Val Muchowski – May 29th, 2009

GEDC0080Last Friday morning I met with Val Muchowski – she pronounces it ‘my-house-key’, “but that’s not necessarily how it is said in Poland”, she quickly adds. We got together at the unique geodesic dome she and husband Steve have lived in for the past thirty-plus years. Steve kindly made me a cup of coffee and Val and I sat down to chat…
Val was born in Tucson, Arizona but when she was only eleven months old her father, George Wesel, died at the age of only twenty-five resulting in Val, an only child, and her mother Marie moving to Buffalo, New York to be with her mother’s family – an Italian family by the name of Zuzze. “My father’s side was German – yes, it was a ‘mixed’ marriage and the families saw little of each other.” This was during World War 2 and Val’s mother was one of the many ‘Rosie the Riveters’ of that time – women who took over the jobs previously held by men who were at war. Following the war, Marie worked at various department stores and Val attended one of the many parochial schools in Buffalo at that time, all the way from Elementary through High School.
“I loved the city. I was an independent kid and would catch buses or ride my bicycle all over town; sometimes girlfriends and I would cross the Peace Bridge into Canada where we could swim in clean water – unlike that in Buffalo…I enjoyed school very much and particularly liked English Literature and Math. I was a big reader as a kid and we lived close to a library where they let me take out seven books at a time. I loved to read biographies – a great way to learn about history and how people affected history.”
Buffalo was a very segregated city at that time and Val lived in an Italian neighborhood – “there were 10,000 Italian families in the local parish.” However her school was in the Irish section of town – “I can thank that community for introducing me to music, good humor, and a good drink!”
On graduating she attended the University of Buffalo Teachers’ College. “Growing up I had kept in touch with my aunts on my father’s side who lived in Nyack about thirty miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. Two of them were teachers and another was a librarian and as a result I always wanted to go into one of those professions. There were not many choices for women in those days and I chose teaching.”…It was while at college, at her job in the library, that she met and fell in love with Steve Muchowski, a fellow librarian who lived in the Polish district and was attending Conecius College, studying Physics.
Upon graduation from University in 1961 her first job was at an all-black school of eighteen hundred children. About 40% of the teachers were black and these were treated by the system as if they were substitute teachers with lesser salaries and vacation time – they became permanent substitutes. Val and some other young teachers organized a program for a number of these teachers so they could take and pass a test, which would change their status. “When they passed the Vice Principal refused to talk to me – he now had to pay them more money and didn’t appreciate that.”
She stayed at that school for two years and in that time was married to Steve who was now working at a manufacturing company in the Engineering department. When the company chose to move to the South to avoid having to deal with Unions, Steve decided to quit, as did Val from her job and, in the summer of 1963, they set off on a three-month trip around the country in their small sports car, a Sunbeam Alpine. “We went into Canada then down to New York City and on to Florida and then over to Baton Rouge where Steve’s company had wanted him to move – ‘no way’ was our opinion. It was a tense time in terms of integration in those parts and we were often treated with suspicion as we traveled through with our northern license plates. We finally ended up in San Jose where my mother was living.” They had no money left so they settled there and Val got a job as a substitute teacher in East San Jose with Steve working for General Electric. Eventually they had enough money to buy a house from Val’s great Aunt in Santa Clara where they lived for fifteen years.
Over the next few years Val and Steve started a family. It was the time when many people were having big families. “We wanted six kids but fortunately stopped at three – Mary was born in 1965, Larry in 1967, and Laurie in 1968.”…When Val returned to work at her kids per-school she was approached by some other mothers who wanted to get involved with their kids education. Together they came up with an alternative program for the public school system wherein parents would volunteer to teach some of the classes, using any skills or knowledge they had. “We had two classrooms with a total of sixty kids. It was close to NASA and the computer industry was at its infant stage in the Santa Clara area. As a result we had a unique group of volunteer teachers. It was called The Open School and we expanded each year. It was very innovative as teachers did not want parents getting involved with education prior to this – I guess we were pushy parents who just wanted to see that our kids learnt from more sources than just text books. Anyway, it’s still going today.”
Many people in the Valley know Val for her political activism and it’s something that she has been involved in ever since working on John F. Kennedy’s campaign for President in 1960 as a twenty year old college student. “My mother’s side of the family were Democrats for many generations but my father’s side was solidly Republican – they never referred to President Franklin Roosevelt by name, always as ‘that man.’ Conversely when F.D.R. died, all the mirrors in my mother’s family house were covered up – an Italian tradition when a member of the family passes away… I guess this ‘mixed’ marriage had given me a good feeling for people with different political views”…
“I thought J.F.K. was a great leader and I firmly believed that his brother Robert could be even better. I worked on his campaign in 1968 and was devastated when he was assassinated during that summer. Then somehow in the election of ’68 Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey was tainted and, just like Bush v Gore in 2000 when Gore was misrepresented, the Republicans pulled it off… In 1972 when Nixon won again, this time against McGovern, I was very discouraged and withdrew my efforts from national affairs and concentrated on local politics and education and from 1973 to 1976 I was involved with my work for the Open School.”
For two or three years in the early seventies, Val and Steve had been looking for a place to raise kids somewhere other than in a city or the suburbs. They were very interested in the ‘Back-to-the-Land’ movement of that time and in 1973 discovered Anderson Valley. The Holmes Ranch sub-division had just become available and they purchased twenty acres for $16,000. Over the ensuing three years they would often come up to their land with the kids for weekend camping trips. It took them five hours each way but was worth it and by 1976 they made the decision to move permanently. They sold their house in Santa Clara and Steve designed and helped build the remarkable geodesic house in which they have lived ever since…
Val got a job teaching kindergarten through 2nd grade at the A.V. Elementary School. “My employment was certified during a ‘famous’ School Board meeting which saw most of the Board resign at it’s conclusion. This was over the firing of Superintendent Ron Snowden – many local people didn’t want to see him go making it uncomfortable for those on the Board who did. I think just Bruce Anderson and Joan Burroughs stayed on. Over the next ten years there was constant chaos in the administration – I think I had seventeen different Superintendents in thirty years. I just wanted to teach but there was uncertainty swirling around all the time. It has calmed down a lot since those days and the school is doing a great job.”
In 1980 Val met two people “who changed my life.” With her friend Janet Seaforth she had attended the party thrown for campaign workers by Norma Bork who had been defeated in her attempt to enter Congress. At that party was Lowell Near (activist singer/songwriter Holly Near’s uncle) who was on the Democratic Central Committee and also Roberta Hollowell, a leading light in the National Women’s Political Caucus (N.W.P.C.). As a result of meeting and talking with these people, Janet and Val decided to get more involved and joined the two organizations in their stand at that time against the Nuclear program…By 1981 Vall had set up a Women’s Caucus in Anderson Valley and had joined the Mendocino Democratic Central Committee. She has been very involved in both ever since, along with the California Teachers’ Association since 1983. She was the first President of the N.W.P.C. in Mendocino “where my philosophy was to always say ‘yes, go forth and do it’ and this enabled me to do some pretty outrageous things. The work of the N.W.P.C. has lead to more women getting involved in politics at all levels. We train them in campaign organizing and how to be a candidate. I was Vice President of Education and Training for the N.W.P.C. at the State level and my nine years at the California Teachers’ Association, where I had made many political contacts, turned out to be very useful in that job.”
“I am amazed at how much time I spent working with these groups and yet still managed to teach at the school. I eventually moved on from the Elementary School and worked at Rancheria School – a continuation high school working with kids who do not fit in. I was there from 1989 to my retirement in 2005 and my three goals or purposes were simply to help the kids to graduate, make sure they had a driving license, and ultimately got a job or went to college…I enjoyed teaching at Rancheria tremendously. We created a curriculum that allowed us to work with each student individually. It was very rewarding and I believe we helped many confused kids straighten out their lives We set up a program for young mothers whereby we would pick them and their kids up in a van and bring them to the school and provide childcare while we taught the mothers. Many young women in this Valley have graduated this way. Jim Tomlin, currently the High School Vice Principal, helped greatly with this and he hired Wendy Patterson who also played a big part”…
After teaching Val found she missed being involved with the parents and the community – “Despite my continuing political work, there was a lack of a direct connection with the Valley.” As a result she joined the Unity Club, a women’s group in the Valley that organizes various events – the Wildflower Shower for example, and gives out scholarships to deserving High School Graduates. Furthermore, following bouts of cancer for both Val and Steve in 2003-04, she joined the Valley’s Cancer Support Group and strongly encourages others with experiences of cancer, or with family members who do, to come and join the group at their monthly meetings organized by Linda Brennan.
Val loves it here in the Valley and although Steve is a big fan of the desert, having visited there for vacations (they have talked about possibly moving to the Arizona area at some point), she now believes this is very doubtful. “This Valley is an incredible place with a wonderful community spirit and great mix of people. The Valley loves its kids and I am in awe at how much time is put into the children. We always go to the Graduation ceremony and find it very uplifting…I guess if I have to find a fault I do think that once in a while racial tensions crop up; it’s old prejudices really. However, this has changed so much over the years and people now seem much more tolerant in most cases.”
It was time to get Val’s responses to some of the ‘hot button’ issues of Valley life. Topics that I hear being discussed all the time on my travels and ones which many people are reluctant to go on record about…The Valley’s local public radio station, KZYX & Z? – “Well, I was one of the original organizers and went to Sacramento with founder Sean Donovan to get approval for the original transmission tower to go on public land. On the very first day of broadcasting, a Monday in October of 1989, I had a show, ‘Women’s Voices’ at 7pm. I hosted that show for ten years and it is still going but now we have a collective of seven women who share hosting duties. I remember that Sean said, “You don’t want to start something like that. There aren’t enough interesting women in the County and in six months you will have gone through them all.” After talking to some women fundraisers for the station he changed his mind and the show is going strong twenty years later. I now do some political/environmental/poetry programs on the Show and continue to really enjoy it. There have been many incredible changes at the station and I absolutely love the presentation of the news by Christine Aarnestad and Paul Hansen. I also continue to go to various station meetings – I remember Bruce Anderson once called me ‘Val McMeeting’ in the A.V.A….My only disappointment with the station is that it is not more involved with a wider section of the community. They have a specialized group they speak to and I believe this is a problem that will not easily be solved”…
I ask about the A.V.A most weeks because it is an oft-mentioned topic in the Valley. Of course, the paper is synonymous with owner/editor Bruce Anderson and therefore one rarely gets a response about the paper without Bruce’s name being mentioned and opinions of him offered. Over to you, Val. “It is a very interesting newspaper and I read it almost every week. I especially enjoy the articles that cover the Valley. Like many others I would say that Bruce has mellowed and the paper is more involved in the community than it was. I have to say he used to be very vicious and there was an edge to him, turning many people off. He was also not very truthful – he once printed an interview he claimed to have had with me but he made it all up – he hadn’t even talked to me!…Bruce has an excellent built-in shit detector which enables him to call people out when they need to be called.”…I told Val that when A.V.A. major contributor, Mark Scaramella, was told I would be interviewing her he said I should ask if she had ever met a Democrat she didn’t like. She laughed out loud and responded, “Oh, about a trillion…But look, I wanted to be in a party that promoted women, was at the forefront of pursuing environmental and social justice, and most importantly, could get people elected. I remember when Bruce started the Green Party here out of his home. It went underground and disappeared. It would seem that it is my job to tell people they are doing a good job in pursuing these goals and Bruce and Mark’s job to tell them they are not…I enjoy the paper and even though they endorse Ralph Nader, not the Democrats in the election, we need that sort of wide spectrum in our political system and have no problem with it”…And as for the 2008 Election? – “I was firmly in the Hilary Clinton camp but believe that Obama is doing a fantastic job”…
The School? – “The A.V. School District is in good shape as far as providing the educational components is concerned. I think it is a great improvement to have the Spanish-speaking kids learning how to read and write in their language as well as English. We also used to see children getting the same teacher for six years in each subject. If that teacher was mediocre the kid was at a disadvantage. That is no longer the case fortunately… However, we still have a problem in keeping many of the teachers – they cannot afford to live here. Now the cutbacks in education are coming and this could seriously damage the programs so many people have worked so hard to put together. I am very concerned.”
The Wineries? – “I have mixed feelings. I love wine and the Mexican culture that has arrived here as a result of the wineries greatly enriches our Valley. However, like many others I am concerned about the water issues. I am surrounded by three wineries and our spring has dried up and disappeared. I am concerned that the Valley will end up like Alexander Valley in terms of its monoculture.”
Law and Order in the Valley? – “It is good to have resident deputies, particularly if they get involved in the community. It was like the Wild West when we arrived but Sheriff Squires has provided a good presence and calmed things down.”
I asked Val for whom she would vote if there were a Mayor of the Valley with powers to make a difference. “Geraldine Rose – she is very connected to the Valley, knows what is going on, knows many of the people, and is very sensible.”…And what if you were the Mayor, Val? – “No thank you – the Valley is ungovernable!”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Val, 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? – “It would be when somebody says. ‘I’m too busy’ “…

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “A gathering of people at which ideas are exchanged in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and passion”…

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

What sound or noise do you love? – “Walking into my garden and hearing the birds sing”…

What sound or noise do you hate? – “People yelling at each other”…

What is your favorite curse word? – “Bullshit”…

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “A song by acappella singing group, ‘Sweet Honey and The Rock’ called ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest’. They rose to prominence during the Civil Rights movement and that song has inspired me”…

What is your favorite hobby? – “Reading – mainly biographies and history”…

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “An anthropologist – I took some classes at college and was fascinated but I was driven by the need to find a profession which would give me enough to make a living”…

What profession would you not like to do? – “A dental hygienist – I just cannot imagine putting my fingers into people’s mouths – I hope my hygienist doesn’t read this”…

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – ‘The day I was married”…

What was the saddest? – “When my mother died”…

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “That I have always been curious; always trying to learn and figure out things”…

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well, I would like to hear her say, ‘Welcome, Val – here in heaven we have equity at least”…

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Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hi there – I don’t think I know you but I cannot find your name so I don’t really know. I have stories from the valley, for the valley – 1960 and beyond! I am a 1988 graduate of Anderson Valley High School…my mom was married to Donald Pardini, we spoke Boont at home…

    Shiloh

    • Hi, Shiloh… Steve Sparks here. Thanks for your comment… You would probably not know me – I have lived around here in the past ten years or so, although I have had property on Gschwend Road, by Christine Woods, since 1992… I have a long list of Valley folks to get through, including Donald in a few weeks hopefully. Where do you live now?


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