I am a social drinker certainly and like a glass of wine. I have always liked good Scotch and still like the occasional Scotch and water.”…The local radio station? – “I am not a listener – the reception is poor and I prefer to listen to 740 AM out of the Bay Area – they repeat things so much I eventually remember them! I watch the news on television and old movies on A.M.C. (American Movie Channel).”…The High School? – I think we have some very good teachers. I believe that the kids are given an opportunity to learn and then it’s up to them. My kids had a good education at this school.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor if there were such a position here in the Valley? – “I used to be teased for being the Mayor of Boonville but to be honest we don’t need a Mayor here. Why? And besides, nobody could be Mayor of this Valley and make everyone happy.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Freda from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Look on the bright side.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I do not like to hear people say, ‘I’m no good at that’. I also don’t like the use of incorrect grammar when people speak.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Talking to people and maybe helping them in some way if I can – something I’ve always tried to do.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Being around people who look on the dark side of life.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “I like big band music – swing music. I used to love dancing to those sounds.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Very loud noises of any kind…Also sounds of pain – I’ve heard my share of those.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I don’t want to say. I am trying hard not to answer even though you want one…It’s such a stupid word…I don’t like to swear…O.K. then, it’s…’Shit’…Are you going to write that down? Actually it’s not a swear word.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “These days it would be walking and exercise, reading too. It used to be playing Bridge.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A Doctor. I took all my pre-med exams and courses. In my day, it was very hard for women to become doctors though.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A housecleaner…or may be a full-time cook or chef.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – ”Oh, dear, there have been so many…But there are really three very special ones – the births of my children.”

What was the saddest? – “This would probably be the day I talked about earlier – when I returned to this country after the war. It could also be included as one of the happiest too though. Leaving people I loved so much was so upsetting. I was very depressed after that – I threw myself into work and studies so I did not have to think about the loss.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually – your choice? – “I suppose my strength of character; my self-belief. I am a strong person with strong opinions – sometimes that gets me into trouble. However, I have a little card hanging in the kitchen and I do try to follow its advice – ‘accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and possess the wisdom to know the difference.’ I read that often to keep myself in check.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Thank you for helping so many people and for always trying to be honest and good.”

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Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm  Comments (2)  

Bruce Hering – March 6th, 2009

GEDC0126Last Friday morning, I met with Bruce Hering (who amongst other things, was the founder of Bruce Bread) at his home on Hutsell Road at the south end of Boonville. He lives in a very quaint cabin and we sat down to chat at the kitchen table, each with a cup of tea…
Bruce was born in 1935 in Buffalo, New York, to parents of predominantly German descent with a little English thrown in at some point, although all his grandparents were born in the United States and had little to do with their heritage once they were here. His father was a manager in the manufacturing of building materials industry and found his skills in great demand. As a result the family moved around constantly and by the age of fifteen, as well as New York, Bruce had already lived in New Jersey, Connecticut, Tennessee, Ohio, and even California (Los Angeles). “I believe that all the moving around meant that staying in one place became so important to me in later years…It also meant that I never had the opportunity to make lasting friendships as a child – we were never in the same place for any length of time. On top of that my sister and brother were six and nine years younger than me, so I was a bit of a loner growing up.”
The family finally settled in South Bend, Indiana in 1950 and Bruce attended Central High School. “It was quite a big school and I did well with my studies, particularly math and the sciences. I didn’t play sports, I was a fairly sedentary kid.” He graduated in 1953 and attended Purdue University a couple of hundred miles away in Lafayette where he studied Engineering Science. “I did well at college. Many kids in Indiana came to university from small towns and had a hard time adjusting. My high school had prepared me well; the level of education had been better than for most. In my second year I joined a fraternity and for the first time in my life I discovered ‘partying’ and had some wild times. However, despite the partying, I didn’t have too much trouble with grades and managed to graduate on schedule in 1957.”
During breaks from college Bruce had returned to South Bend and had met Yvonne Schryer, who was a nurse in the town. They had fallen in love and just a week after graduating they were married. With a wide smile Bruce comments, “Nine months and one day later our first daughter, Diane, was born. I continued on the traditional path that had always seemed to be the way for me and I went to work in the corporate world as an engineer for Bendix Corp where I specialized in solving engineering problems with the use of the early computers.”
In 1961 a second daughter, Ellen, arrived and four years later a third, Alicia. ”It was the early sixties and I was a Republican. My upbringing and background had led me to being that way – I even voted for Goldwater in the ’64 election when he lost by a large margin to Lyndon Johnston.” I asked Bruce if he had therefore voted for Nixon when he had lost to Kennedy in 1960. “I suppose I must have but I don’t remember doing so…However, I was really beginning to question my view of the world and not longer after the ’64 election my political ‘conversion’ came about. I had begun night school studies for an M.B.A., believing that the engineering degree coupled with such business qualifications would set me up for life, However, during the course I had changed my opinions although I did decide to stick it out and get the damn thing anyway.”
“In 1969, three colleagues of mine at Bendix and I started Carleton Financial Computations that used computers to design and print various financial tables. We had a niche in the market at that time and I owned 5% of the company. It was a big success and we made good money. I lived a very ‘normal’ life, raising a family, working regular hours, but I continued to question what I wanted to really do. This thought would not go away and after ten years I had had enough. I sold my 5% for not that much money and left. It would later sell for $20 million so I guess I missed my chance to be a millionaire.”
He continued, “Yvonne and I were unhappy together and we got divorced. It was basically due to the major mid-life crisis I was in. Now I was forty-six years old, my marriage of more than twenty years was over, and I had quit my job. Thus ended my first life…I really wasn’t sure what I wanted so I drove out to California and arrived in Boonville in the fall of 1981 to begin my second life. I had always tried to equate success with money but could no longer rectify this. I decided that I did not want to be a rich man.” Bruce hesitated before adding with a laugh, “You might say I’ve succeeded there!…Joking apart, I deem my life to be successful – I’m a very happy guy.”
Bruce and the family had previously visited the Valley to see his brother-in-law, Ron Schyrer, who lived here, and then daughter Diane had come out a year earlier to visit her uncle and had stayed. “What was not to like about Anderson Valley? I had no idea what I wanted to do but thought ‘why not stay?’ I loved the environment and I guess if you don’t know what you want to do with your life you might as well do it in Boonville!”
Initially Bruce tried to make a living by teaching computer studies to local home-schoolers. He quite enjoyed this at first and had some money from his ‘previous life’ so he managed to get along fine. However, he soon found out that he was not a good teacher and quit that line of work. “I knew I needed to get completely away from the computer world”…Meanwhile, Diane had married Joseph Petelle and started a family and he moved in with them. With her encouragement, Bruce soon took up baking as a hobby. “I found out that I had a new passion. I really liked the idea of working with my hands – seeing the end results of your labors. Soon I was trading my bread for firewood, eggs, dinner, etc and had enough ‘fans’ to warrant a whole day of baking. It was nice to hear people say how good the bread was – the whole experience was very rewarding.”
Then came along “St. Burt of Boonville” as Bruce refers to Burt Cohen of the Boont Berry Farm store in the heart of Boonville. “Burt said he would love to sell the bread but it would have to be prepared in a ‘legal’ kitchen. He asked if I would bake the bread if he installed an oven and provided a mixer. My second daughter Ellen had come for a visit and she agreed to stay and join in this venture with me if I agreed to make it a legitimate business. Well we started Bruce Bread in 1984 and it just took off. We would move into Burt’s kitchen every afternoon at around 4pm and work through into the wee hours, paying a pittance to rent the space. We stayed at Burt’s kitchen for a few years by which time we were too big and besides he needed his kitchen for his own things so we moved into the three rooms behind ‘All that Good Stuff’ just down the street.”
Bruce loved the work and in the later years particularly enjoyed delivering the bread each day to people all over the area – out to the coast, north and south, and inland too. “I really got into that aspect – meeting cool people all over Mendocino county. I did it six days a week. I guess I kinda liked people who work at the back of grocery stores!…I made many poor business decisions though – driving to the coast to deliver two loaves is not a moneymaker! – I knew this didn’t make business sense but I did it anyway… We had never made any money – perhaps one year we did, may be $8 an hour…In the late nineties we finally sold up. One of our long-time staff, Mary Loftsgaard, knew the business inside out and she bought it from us. She still has it I believe but it’s no longer here in town…I haven’t baked a loaf of bread for more than five years now.”
Since then Bruce has had a very enjoyable retirement and continues to live in the cabin he has rented for twenty- five years. “I enjoy it even more now that I have met Jo Mueller – the woman I expect to be with for the long haul. She lives in Berkeley, close to her six grandchildren, and I have three of my six grandkids there too, so it woks out very well. I love Berkeley – there are a lot of people walking around who look just like me…And so we have a city and a country ‘estate’!
I asked Bruce about his political activism, for which in recent times he is perhaps best known. “The availability of marijuana was an attraction initially to the Valley I must say. I did not discover the stuff until I was thirty-five. So when the time came I was very involved with the movements to pass both Measure G – legalization of marijuana for personal use and Measure H – to prevent G.M.O.’s in the county’s agricultural industry – “Both of these are examples of Mendocino going up against the State and Federal governments’ wishes. We were successful with those campaigns although the forces of repression have come back with Measure B that has reversed G at this point in time….During the Measure G campaign, along with several others, I was arrested outside Wall-Mart as part of a citizens arrest by the manager of the store. After an initial ruling against us, the case went to the appellate court and eventually the eight of us each received substantial damages against Wall-mart – they had no right to do such a thing on ‘commons’ property. That was great – nothing made us happier than getting the better of them… At one time I was very political and also naïve enough to think that a third party, such as the Greens or Ralph Nader, could seriously try for a shot at the Presidency. It was very idealistic of me – I still follow their beliefs and ideas but as a political force they can forget about it.”
What about your Uncle Sam persona? – “Well that came about as a result of an arrangement with Michael Addison who organizes the July 4th event at the Fairgrounds every year. He told me I looked just like Uncle Sam and rented a costume for me to wear every year. I picked up on this and eventually stopped renting and bought the costume for myself. I got a U.S. flag and added a peace sign where the stars would normally go. I have worn the outfit and carried that flag to many, many demonstrations and protests – in San Francisco, the Burning Man Festival, etc., etc. I like the idea of a ‘peaceful United States’ although often it seems like an impossible dream. Around the time of the Iraq war I was at Burning Man and someone took a photo of me in the middle of a dust storm wearing the outfit and holding the flag– I’d say it was a very appropriate picture. I should add that although I have been arrested many times it never happened when I was dressed as Uncle Sam!”…
“Talking of Burning Man I have probably been to my final one. I have been several times and seen many incredible things and had great times. However, since meeting Jo I have settled down quite a lot and don’t need to go out partying so much. I have had some serious surgery in the recent past and I realize that perhaps that’s enough Burning Man for me. Yoga has become a big part of my life and I meditate every day. Running used to be something I enjoyed for many years – those who do not recognize my name on this article may remember the skinny greybeard that used to jog up and down 128 many a morning who can now be seen doing the same route but on a bicycle. That ‘first life’ of mine took its toll and I had to have some ulcers removed and then this past year I had a blood clot and then had open-heart surgery. It was a complete success and I feel better than ever. I can’t believe it – actually, what is left of me is in good shape!”
I next turned to some of the topics that I touch on with most of my guests…What do you most like about life in the Valley? – “This environment and the community who live here are just what I was looking for when the time came for me to move on in my life. I am very content here. This cabin is special to me although I do wonder which will go first – the house or me!! Thanks to our great social security system – I paid in quite a lot of money during my days in the corporate world – I can live as comfortably as I want. I don’t need much. I love living on Hutsell Road and never tire of walking around here.”
The wineries? – I have not been keen on the new wineries arriving but I have to say they do seem to be doing a responsible job in most cases. Locally owned and operated wineries are what I don’t mind although I’ve never been a mono-culturist and believe we need to produce a wider range of products here.”…KZYX & Z? – “I was on the board for six years and have been the public affairs programmer. I think it’s a great source of information and they have some exceptional staff – Christine Aarnastad for example. They do a good job, however there have been many staff changes and on top of that it seems the technical problems will not go away. Some of the staff’s on air abilities are not what they should be so I think some of the programmers need more direction and training.”…The A.V.A. – “I don’t buy the paper regularly and often just scan it rather than read the whole thing. Like many others, I think, I check out the Valley People pages and that’s about it.”…And if there were such a position, whom would you vote for Mayor of Anderson Valley? – “Probably Jerry Cox – I have a lot of respect for that man. May be Jeff Pugh – I see him most mornings so I know he’s o.k.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Bruce from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “It would probably be ‘at this point in time’ – it used to be ‘now’ “…

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Either ‘absolutely’ or ‘totally’, or perhaps ‘like’…

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Mainly seeing things in nature that are new to me.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Violence”

What sound or noise do you love? – “I love the sound of the creek after a good rain – Robinson Creek, right here besides the house.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Screeching brakes”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I like them all at different and appropriate times – I have no particular favorite.”

What is your favorite hobby? – ‘Playing scrabble on the computer – I’d like to play with humans but haven’t found any scrabble players yet…I also like chess and sometimes go to the Veterans Hall to play on Tuesday evenings.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “Something outdoors, something to do with nature – a Forestry guy of some sort.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A job in a factory.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “There have been so many…May be it was November 15th, 2008 – when I came out of the anesthetic after my heart surgery. There was a chance that I may not have come out at all. It was amazing – I was alive! I came to and there was Jo – I immediately asked her to marry me and she said ‘yes’…”

What was the saddest? – “Well, that’s tough to answer. I try not to recall those moments.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I like to think I am a very friendly person. I guess during my days at Bruce Bread in particular I believe that was how I was viewed. I was the guy making bread – I must be o.k.!”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Bruce – not you again!”

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eileen Pronsolino – February 27th, 2009

GEDC0124Last Friday morning I drove to the Pronsolino Ranch up on Signal Ridge where I was cheerily welcomed by Eileen Pronsolino at her home on the ranch – a home she has lived in for sixty years since marrying Angelo Pronsolino in 1949. Eileen made some coffee and we sat down to chat…
She was born in 1930 in Crescent City, California, the second of four children (two brothers, one sister), to parents whose families had lived in this country for many generations. Her father, John Anderson (no connection to the Valley) Brown was from a Texan family of long standing and had attended the high school in Blanco with former President Lyndon Johnson – “I have a letter from the President from when my father died”. Eileen’s mother, Dorothy Eileen Wells, was from Cape Junction, Oregon and her family tree can be traced back to settlers in New Hampshire back in 1636 – Eileen can obviously say she is as American as they come – “My parents were always disappointed that my sister and I didn’t join the “Daughters of the Revolution” organization!”
John Brown was an educated man and in the late twenties was a highly respected bridge engineer working in the North West for the California Division of Highways, later Cal Tran. One day he walked into a local grocery store, set his eyes on a twenty-year old Dorothy Wells behind the counter and the rest is history. They were married and shortly after began a family. In 1933, when Eileen was just two-and-a-half years old, they moved to Anderson Valley where work on roads required some experienced men and John Brown certainly fitted the bill. He became Superintendent. “We stayed at the Boonville Hotel when we first arrived and it’s strange but I can still remember running up and down the long hallways to and from the bathroom. We stayed for a week and then moved into a house on the Cal Tran property besides Highway 128 just past the Anderson Creek Bridge as you drive out of Boonville.”
“At that time, the road to Ukiah was just a dirt road and my father was in charge of projects all over the area from Ft. Bragg to Pt. Arena, all through the Valley to Cloverdale and back up to Hopland and even Leggett Valley. In those days the river here flooded every year and not just for a day or so. In fact during the winter of 1936-37 there was flooding right up to the old bridge near to where we lived. It was lower than the bridge we have there now and I remember my pregnant mother was put in a boat and rowed from our house at the back of the yard to the highway and then taken to what is now Tom McFadden’s house in Boonville, that was then the doctors, Dr. Jordt, to have her child – my sister. In those days the whole west side of Anderson Valley Way was often under water. Eventually, around 1941, right before we entered the war, they re-routed the creek and built a retaining wall.”
In 1936 Eileen went to Con Creek Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse that is now the Anderson Valley Museum, and then on to the High School in Boonville which was where the Senior Center is today. “At Con Creek there was just one teacher, Blanche Brown, and she was a remarkable person. When I first went there were nineteen kids but at different times there was anything between fifteen and forty children and she did everything. She ran the lessons and took charge of the games on the playground at lunch-breaks. I went to the school in Boonville for 7th and 8th grade but the High School then moved to the buildings behind the current Elementary school, where the district offices are and where the buses are parked. I was there for two years when my father was asked to move to Eureka for work. We had to go even though it was my junior year, I was Class president, playing on the basketball and baseball teams, and had many friends at school.”
During her school years in the Valley Eileen enjoyed the benefits of living in a small, caring community. “I had a wonderful childhood here. The community was such a friendly place and we would go to many events. In those days there was a dance for the whole family held one Saturday a month. A band would play, always The Alberts, and it was a potluck so everyone would bring food and we’d have a big feast. Everyone knew everyone else and we all looked forward to it. The whole community joined in; young and old…Also at that time a man called Ray Wheeler would organize movies to be shown every Saturday and Sunday morning at the Apple Hall. We’d get to see people like Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. We also had the skating rink and various trapezes and gymnasium things set up for us, plus a basketball court. Kids were kept very busy in those days –we even did most of the harvesting of apples in the Valley, with a few adults to supervise us, of course”
Understandably, Eileen was very upset at having to leave the Valley at such a wonderful time of her life. “I went to Eureka High and it was a real shock to me. The school was very big – over two hundred and seventy-five kids just in my grade alone. I was lost. They didn’t have a girl’s basketball team so I learnt to play field hockey and badminton. The one thing that helped was that another girl from Anderson Valley, Betty Bahl, had also moved there earlier so she introduced me to many new friends. I eventually settled in, I was a good student so that helped and I joined the Pep Band, playing clarinet, and we’d travel all over the place with the football team. I am still in touch with a lot of those people – we had our 60th High School reunion last June.”
After graduating from Eureka High, Eileen briefly studied at Eureka Business College before getting a job at Bank of America. In the meantime she had met Angelo Pronsolino whose family had been in the Valley since 1923. “I knew the Pronsolino girls – Angelo’s sisters, and his brother Guido, but not him. Then one day, it was my 15th birthday actually, December 1945, and I was working at the High School booth that was a part of the Valley’s community bazaar to raise money to build a bowling alley in town. It sounds strange now I suppose but it wasn’t at the time – we already had a skating rink at the Apple Hall…Anyway, this young man introduced himself and I learned later that he had bet his friend, George McAllister, that he’d marry me one day. When we moved to Eureka he used to drive up to see me every three weeks. The Valley never did get its bowling alley – the people who decide such things ultimately said there were not enough people here to support it – but Angelo and I did get together and we will celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary in July this year!”
Angelo proposed to Eileen in 1948, when she was seventeen. He was nearly ten years older. She said “yes” and they married in the summer of 1949 and returned to Anderson Valley. He built a house on the family ranch and over the next few years their three children were born – David, Gary, and Angela. Eileen and Angelo have lived there ever since. Angelo was a timber peeler in those days as well as helping out on the ranch with the orchards, vines, and sheep, whilst Eileen became a full-time mother but still helped out on the ranch, working in the orchards and fields. “We had sheep all over the ranch – it’s 270 acres now, bigger then – but the coyotes have put an end to all that. Now we have them in small fields around the house and may be have a hundred or so.”
When the children were in their late teens she returned to work part-time in the bank that was situated in Boonville at that time. It was the First National Bank of Cloverdale and was at the site currently occupied by the Elegante Video Store in downtown Boonville. The bank opened in October 1966 and Eileen began working there in February 1967. She remained with the bank until 1986, gradually becoming a full-time employee. However, her last year or so was spent in Ukiah as the Boonville branch had closed in 1984. “The bank had made some bad decisions about certain loans and debts were mounting up. It was too bad that it closed. The winery business was really growing plus a bank in town had been very useful to many local people. A small community needs a bank, just like it needs a school.”
Angelo had been taken seriously ill in February 1985 and was sick for a lengthy period of time. “I stopped commuting to Ukiah and took a job closer to home with Alan Green’s Greenwood Ridge Winery in their tasting room. I was the manager there for ten years before retiring, although I still work now and again!”
Over the years Eileen has been involved with several Valley organizations, primarily the Parent Teacher’s Association and the American Legion in the past and more recently the Independent Career Women (I.C.W.). “I was the Head Officer of the Room Mothers at the school – we used to put on fund raisers. Also in those days the school cheerleaders were not allowed to travel with the teams so guess who drove the girls all over to support the sports teams?!…In 1981 we started the I.C.W. here, it had previously been the Business and Professional Women but that was more of a national organization and we sent our money to them. The I.C.W. is local and raised money for all sorts of good causes in the Valley. I remember the handicapped trail in Hendy Woods was one thing we did before we stopped fund raising – we were getting a little too old. In recent times it’s more of a social group and the average age has dropped a lot in the past five years with lots of forty-somethings and even younger women joining the old ladies like myself, Frida Fox, Gwen Sidwell, Jeannie Nicholls, Joyce Murray, Donna Reilly, and Charmian”…
“These days we are around the house a lot and Angelo still puts all the sheep away in the barn every night but we love to bowl and go to Ukiah every Wednesday evening and play with the same group of friends. He started in 1986 and also goes to play in the Tuesday Morning League. I started again in 1994 and although I’m never going to be that good I still really enjoy it. And I even watch it on television, along with some football…I also like to fish on the coast and in the past we’d go to Lake Mendocino and water-ski”
I asked Eileen what she liked most about her life here in Anderson Valley. “I think I could be content anywhere in this Valley but I really like just being here on the ranch. I love the sense of community and the people who live here. It is a laid back way of life – it is for me anyway!…People ask me what I think about all the newcomers over the years and I simply say, ‘I couldn’t care less as long as they mind their own business and don’t tell us how to run ours’. Over the years we’ve had people telling us that the logging is terrible for the environment or that shooting coyotes is bad and they are doing what is natural when they kill all the sheep. Well, I don’t think breaking up the ranch on Guntley Road into sixty-four parcels and building roads for all those lots was very good for the environment either. And the coyotes are often just killing the sheep for fun when they kill so many. If some of those who complain would spend some time seeing what happens at the sheep ranches like Sam Prather’s or the Johnson’s etc, they would may be think differently. One person I know who was defending the coyote rights did just that and she soon changed her mind about the need for the sheep to be protected.”
“I think the Valley is fine despite all the changes in recent years. As long as the land is still used for agricultural things I am fine with it. We do not need more houses though and I believe the Valley Plan or zoning law does not allow anymore houses on the Valley floor except in certain spots and a particular size, limited to two per parcel.”
Eileen rarely listens to the local radio show but does buy the A.V.A. newspaper occasionally. She does think our high school does a decent job and thinks the teachers are poorly paid – “we have many teachers in our family over the years, in different locations, and I’ve seen how they often get the short end of the shaft…I do feel the adult education that is offered here to the new population is done well and will be very important for the future of the Valley.”
“I have traveled quite a lot – my main traveling companion is Christine Clark – and I’ve been to England, France, Italy, Australia, and Mexico. I’ve seen some wonderful places but you know, I would never think of leaving here – this is my favorite place of all…As for a Mayor of the Valley, I’d vote for Kevin Crane who works at Jack’s Valley Store. He seems to have an answer for every question I’ve ever asked and besides, he always asks me to vote for him when I go there!”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Eileen from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I always like to hear people say, ‘Isn’t it a beautiful day’. I like to think it is whatever the weather – just because we are here.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I couldn’t repeat it”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “The paintings of Malcolm West – his art captures the essence of this Valley. I have a couple of his works and our family has a few more.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “People trying to prove a point when I know they don’t know what they are talking about.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The sound of the ocean waves. The sound of a stream or waterfall.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Barking dogs.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Oh sugar!”…My family never cursed although I did hear my mother say a bad word when she was in her eighties.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I am a big reader. I also like to sit watching the history channel on television with an atlas on my lap. I am a very curious person about the world. I still want to learn. I love fiction books and just finished a wonderful book by Ken Follett about the 1100’s in England called ‘Pillars of Earth’…I also love my bowling night and, when I get round to it, gardening of course.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A doctor. My father was against it – ‘it’s not a job for a woman’ he said. He didn’t mind me working at the bank – he thought it was an honorable job. He hated the thought that I might end up being a waitress!”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Digging ditches; working on a road crew.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I’ve had many but nothing can compare to the thrill of holding your newborn child in your arms.”

What was the saddest? – “The day my mother died on 2004. She was ninety-five and we knew she was ill. She had encouraged me to go on a trip to Canada and so I went. She died while I was away and I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t here.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – “I can’t answer that!… Err…Err… Well, let’s see… I try to be fair and see both sides to any argument or discussion. You can’t always be right and I can say that over the years that I’ve learnt that you should never assume that something will happen – so I try not to.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Welcome, Eileen, you’ve lived a pretty good life – with a few exceptions!”…

Published in: on March 4, 2009 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment