Stephen ‘Steve’ Sparks – April 15th, 2011

    Many people have asked Stephen over the past couple of years about when he was going to be in the ‘other chair’ and be interviewed himself. Well, as we were in the U.K. recently, visiting his family and our friends for a couple of weeks, we decided that the time had come. So, on a warm April afternoon, we sat down at the dining table in his parent’s home in Birmingham (a big city – the second largest in Britain) with a pot of tea and some chocolate biscuits (cookies) in front of us, and a bottle of wine and two glasses in reserve, and I began my interview of the Interviewer…
Stephen was born in Birmingham (Brum), England on February 14th (Valentine’s Day) in 1957 to parents Alan Sparks and!  Margaret Dean. The Sparks family had been in the City for a few generations, and as such are called ‘Brummies’  – the name given to anyone from this fine city. They had been in the city since at least the 1850’s before which time Stephen has surprisingly not researched that side of his heritage. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, as a working class family during the upheavals of the industrial revolution, which was centered in and around this part of England, they learnt various trades – Birmingham is known as ‘The City of a Thousand Trades.’ The Brummies are quick to tell you that their city has seen the manufacture of ‘everything from a nail to a train’ although the heavy industries have now mostly disappeared. They also proudly, and truthfully, proclaim that they have ‘more canals than Venice!’- canals being a key mode of transport for goods and services back in those times.
His paternal grandparents were both from Brummie families, with his grandfather, Herbert George Stephen Sparks, being born 1896, the eldest of ten siblings. He fought and was wounded in World War 1, before settling into a lifelong job at the post office. He was a ‘bit of a scallywag,’ often in the local pub, wheeling and dealing, bartering his home-raised chickens for whatever might be available. He was also a master of the monologue, an art that has virtually died out now, and Stephen’s earlier memories of him are of his grandfather’s renditions of various tales to a respectfully silent and enthralled crowd in a packed bar or club. “He virtually chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, two or three of his fingers on both hands were brown with nicotine stains, and he often had a bottle of beer when sitting around the house. Yet despite the drinking and smoking he took care of his family well and during the rationing years of World War 2, as a result of his many successful ‘deals’ in the pub, the family ate!  well and my Dad tells me that during those difficult years they were the only ones on the street with bananas!”
Stephen’s paternal grandmother, born in 1900, Gladys Hunter, or Nanna, as Stephen called her, was a ‘salt of the earth’ type’, never complaining, always working. She came from a very large family, some of who were professional soccer (football) players. She even washed the local professional team’s uniforms in the thirties. Gladys and Bert had three children, Roland, Barbara, and their youngest, Alan, Stephen’s father.
On his maternal side, the story goes much further back. Thanks to the research done by Stephen’s Great Auntie Doe (Dorothy, his grandfather’s sister) they have traced their roots back to the English Civil War in the 1640’s, at which point the Dean family, strong supporters of the Parliamentarians, had fled to Wales to escape the Royalist forces. Stephen’s great, great grandfather was George Stephenson, who discovered the steam engine and this side of the family were all well educated. The family was from the more rural Leicestershire, about an hour outside Birmingham, but they had settled in the City before the First World War. Stephen’s grandfather, Frederick Ralph Dean, was born in 1891 and he and his two brothers and two sisters all served in the Great War (1914-18) on the Western Front, either in the trenches or as nurses behind the lines in the case of the two girls. After being shot and wounded during the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he rehabilitated back in England and, following graduation from college in Birmingham, he became a music teacher. Stephen’s maternal Grandmother, the extremely caring and kind Ada Mary Smith, called Mary, was born in 1900 into a working class Birmingham family and she and her two sisters and brother were very close. “I can remember spending many happy summers at my Great Auntie Rose’s home in Oxford and there were lots of other family gatherings at which my Grandma and her sisters would laugh and laugh as they told story after story of their times together. My maternal Grandparents were married in 1924 and they had one child, Margaret, my mother.”
Stephen’s parents were born in 1929 and grew up in the city of Birmingham, although both were evacuated to the countryside, along with thousands of other children, to avoid the German air raids on this important industrial region during World War 2 – it was where the fighter planes, the Spitfires, were being built, together with so many other things necessary for the war effort. “My mother and her mother were gone for two or three years, boarding with a family in rural Leicestershire while my Grandpa spent much of the war with the students at his school who were unable to be placed with families in the countryside. My Dad was also sent away but after repeatedly running away back to Birmingham from his ‘new country home’ he was eventually allowed to stay in the city.”
“My Dad had left school at fourteen and did odd jobs before doing his compulsory national service in the army from 1946 for a couple of years. He then worked in various factories and was a draftsman for a brief time, before finally settling into a steady job in 1952 – as a fireman in the City of Birmingham Fire Brigade, a job he was to do for the next thirty years. My mother went to a good school but despite having the ability to go on to college very few girls did at that time and so she entered the workforce as a shorthand typist and later a secretary. I think she always felt she could have bettered herself career wise but it was not to be.”
Alan and Margaret met at a dance and dated for a year or so before marrying in 1954. Stephen was born in 1957 with his sister Judith coming along in 1960. “We lived at Grandad Sparks’ house at 4 Western Road in the Erdington district of Birmingham. It was an old house with coal fire heating, outside toilets, and no phone until 1968. Ice on the inside of bedroom windows in the morning was a common occurrence in the winters. We lived on the north side of the city and as a child from a sports-playing family – my father had been a semi-pro football player and my mother a club tennis player, I was playing football (soccer) as soon as I could walk. With a public park a matter of yards away, I would play all day long, until it was dark, and as a result I made many friends in the neighborhood. I also played for my school – Birches Green Junior and Infant School from 1964-68, where I did well academically too, and at the age of eleven I passed exams to go to Handsworth Grammar School, one of the top three ‘junior high/high schools’ in the whole city. After Nanna died in 1960, Grandad stayed with us before dying of lung cancer in 1971 when I was fourteen. The house was sold and we moved about two miles away to 12 The Mount, still in the Erdington district but only 1/2-mile from Europe’s biggest traffic interchange – known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’, at the confluence of some of the country’s busiest roads.”
As a young boy, and until he went to the Grammar School, at which point his studies would take preference, Stephen was expected to help around the house with the tidying up and dishwashing chores, but most of the time he was outside, playing sports, riding his bicycle, playing ‘war’ games with friends, or walking the dogs. “My Mum and my aunt rescued abandoned Border collies (sheepdogs) from various farms outside the city and found homes for them. We always had those dogs around and I fell in love with the breed from an early age. Obviously in the city they were not working sheep but they were great with tennis balls and nipping at the ankles (‘herding’) of kids on bikes whom my friends and I didn’t like!”
Stephen also liked to read a lot and would spend hours in his room reading mysteries, war books, and encyclopedias. This studious side to his nature had paid off and at the age of eleven, in September 1968, he began what would be a very important period of his life at Handsworth Grammar School. “The school was a few miles from home so I had to take public transport  – no school buses in Brum, and I have lots of not very fond memories of waiting for the bus in the freezing rain or really thick fog – smog actually, that was so prevalent in Birmingham at that time – before the ‘Clean Air Acts’ were introduced. It was a very different experience from the idyllic one I had enjoyed to that point in my young life. The school was very old-fashioned, reminiscent of something out of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’.  It was all-boys, the teachers wore caps and gowns, adherence to school uniform was very strictly enforced, everyone was called by the last names, it was ‘Yes, Sir’, ‘No, Sir’, and ‘Please, Sir’, and after-school detentions and a liberal use of the cane/stick were very common as forms of punishment… That first day was awful – I remember waving goodbye to my Mum who had come on the bus with me. She was crying and I was trying my best not to. I was scared to death that whole first year. The older boys were bullies and the very strict teachers terrified me. Fortunately, sports came to my rescue, not for the first or last time. I had played football and cricket for my previous school and this continued in the new school where each year or grade had its own team, although football was my main sport. I played on the team representing the whole district at 15 and then got to play for the School’s First Team when I was 16, becoming the team captain in my final year, during which I also represented the County (State) of Warwickshire in three games.”
Stephen was not only school soccer captain, but he played for the school at cricket, cross-country, and athletics (track) where he set a school record in the mile of 4 min 34 seconds that was to stand for several years. He also performed well in his academic work. His favorite subjects were History, Geography, English Literature, and Latin, and although he did well at the sciences and mathematics he was not nearly as interested in those subjects.  He was also a House Captain and a Senior Prefect and in his final year won the school History Prize.
“Over those years, when not studying or playing sports, my passion, and one which remains to this day, was following the local professional football team, Aston Villa. I could write a book about my experiences watching and following the team but suffice it to say here – with my whole extended family being Villa fans too, I will be a Villa fan from conception to the grave… Meanwhile, I was driven to succeed academically by a desire to pleas! e my Grandfather Dean – Grandpa. He and my Grandma were major influences and we saw them all of the time. My Grandpa had played sports at a high level and was a highly regarded teacher so his interest in my activities in those areas led me to try so hard – I desperately did not want to disappoint him. I was also gifted in some ways but if he had not been around, encouraging and enquiring, perhaps I would not have done so well. My parents were very supportive too although not nearly as imposing, and ultimately if I did poorly at a test or in sports I was not too concerned about their reaction or that of my Grandma – they would have said ‘bad luck, better luck next time’ but my Grandpa may have show disappointment and that would have been a heavy cross to bare. Looking back, he was a very strong character and tough for some to deal with but he was most certainly the biggest influence in my life and as he lived until he was ninety-four, dying in 1985, his presence has been felt in whatever I have done since.”
In Stephen’s final two years at Grammar School, 1973-75, he had a steady girlfriend and as a result he went against his family’s better judgment and decided he was going to go to a local university to study something as yet to be determined. This despite the fact that he had been accepted, pending final exam results, by Oxford University to study History. Then the girl became pregnant and, without telling anyone, the two teenagers paid for and went through with an abortion. They stayed together for several months after that but in the summer before his first year at Aston University in Birmingham, where he had decided to study Business, the girl ended their relationship and Stephen found himself studying a subject and attending a unversity, neither of which would have been his first choices in different circumstances.
“That was a tough summer. After so much had gone right for me for my whole life I found myself floundering somewhat. My parents, as always were there for me and had instilled in me a good sense of what was right and wrong, a sound base for making good judgments and now I had taken a ‘wrong turn’ somehow. I know my Grandpa was disappointed about me not going to Oxford – he was a bit of a snob and would have loved telling his friends in the world of education about me if I had gone there. However, in his defense, he was very supportive and inquisitive about my studies and sporting activities at Aston. Speaking of sports, in that autumn of 1975 I tried out for and made the University football team in my first week at Aston and that ‘saved’ me once again. I had a lot of instant and like-minded friends and I was one of just two first year (freshmen) players that made the starting line-up. I was readily accepted as the only ‘Brummie’ on the team, but therefore had to deal with a constant barrage of good natured verbal a! buse for being a ‘townie’ on a team of students from all over the rest of the country. To make matters better, we went on to win the National Championship that year (1975-76) – the 35th anniversary of which I was celebrating last weekend at a reunion in Brum.”
The drawback to this was that, after his six years of hard study and discipline at Handsworth Grammar, Stephen had now spent a little too much time at play and not at his studies in the far less rigid and structured environment of a university in the mid-seventies. As a result he failed his first year and had to repeat it. “That was a shock to my family but not entirely unexpected on my part. I had discovered the wonderful world of University sports, beer, and college girls. However, a year after being accepted by Oxford, to find myself failing at Aston was certainly a bit of a comedown to say the least… I obviously take the blame for it but there were ‘extenuating circumstances’. The football was great and the celebrations after each victory were extensive – I missed lots of lectures. Then, on top of the University social scene I was also still very much a part of the activities of the friends I had grown up with over the previous years – my local Brummie friends – ‘The Lads’ as we referred to ourselves – who were at that time, and continue to be, my closest friends of all. I’d go out with them one night and the University football team the next, sleeping on friend’s floors often and therefore failing to go home where my patient parents were still being understanding, but not as much!”
The good news was that Stephen got to play five years of top quality football, still graduate with a degree in ‘Managerial and Administrative Studies’, and remain close to his family. “I had the ability to do well but did not like the course very much. I continued to lead a full social life but always made sure I did a sufficient amount of studying to get by. In that period, and during the final couple of years at the Grammar School prior to that, I had really become interested in America’s recent history and it’s films made during that same period – the sixties and seventies – JFK, his assassination and those of M.L. King and Bobby Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, etc; and the early films of DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, Eastwood, Hoffman, Jane Fonda, etc. These interests, coupled with the fact a close friend of mine on the football team, Jim Reid, had been to the States for a summer and shared his experiences with me, led me and some of my similarly interested Brummie friends to go over there in the summers of 1978 and 1979.”
“What a truly fantastic time we had. On the first occasion we had Greyhound bus passes for two months and traveled from New York, where one of the lads had relatives, via Niagara Falls, on to Chicago – more rel! atives to stay with and show us around, on to St Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, where we stayed one block off Union Square at a youth hostel and went to Baker Beach to catch some California sun and had to keep our jackets on in the freezing fog, to L.A. – where we stayed with more relatives – some gay show business-types, to the Grand Canyon, to Austin Texas – more relatives, and finally to New Orleans, where our tickets expired. There were four of us – me, Mick, Moz, and Graeme and we split into pairs, with Mick Cusack and I hitch-hiking back to New York City. It took us two four days and over thirty rides – a story for another time”…In 1979, Stephen, Mick, and another Brummie, Tom Mannion (who had come over with other members of ‘The Lads’ the previous year too – Austin, Eugene, and Brendan) returned and rode Amtrack trains from New York to Chicago and then down to Austin again – a place they had fallen in love with, and where a number of the local women seemed to like us almost as much as we liked them!”
Stephen graduated in June 1980 from Aston with a 2nd Class degree and before he had even heard the results he was in New York once again. “I had signed up for a student exchange work program with a friend of mine at University – Andy Hall. We had been offered legal work through this program on the Boardwalk in Asberry Park, New Jersey and I started as the guy in charge of the bumper cars – ‘treat these like your babies’ said the owner Mel. He was as close to one of the ‘Sopranos’ as anyone I have ever met.”
Stephen and Andy worked the Boardwalk that summer before Andy returned to the U.K. and Stephen headed down to Austin in the September. “That was a great few months. I played football on a local pub team, worked for a landscaping firm, had numerous dates with some lovely Texan girls, and even got a job on an oil rig in Giddings, an hour or so east of Austin. There I worked alongside the most redneck and ultra-macho men I’ve ever met and where my job was as ‘the Worm’, so called due to the amount of watery mud you get covered in every time a new length of pipe is added. They never once, in two months, called me by my name – it was always ‘Worm’ – ‘Hey, Worm, get me a beer’; ‘Hey, Worm, fetch me my gun.’ It was fun, I think, and very well paid so I dealt with it.”
By December, following Ronald Reagan’s victory in the Presidential election and with Stephen’s visa about to expire, it was time he headed back to England, via New York on a Greyhound bus. During that trip, as he peered out of the bus window at the headlines on a newspaper stand in the bus stop in Memphis, Tennessee, he learned of the shooting of John Lennon… He returned to Birmingham that Christmas and after a few months at his parents home he got a three-bedroom apartment with two more of his Brummie friends, Paul and Gregg, in Erdington once again. He could not find work; it was Margaret Thatcher’s England and the industrial Midlands of the country was suffering from unemployment as badly as anywhere. He received unemployment money, read books, and regularly visited the pub with his close circle of ten or so friends. He played some semi-pro football to earn a little of his beer money and did get some temporary jobs for the local government and then spent six months as a psychiatric nurse in a hospital where both his mother (as a secretary in the social work department) and his sister Judith, as a Ward Nursing Manager, also worked. He bought some drums, learned to play, and formed a band with friends, eventually doing gigs around the city and making a couple of c.d.’s, or tapes as was the case back then. “We were quite good I suppose, and I even transported my drum kit to the State! s when I moved back there, but being in a band was never a priority or major part of my life.”
In the spring of 1982, Stephen started to date another unemployed graduate, Marie Morrissey, who lived nearby with friends. Marie wanted to find a teaching job, but in the meantime, as a talented seamstress, she, Stephen and a friend of hers started to design and make fashionable women’s clothes and sell them at the indoor market in Birmingham’s City Center. The business was a big success over the next year or so, and by that time Stephen had convinced an unsure Marie that they should take a break and spend some of their savings on an extended visit to the States and down to central America – a region both had become very interested in, particularly Mexico and Nicaragua. Little did he know at the time that he would be leaving England for good, apart from annual visits, and that his home for the next twenty-seven years, half of his life to this point in time, would be the United States…

Part 2

Following the success of their women’s clothes business, Stephen and his girlfriend, Marie Morrissey, took their savings and left the U.K. in August 1983 and headed for an open-ended visit to the States. After staying with Marie’s relatives in New Jersey for a time, they bought a 1971 Chevy Nova for $300 and headed down to Austin, Texas. After a brief stay there, they went on to Mexico and Nicaragua for a couple of months before settling down back in Austin, living in a small apartment and both finding work in the restaurant business – Marie as a waitress in a TexMex restaurant, Stephen in a submarine sandwich shop – Thundercloud Subs. With two or three of his Brummie (from home town Birmingham) friends also in Austin working at various jobs at that time, things went well as the group of friends thoroughly enjoyed Austin’s thriving social scene. However, by mid-1984, Marie and Stephen were not working out as a couple and Stephen was a little down in the dumps. He was unsure what to do next. Then one day, as he sat miserably at the serving counter in the sandwich shop, he claims that “a breath of fresh air came into my life” – well, that was me, Patty, because I had walked into the shop and said ‘Hi! Can I get a job application form, please, I’d like to work here.’

Steve and Patty became good friends but nothing more than that for a time before Stephen and Marie split up in the late fall of 1984. “It was a mutual decision, but not an easy one to deal with as our social lives continued to be so entwined. I lived in a trailer with a friend for a time, then a filthy house with a dying dog for several weeks. I eventually got an apartment with a couple of friends next to the University of Texas campus and on December 10th that year I asked Patty out – we went to see the classic movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Patty had become tired of Austin by the next summer and decided she was moving to stay with friends in San Francisco. I was welcome to go too but she was going regardless of what I wanted to do. I decided to ‘take the plunge’, leave my friends and the very comfortable Austin scene, and in June 1985 we set off in the Chevy Nova and drove to S.F. where I didn’t know a single person.”

Patty moved in with friends on Fillmore Street in the heart of the City and Stephen found a place nearby with a Russian student for a couple of months before a friend from college, Willie McGee, came over and the Russian moved out. “I found a job as the only straight man on a five-man house painting crew – an eye-opening experience indeed. We would meet in the Castro (predominantly gay) district before work every day, return there for lunch, and finish up there after work for beers. They were a great bunch of guys – four have since died from AIDS and at that time in The City the epidemic was a major topic of discussion every single day.”

In September of 1985 Stephen’s Grandpa passed and Stephen joined the San Francisco branch of the World War 1 Society as a way of remembering his grandfather. His leisure time was spent with Patty and her girlfriends plus, as a big fan of American sports, his new found teams – the Giants, Warriors, 49ers – San Francisco’s professional sports teams from baseball, basketball, and American football respectively… In the summer of 1987 Stephen and Patty were married with about twenty guests coming over from the U.K. joining many friends, new and old, who lived in different places in the States, for a very special week-long celebration that included the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge…The couple moved into a place at 720 Fillmore Street (at Hayes) and not long after Stephen set up a solo house-painting business…

In October 1989, following several months of hard work, Stephen and another friend from college, Roger Howell, opened an English-style pub in the Lower Haight district at Fillmore and Haight – The Mad Dog in the Fog – “another way of saying ‘an Englishman in San Francisco’. Just six days later, with Stephen in attendance at Game 3 of the World Series (Giants/Oakland A’s), the earthquake struck. “I was still in the parking lot at Candlestick Park – the tarmac appeared to be rolling like a slow moving river. I got back to the bar where a crazy scene greeted me because unlike most bars around we still had power and were able to remain open that night – it was an incredibly busy night and some great advertising for the bar – everyone desperately needed a drink and we were the only place able to give them one for a couple of miles around!”

Meanwhile, Patty remained at her administrative job at U.C.S.F. hospital because it offered both of them health benefits and they had no idea how the pub business would do. As it was, Stephen threw himself into the new venture and it proved to be the right place in the right location and at the right time. It was very successful and there would even be lines out the door even on a Tuesday evening – the slowest night of the week. The bar continued to grow and in time there were thirty staff on the payroll. Patty was getting increasingly stressed out at the hospital dealing with hemophiliac children with AIDS and, with the Mad Dog bartenders making very good money, she left the hospital and became a manager/bartender at The Mad Dog, working the very busy Friday and Saturday night shifts, doing supply runs, and booking the Saturday night bands that included acts such as Train, Third Eye Blind, and Alvin Lee – who all went on to much, much bigger things. Other ‘celebrity’ visitors over the years, as the bar became quite famous, included musicians Elvis Costello, Ray Davies of The Kinks, and world-renowned classical violinist, Nigel Kennedy, although in each of these cases it was to watch soccer, the pub being known as the place to see soccer in San Francisco. “We had some great employees, a real strength of what was achieved, many of whom became our friends, and to this day we have a reunion almost every year up here at our land in the Valley where they camp and get very rowdy for a weekend. Patty would go out with the girls for karaoke and I would often go with the guys to the Giants, where I had a season ticket from 1986 to 2001. The pub had a great atmosphere on both sides of the bar. Many customers met their future spouses at our place and apart from the live music on Saturdays, we’d also have d.j.’s, pub quizzes, live soccer from the U.K. on the televisions, and we sponsored several sports’ teams – men and women’s soccer, softball, and darts. For the bigger soccer matches beamed in live from Europe it was not unusual to have 300 people packed in at 7am in the morning as we served beer and a full English breakfast. The pub became very well-known, eventually even becoming the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question!”

In the summer of 1991, through two sisters who had a vintage clothes shop in the Lower Haight near to The Mad Dog, and whose father lived in Yorkville (Gareth Birch), Patty and Stephen heard about a classic old-time County Fair in Mendocino in the town of Boonville. They visited that Fair in September 1991 with their new Border Collie puppies, Frank and Bing, and met local shepherd Kevin Owens who was competing in the sheepdog trials. “We had been looking to buy something out of the City but not this far away. However, we checked out the realty notices in the window of North Country Real Estate and met realtor Don Hahn. One thing led to another and in July 1992 we bought ten acres on Gschwend Road between Philo and Navarro, with Don phoning to give us the great news with those never-to-be-forgotten words – ‘Congratulations, Stephen, you and Patty now own property in Anderson Valley.’ We spent the next ten years visiting the Valley for three days at a time and working at the pub for the remaining twenty-seven or so days each month – it was tough, seventy hours a week at times, but the business was a great success and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.”

“We loved San Francisco and for a long time our needs and interests suited our lifestyle there. We just never found time for kids. I suppose if we’d both really wanted to have them we would have. In 1996 we bought out our partner Roger and ran the business with the help of the wonderful staff. We would take a brief break every week with our ‘Thursday night dates’ at the wonderful restaurants the City has to offer; we would do the club scene; watch live music; frequently go to the cinema; go to as many of the street fairs and S.F. events that we could; and after playing on the pub’s soccer team with many friends, by the later years I was coaching the team as it evolved into one of the City’s best. We’d host big Thanksgiving Day events at our home on Potrero Hill – the only day of the year when the pub was closed as we even opened and served a big dinner for over one hundred customers every Xmas Day. Patty was in a Book Club; wrote an advice column called ‘Agony Aunt’ for an S.F. magazine, did tarot readings at a place called the Psychic Five and Dime, and once a year we’d either go on a road trip to Michigan or fly to England (and on to France, Spain, Holland, Ireland) and also try to get to Mexico for a short break to ‘decompress’ for a week once a year.’

“In 1997 we bought a large house on Potrero Hill in the City and then in 2000, in an attempt to get a little distance from the pub for our leisure time, we bought and moved to another property in Point Richmond, a lovely little town in the East Bay. However, this plan did not really work out and after thirteen years in the bar business it really became apparent that it had become too much. Despite our wonderful new home, the financial success, and the highly regarded establishment we had created, the stress was too much as our whole life revolved around The Mad Dog. It was time for a change. In May 2002 we sold both our house in the East Bay and the pub on the same day (keeping the Potrero Hill property as a rental until selling it 2005) and headed to Anderson Valley with Frank, Bing, and our new pup, Grace, for what was supposed to be about six months. That was nine years ago.”

For the first year up in the Valley Stephen took a complete break, apart from work around their land. Patty had a couple of months off before getting two jobs – at Roederer and Esterlina Vineyards at the top of Holmes Ranch. Then Stephen took a few shifts at Esterlina and also made deliveries for them to the coast… Another Border collie was added to the ‘gang’ – Rose, and ten sheep were bought from Sam Johnson in 2003 as Stephen began to realise a lifelong dream of being a ‘shepherd’. A rescue Border Collie, Fred, joined the family in 2005 by which time Stephen and Grace had won a couple of sheepdog trials. Bing (in 2005) and Frank (2006) sadly passed away but brothers Alan and John were added in December 2006 with Winston and Beth being born to Rose and Alan in June 2008. “The dogs have given Patty and me so much joy. Not a day goes by when one of us doesn’t say ‘what would we do without them?’ Sadly, the wonderful Grace passed in December 2009 – she was my closest companion, a great herding dog – a ‘natural’, and I continue to miss her.”

In 2003, the Anderson Valley High School soccer coach, Tom Smith, asked Stephen, a near neighbor on Gschwend Road, to help coach the school team. Stephen, who was missing the coaching he had done in San Francisco by this time, jumped at the opportunity, and over the next seven seasons the team had unprecedented success, winning the league title on five occasions and reaching the semi-finals of the postseason regional championships on three occasions. Following Tom’s tragic death in the spring of 2010, Stephen took over the team and, with the help of assistant coaches Eddie Ferreyra and Nikola Milojevich, the high school won its first ever post-season championship in 2010.

Apart from coaching, Stephen wrote reports on the games for the local newspaper – the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and for the past couple of years or so he has been interviewing various Valley folks from all walks of Valley life for his other newspaper column ‘Lives and Times of Valley Folks.’ Having left Esterlina Winery in 2006, he has been kept busy with management positions at both the Highpockety Ox Pub and a bookkeeping job at The Boonville Lodge when it was owned by Tom Towey, who is now the owner of the new Buckhorn pub in town where Patty bartends.

“I have been very fortunate to find myself here in Anderson Valley where I am able to keep myself busy doing things that I regard as hobbies – the soccer coaching – a wonderful experience; conducting and writing the interviews for the newspaper; producing and presenting the weekly ‘General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz’, initially at The Ox, then The Lodge, and now at Lauren’s Restaurant; and my activities at the Senior Center where I am Vice Chair on the Board and also perform the Bingo calling duties once a month. Along with others I also organized the recent very successful fund-raiser at the Brewery for the Anderson Valley Animal Rescue and for the past five years I have been the Director of the A.V. Film Festival from which the proceeds have benefited several local organizations and charities. I love helping the seniors and animals – given my upbringing and the influences on my life I suppose it is perhaps an inevitable way of giving something back…”

Socially, Stephen favorite thing to do is spend time at the local pubs/bars/restaurant hanging out with friends. He runs a N.F.L. pool during the football season, is a founder member of the Valley’s Gentlemen’s Military History Book Club, and looks forward to working more with the Veterans and Historical Society in the future. “I am very busy but enjoy everything I do so it’s rarely a problem. Compared with the craziness of running the pub in San Francisco this way of life is like a stroll in the park on a sunny afternoon. Through this wide range of activities I am very lucky to be able to meet and spend time with so many of the various groups of people here in the Valley – from the winery people to the descendents of early settlers; from the Okie/Arkie families to the back-to-the-land’ers, and from the newly settled brightlighters (city folk) to the Mexican community, who have been a wonderful source of pleasure through my coaching and work with their kids at the school.”

At this point Stephen would normally ask the guest for their brief responses to various issues that are frequently discussed in the Valley but he felt that by doing this himself, it might compromise his future questioning on these topics so decided to pass, suffice it to say, “It seems like every one of these issues/topics receives positive and negative responses in almost equal amounts. No matter what you say, about half the Valley will agree and the other half disagree, although I must say that the wineries are gradually winning people over and the school system has recently received a little constructive criticism – there is nothing wrong with that, I would suggest”…

To end the interview, as Stephen does each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to him and he replied as spontaneously as possible…

1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Winning a high school football (soccer) match; the dogs working sheep; the company of friends; the thought of a good meal with a pint of Guinness or bottle of Zinfandel.”

2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “So many people trying so desperately to grab their ‘fifteen minutes’ of fame; people who talk but can’t listen, coupled with those who talk a lot without actually saying anything; sexism is a real pet-peeve of mine; homophobia too; and people who ill-treat animals are scum – what else would you call them? I could go on and on as I do seem to think about this topic quite often!”

3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Patty’s laugh.”

4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Animals in pain.”

5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Bbq baby back pork ribs with Patty’s potato salad and real guacamole and chips… Or a bowl of crispy cornflakes with very cold milk… Or maybe just a classic English bacon sandwich, or sarnie as we call them…”

6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “Winston Churchill certainly, and if Hitler could come along too then that would ensure a very lively evening I’m sure.”

7. If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the        building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? – “Assuming Patty can get out herself… The dogs and cats; my passport and ‘Registered Alien’ card; and my collection of the original letters my Grandfather sent to his parents from the trenches of World War 1.”

8. What scares you? – “That so many people get their news from the Fox channel and similar such sources; the thought of being at the top of a skyscraper in an earthquake…”

9. Is there anywhere in the world where you’d particularly like to visit? – “Mount Everest but that’s not going to happen so I’ll settle for Burger Rock on the Johnson Ranch with it’s undoubtedly spectacular views overlooking the Valley – when do I get the invite, Gary?”

10. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The Martin Scorsese film ‘Taxi Driver’ – a film that really drove my desire to visit New York, which in turn led me to want to experience so much more in this wonderful country; ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens – a book that scared me as a young teen, educated me as an older teenager, and ultimately entertained me no end as an adult and admirer of one of the greatest novelists of all time; perhaps an influential song would be ‘Born to Run’, by Springsteen from 1978 – it appealed to my adventurous side and stirred my desire to move to the States. Many soul/R&B songs from the late sixties and early seventies could also be chosen – that was a wonderful period for the black music scene…”

11. Do you subscribe to any publications or newspapers? – “I get ‘The Economist’ – a good read covering U.S. and world affairs in an intelligent, succinct, and non-partisan way; also ‘Sports Illustrated’ and ‘Playboy’ – for the pictures not the articles, or is it the other way round!?!”

12. What is your favorite word or phrase? – “A couple of English derogatory terms – ‘stupid prat’ and ‘what a load of old bollocks’… I also find myself saying ‘unbelieeevable’ quite often at some of the stuff that happens around here – both good and bad!”

13. What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “When people say ‘You should….’, and also the word ‘bitch’ when used as a derogative term aimed at another person.”

14. What is your favorite hobby? – “The study of certain periods of history – Medieval England; World War One, and the U.S. in the sixties and seventies.”

15. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Professional footballer (soccer player) or perhaps a writer of History books… When I was about thirteen I wanted to be a ventriloquist but that sounds ridiculous now.”

16. What profession would you not like to do? – “Flight attendant, toll booth worker, or telephone sales.”

17. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I suppose technically it was when I was eleven and I took Ann Smith to the Saturday morning matinee. She kissed me on the cheek afterwards and broke up with me a week later to go out with my ‘arch rival’ at school – Andrew Cunningham.”

18. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I never planned to live here in the U.S. permanently. My life just evolved that way so somehow I wish I could have worked out how I could have spent more time with my parents. I have been here over half of my life and although I get to see them for a few weeks every year, it is not enough – a continuing cloud over my otherwise very fortunate life.”

19. Tell me about a memorable moment or a time you will never forget – “Winning a sheep dog trial with Grace; traveling around this country for the first time in 1978.”

20. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Opening and running ‘The Mad Dog in the Fog’ – one of the City’s most popular bars throughout the nineties; a place that brought so many people together and where a lot of happiness and good times were shared.”

21. What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Our wedding day – my face ached for days after smiling so much; or perhaps when I was told we owned property in the Valley.”

22. What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “The passing of my maternal grandparents; Grace dying.”

23. What is your favorite thing about yourself ? – “That I am a loyal and giving friend; that I have what I believe to be a good sense of right and wrong – of course I could be wrong, or right.”

24. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well, I like to keep busy so if he said, ‘Welcome Steve, I need a break so how about taking over here for a time?’ – that would likely keep me occupied and satisfy my meglomaniac tendencies at the same time!”

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Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 4:43 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Hi Sparky,
    Don’t know if you remember Tony Irvine but I can certainly remember you. (So much for Altzheimers) Good to hear that you’ve done so well. Yes I think we were probably one of the last generations to suffer the ‘Tom Brown School Days’ conditions at school. I don’t know how many times you had ‘the whack’ (cane) but I had it a few times and PF Guggenheim was certainly from the ‘this is going to hurt me as much as you’ crowd.
    I don’t know if you remember Mr Appleton, but I was to have the cane from him in the first year, and I swear he missed twice !!
    Good days though, and they stay with you for the rest of your life.
    Best wishes to you and your family.

    Regards TI


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