Mike Shapiro – May 20th, 2009

GEDC0079I met with local realtor, Mike Shapiro, last Wednesday afternoon in the garden behind what was the ‘One Horse Espresso’ stand in Boonville and in very peaceful surroundings we chatted about his life and Valley experiences…
Mike was born in Buffalo, New York to Jewish parents of Russian descent and he has a younger sister, Judy. Mother Ceil’s parents had come over from southern Russia whilst his father Irving’s were Russian/Hungarian and from a family of opticians that stretched back many generations. Mike’s paternal grandfather, Abraham, had left the family as a thirteen year old and traveled across Europe before making his way to the United States in 1904.
Abraham then broke the family mold and became a baker in New York where he raised a family in the Bronx, Irving graduated from Columbia University and then returned to the family profession of Ophthalmology, later encouraging Mike to do so too. Irving was ahead of his time in this field, a founder of vision-training, which encouraged eye-exercise and training with the aim of preventing the need for spectacles. “I believe my eyes are good to this day because of the eye-training I did. I wear glasses for reading but otherwise my sight is excellent. My sister didn’t do the training and she’s as blind as a bat!”…
The family lived in a predominantly Jewish/Black neighborhood of Buffalo until Mike was in 5th grade when they moved to the suburban town of Kenmore. Mike attended Kenmore West High School where his favorite subject was science – “I even built an x-ray machine at home” – and he had plans to study to be a vet when he entered the University of Buffalo following his high school graduation in 1960. However, after a year of pre-Vet studies, he found himself drawn strongly to Economics, something not offered at high school. “I soon found myself loving the study of Economics – it explains the whole world.”…It was while at university that Mike became very politically aware and was active in the civil rights movement, wearing a button with ‘=’ on it. “I was involved in all sorts of marches and political events. It was the during the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and along with many others, particularly in Buffalo and of course out west in Berkeley, I protested their actions and even chained myself to the courthouse. My parents were horrified and I didn’t help matters when, after graduation, I made the decision to put my education on hold and work for the Peace Corps for two years. My mother was particularly concerned but my father supported me and, with a place secured to attend Syracuse to get a Masters on my return, I joined up just one day after graduating from Buffalo and went off to Turkey in 1964 for two years as part of the World Development Project. It was a very rural area and I was the only non-Turk in a village of thirteen hundred people. I had the task of bringing them into the modern world and improving their economic conditions. It was a marvelous experience and when I returned there a few years ago, after an absence of more than thirty years, it was very special indeed.”
On his return to the States in 1966 Mike resumed his education at Syracuse – “I played handball at college and loved sports, so I chose Syracuse over Kentucky because in those days I was into football more than basketball, although that has since been reversed and now I much prefer to watch basketball. However, after getting my Masters, ironically my first job was working in the four western counties of Kentucky for the Rural Economic Development Agency.”
In the fall of 1968, Mike attended the watershed Democratic Convention in Chicago as a guest of the Kentucky delegation and it was that infamous event that he met and connected with Allard Lowenstein, who had nominated Eugene McCarthy for President and who ran for Congress himself in Nassau County, New York. “It was obvious that Nixon was going to win. Dr. King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, the Democrats were in disarray, and therefore I thought the future looked bleak for my efforts in Kentucky. I quit that job and joined Allard’s campaign. I had a great time and Lowenstein won, serving a term in Congress and becoming a significant figure in the civil rights and anti-war movements.”
“Anyway, after the successful campaign I spent Thanksgiving at home before heading out to California with a friend, Bill Price. We wanted to drive across the country and see what all the fuss was about in San Francisco at that time. The day before I left, in early December 1968, I went to my cousin’s house to say goodbye and she had a friend over – Sharon Katz was her name, I’d never seen her before. We hit it off and went out for a drink that evening and then the next day Bill and I set off in my Chevy, taking the warmer southern route – Route 66. Six months later, out of the blue, Sharon turned up in San Francisco and called me. Forty years later we are still together! – I always said she was stalking me.”
Mike had really settled into the S.F. lifestyle. “We had been here just a few days when I called my friends back east and asked them to send me all of my stuff. I loved it out here. There were women, recreational drugs, an incredible scene, unbelievable really – nothing like it anywhere, but I needed a job.” Mike had been involved with an educational television show in Kentucky called ‘Your Future is Now’, which helped kids get a High School equivalency diploma. He pitched this to the local public television channel in San Francisco – KQED. “They didn’t want it but put me in touch with Joan Ganz Clooney who had started the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), creating Sesame Street and The Electric Company in New York. She hired me to work for them and allowed me to stay in San Francisco with an office at KQED as long as I attended a meeting back east every six weeks. It was a great situation and I worked full-time for them until 1973.”
Ever since his trip to Turkey Mike had known that he had received some sort of rural calling. “My experience in Turkey was a fork in the road for me. I had urban skills but knew I wanted to enjoy the small town rural lifestyle. I had spent time during school vacations in upstate New York as a farm laborer and throughout my San Francisco days I constantly spent time checking out small countryside communities in the region with a view to moving to one at some point…In late 1972 we had explored this area in my ’67 Chevy convertible and visited Sea Ranch before taking Mountain View Road back over to Highway 128. As we arrived in this Valley we felt like we’d discovered Paradise Lost – it was like heaven. There was a big black dog asleep in the middle of the road in Boonville outside the A.V. Market. Traffic was going around it. As we were leaving I commented that it was time to get back to ‘real’ life, but then said, ‘Wait a minute, this is what real life should be, right here’. We knew this was the place for us… In 1973 the chance for promotion came along and I made the decision to pass on it. Instead CTW offered me a part-time position of a hundred days a year at $100 a day plus expenses. I called Sharon – we were living together at this time – and asked her to come with me to build a cabin in Boonville – I didn’t want to do it alone. She agreed and we bought property just south of Boonville where we were to live for the next thirty-four years.”
Sharon got a job at the school and Mike remained as a part-time consultant with CTW for two years. During that time the owner of the Boonville Hotel, Ed Karsay, offered Mike and a friend, Peter Dobbins, the opportunity to open a restaurant there and for two years they ran The Sundown Café and Cabaret with a “spectacular array of music – jazz and classical, belly-dancing, fire-eaters, all sorts. It was packed on Friday and Saturday nights with the acts coming from all over the County. We made little profit but I like to say we did throw a party for two years!”
Following this experience Mike thought he needed a ‘real’ job and for a time thought about teaching at the newly built Junior High school. “The pay was awful – about $5K a year – the lowest-paid teachers in the State at the time, other than Death Valley. The teachers even qualified for commodities such as cheese, peanut butter etc. Arguably the most important job in the country and they were paid awful wages – a terrible shame. I had a Masters degree and other hands-on experiences and just couldn’t do it”…It was during his time in the restaurant/’entertainment’ business that Mike became increasingly inundated with inquiries about property in the area. It was also the time of the Rural Alliance, The Back-to-the-Land Movement, the Simple Living Workshops offering all kinds of information about organic food, solar energy, building country houses, etc. More people were becoming interested in the rural lifestyle and Mike grabbed the opportunity.
“I had been meeting so many people who wanted to move here and real estate had really begun to interest me. I had bought the property south of town and, unbeknownst to me until much later, it was an illegal subdivision and had illegal access. It was the time before disclosures were required and house buying truly was a ‘buyer beware’ situation. People needed good guides to get them through the process. As a result when I got a real estate license my slogan was ‘Surprise Free’ Real Estate… In July 1976 I started as a salesman in Ukiah, where I’ve always had an office, and then in 1977 rented the old gas station next to Rossi’s for my local office, getting my broker’s license in 1979 and opening North Country at that time. Later on I bought the caboose in town for another office but kept the gas station site for a long time…I love my job – being outside in beautiful land helping these ‘Urban refugees’ discover what I had already discovered. I have about two thousand files on homes I have sold, the vast majority in the Valley”…
Sharon and Mike started a family in 1977 when son Ben was born, followed in 1980 by David and then Gabe in 1984. All three are involved in the sports world in one way or another – Ben is Vice President of the Golden State Warriors basketball franchise; Dave works for the Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization that trains coaches; and Gabe is in marketing for sports radio station KNBR in San Francisco. Mike has always loved sports and claims he in his playing days he had the hardest job of all– a benchwarmer!…
Over the years Mike has been involved in many local projects – “living here in a small community many of us get involved with so many good causes.” To mention a few – he helped raise money for a transmitter to be installed which would allow Channel 9 public television station to be seen here in the Valley as well as the other, already available commercial channels; he was heavily involved in the protests against the plans by the Masonite Company to build housing for 3500 people in the heart of the Valley; he was part of the early movement to get the local public radio started, five years before it finally did in 1989; he was on the board of the Mendocino Transportation Authority, where his Masters Thesis entitled, ‘You can’t get there from here’ on rural transportation proved to be very useful; and was on the fundraising group for the Health Center…
With three sport-playing boys in school much of Mike’s leisure time in the Valley was spent watching school sports. “For twenty six years we had kids around the house – I thought it would never end! It was wonderful. There must be an indentation of my backside in the bleachers at the school!…I have backed off a lot although I still go to some basketball and football games, but these days my favorite time is spent at the home we bought on Hwy. 253 in 2003 – it’s in ‘suburban Boonville’ and ironically it’s a spot we looked at back in 1969. I love the Valley and perhaps appreciate it even more now that we live a few miles outside. It is a unique place and every time we travel I feel fortunate to come home here. It is a very sweet piece of fruit that I believe will not be spoiled. Highways 128 and 253 keep it protected from ‘Napafication’ and I believe we’ll be nothing more than ‘Napa in blue jeans’ for the foreseeable future.”
I turned to a few of the hot-button issues that Valley folk seem to talk about and asked Mike for his thoughts and opinions on some of them…The school system? – “I think you could make a list as long as both of your arms of kids who have done spectacularly in life after attending our schools. There is so much that this environment and the school offers to kids that suburban or inner city schools cannot. Living in a small community with small numbers in the school means that the kids get so much more attention with their studies and can also make great friendships that last forever. My kids did very well at the school both academically and in sports – Ben went on to play Division 1 tennis at Sacramento State; Dave was a catcher at U.C. Davis. All three have excellent jobs and many other parents have similar stories, I’m sure. Kids at our school have problems of course but nothing compared to those at city schools. Our schools are excellent and incredible results have been achieved by kids from this rich environment.”…The A.V.A.? – Bruce is no longer a Jekyll and Hyde character and his paper is very good as a result. It will survive as long as he does. The paper still gives jabs at people and that is fine. My only complaint is that the print it too small, but then so are all newspapers to me!”…The wineries? – “Well I know this issue has lots of arguments on both sides but I believe that they provide lots of jobs, improve the quality of life for many, don’t cause much pollution, and export Anderson Valley products at great value – they are thus a big plus…Water is critical and always has been in California – the history of California is the history of water fights/wars, and a more diverse agricultural base would be good, but the wineries are the hub of commercial life in the Valley and the climate is perfect for the Pinot Noir grape.”…KZYX & Z local public radio? – “They do a terrific job. It is very hard to run a business when the staff consists mainly of volunteers, some people doing it for personal gratification to some degree. Conflict will always be there and there is never enough money but it has been a great success for twenty years and people have constantly stepped up and provided a great service.”…Law and Order in the Valley? – “Sheriff Keith Squires is a big asset to the Valley. He knows virtually everybody and is more a member of the community than a cop – he will be very difficult to replace effectively”…
I asked Mike whom he’d vote for Mayor if there were such a position. “We don’t need a mayor. If local government is impacted too much by specific local-interest groups the results may not suit everyone. A little distance might lead to more rational decision-making… As for incorporating, this would not be good. The parcel size is now 40,000m square feet. If you get public sewer and water then this would shrink to 6,000 square feet and we’d end up like Cloverdale and soon have street-lights, etc, and a far greater population. By keeping the Valley folk responsible for their own septic and water, the large parcels will remain and the rural nature of the Valley is maintained. As a broker I suppose I should be advocating the opposite but I never have and still don’t.”…
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Mike, many of which are 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? – “Let’s do it”…

What is your least favorite word or phrase?  – “Well I am very intolerant of racial slurs of any kind”…

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “I just love basketball – particularly Warriors basketball at the Arena in Oakland. 20,000 people can generate a lot of excitement in such a place. It is pulsating…really exciting.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Mean people and gossips.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The sounds of nature – birds singing, the wind in the trees, frogs and cicadas chirping.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Screeching cars – you hear it a lot in Boonville.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Shit-on-a-stick.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “One song always inspires me – ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. It gives me great peace and solace and often runs through my mind.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Fishing, gardening, and physical work around my property – fence building, road maintenance”…

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – I have always had an interest in the world of radio. I used to have a political show on WBFO on the Buffalo campus and I would also write short, three-minute vignettes for airing. I always had a lot of fun with it and it’s something I would have liked to have done more of.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Well I have always thought it would be fun to run for political office but then I believe I’d hate actually serving in that office.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “I have been blessed with so many but one day does stand out. My son Ben was dreading going to college and I took him there for his first day to help him move in. We were both very anxious and worried about him hating it. However, once he was there he embraced his new life immediately on arrival, like a duck to water. He was so comfortable and excited and to see him like that was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

What was the saddest? – ‘The deaths of my parents. My mother died in 200 and my father followed four years later. I had never experienced loss before and the fact that both had lived long lives, Mom was 88, Dad 90, did not make it any easier.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I’m see the silver-lining in everything. I am very positive and optimistic. Not that I have anything to complain about. I feel very blessed in my life – Sharon and the boys, my Real Estate business, Boonville.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Good job, Mike…Now go over there and say hello to your folks who have been waiting for you.”

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Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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