Terry Ryder – December 16th, 2011

I met with Terry at the conference room upstairs in the Farrer Building in downtown Boonville where she had arrived just before me with coffee and cinnamon rolls from Mosswood Market next door. Things had clearly got off to a good start…
Terry was born in Santa Monica, southern California to parents Muriel Berg and William Ellis. Her great grandparents on the Berg side were immigrants from Sweden and her great grandfather was a skilled carpenter who made pattern makers. Her grandfather was a banker for the Federal Reserve Bank where he spent his entire career, from sixteen to sixty-five. The Berg’s had settled in Pennsylvania where her grandfather was born before moving to El Paso, Texas where her mother, Muriel, was born and grew up. Muriel married in 1942 but lost her husband, who was in the Army Air Corps, when he was shot down and presumed dead over the Pacific towards the end of the Second World War. Vowing to ‘pick up the pieces and carry on’, Muriel moved to Inglewood, California, in October 1945, staying with a cousin there, and renting a space where she opened a small photography studio. She met and fell in love with the landlord’s son, William, and they were married in 1948, living in West Los Angeles.
The Ellis family is of English/Scottish descent. Terry’s great grandmother and her family were involved in the Oklahoma land rush and she married a much older man who owned various saloons. “My grandfather grew up in and around saloons but he became a pharmacist and owned several drugstores in the town of Henrietta, in the Texas panhandle – oil country. He followed the oil rush, opening drugstores for the prospectors as they moved around. My father grew up in Henrietta during the depression and saw his father lose all of his stores except one. He had debts and kept that one open to pay those off while my grandmother left Texas with my Dad and his two sisters. She took them to Hollywood to get them into the movie business, where my father and one of his sisters became extras in various movies, including some ‘Little Rascals’ films. My father was in ‘Gone with the Wind’ as a wounded soldier! My grandmother was a stage mother and an extra into her seventies, mainly in westerns for which she had many of her own costumes. My aunt stayed in the business as a dancer and was a contract performer for MGM, or maybe it was 20th Century Fox studios, and appeared in a number of films, a couple with Judy Garland, but my father had little interest or ambition in the film business after those earlier years.”
After the war, and clearing his debts, Terry’s paternal grandfather, William Ellis, re-joined the family in California where he bought and fixed up small properties. In one of these, his tenant was a photography studio owned by Terry’s mother, who began to date Ellis’ son, William Jr, and in 1948 the young couple were married. Terry was born in 1950, with brother Dirk coming along nine years later.
Terry’s father was involved in the vast construction of tract housing n southern California at that time, where he became the General Superintendent of Building. ‘My mother was a homemaker and I remember living in several different houses and apartments before, when I was seven, we bought a house in West L.A. for $13K in a very middle-class area. This was halfway between Santa Monica and Westwood, real suburbia where the houses were all of different designs. I was a very social kid and had many friends in the neighborhood, always playing outside. We had complete freedom and rode our bikes everywhere; it was idyllic. I would use the very good bus system to go by myself to Westwood Village, downtown Santa Monica, or the beach. I walked to elementary school and had a ton of friends at Junior High.”
Entering high school, most of Terry’s friends went to Venice High but Terry went to University High, near to U.C.L.A. “There were a lot of rich kids there, from affluent Bel Air and other such neighborhoods. It was a big culture shock to me. However, a few of my friends from earlier went there too and I met Japanese and Mexican kids for the first time. The diversity at the school was new to me but it did lead to polarization between the rich and poorer kids. I was in the middle and there were not many of us. I must say that overall I hated high school and was a B-student. I only really enjoyed the arts classes and enjoyed doing projects connected to that, making things, crafting – pottery, jewelry-making, three-dimensional art.”
Terry’s parents, particularly her father who was always very curious about other cultures, wanted to expose Terry and her brother to the many outlets that Los Angeles offered. “We were taken to various events, theatre, fiestas, music and I had taken guitar lessons at elementary school. I graduated in 1968 and was aware of the political upheavals of the time but was not particularly politically oriented. I wanted to go to U.C.L.A. but my grades were not good enough so I went to San Fernando Valley State for one year and then to Long Beach State for my second year. They had a great art department, I lived in the dorm, and it was all that I wanted college to be. It was a great time to be that age. I was not a hippy but the cultural explosion and the music was all so new. I saw Jefferson Airplane in concert and many people that I knew were hitchhiking to San Francisco to check out that scene and become flower children, although I did not do that.”
For a couple of years Terry’s life was “art, art, art.” Then she went to Cal State, L.A., and studied Early Childhood Education, something she thought she’d enjoy but after just one semester she dropped out. “It was 1970 and I was given the opportunity to go to visit my mother’s brother in Cuba where he was working as a contractor for the navy, running the post-exchange at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. It was a two-week visit but I had a great time, scuba diving, getting a tropical island experience, and making family connections. I also met a man there, Michael Fisher, who was nine years older and worked at the post-exchange. He pursued me and on my return he sent me a ticket to fly to New York City to meet him and decided he was going to marry me. We met up and it was a great romance, all very impetuous. He wined and dined me and I was very impressed and after one week there we got engaged! We returned to our lives and he called me constantly from Cuba. Meanwhile, I went to Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena to take more classes in Early Childhood Education.”
Despite initial reluctance by her father to accept the relationship, he saw Terry was serious about Michael and accepted it, and the couple were married in 1971 in her parents’ back yard. Michael continued to work for the company that ran post-exchanges and he and Terry chose to move to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut where Michael worked at such a facility. “It was close to New York and we were excited to enjoy east coast ‘stuff’, plus Michael was near to his family in New Jersey. I had worked as a junior clerk in the public library as a teenager and now found a job in the children’s section of the New London library. We settled into being newly weds and I really liked my job and continued my studies at Connecticut College, still thinking about getting a degree. However, I went to a puppetry workshop run by Margaret Rose, who had created the Howdy Doody puppet, and I started to make puppets and doing that with the kids at the library. I had a set of my own puppets, made for me as a child by my mother.”
After a time both Terry and Michael left their jobs and moved to Long Branch, New Jersey, near to Asbury Park, and Terry got a job at the Long Branch library, again in the children’s room. However, things were not working out between the couple and they broke up by mutual agreement and Terry left the library to do puppet shows full-time at the brand new Great Adventure Park in New Jersey. She was one of many variety acts, doing six ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows a day. In late 1973, she visited family in California and ”found that there was lots of puppet action in L.A. I stayed and worked for a well-known puppeteer, Tony Urbano, building puppets for him for a time. For the 1974 summer season, I got a job for the Ringling Brothers at their Circus World near Orlando and that fall I went to Clown College in Venice, Florida. I had wanted to learn some clown comedy that I could apply to puppetry and while I was not a good clown I did graduate from the college but became a good puppeteer instead. Had I been offered a clown contract, I would have certainly accepted it – traveling on a circus train as a clown – who wouldn’t do that?”
Terry returned to L.A. and turned her creative skills to making dolls and selling them at art fairs in southern California. One of the dolls was bought by the craft editor of ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ magazine who then asked Terry to do a pattern and make a prototype to publish in the magazine. “I did that and realized I could sell more. The editor bought almost of all of them –a goose, a rabbit, and a lion that was presented to David Letterman in his show, and some stuffed animals. Suddenly I was making some money from doing a hobby – it was an exciting and lucrative time.” During this time, Terry was also building puppets for puppeteers and doing one-person shows in schools, churches, and shopping malls.
By 1977, Terry had had enough of L.A. and moved to San Francisco. ”I thought that perhaps northern California might be more my cup of tea – it was. I arrived in the City at a time when the disco scene and the gay movement were both making the headlines. The following year the gay politician Harvey Milk was murdered, along with Mayor Moscone, by fellow city supervisor Dan White. I had met all three in the months prior to that – the two politicians at a fundraiser and White when I bought a baked potato from him at his stall!… It was a very exciting time in S.F., particularly in the arts. For a couple of years I did full-time puppet stuff at schools as part of a project funded by the federal government, living in the Mission District for much of that time.”
In 1980, Terry was recruited to teach and perform shows in Alaska. “There was lots of oil money there and artists were moving up as part of an effort to enrich the school programs. I went for a couple of brief visits and liked it. I saw a ton of opportunity there and moved up for a couple of years, booking myself through the Arts Alaska agency and traveling all over the state on bush planes to do shows. It was a big adventure but after two years that was enough.”
Terry returned to the Bay Area in 1982. She had been studying Buddhism in Alaska, after attending a meditation retreat in Berkeley prior to leaving, and on her return she moved to Berkeley in the East Bay where she worked for a Buddhist printing and publishing company while she took classes in Buddhism. She was there for ten years during which time she met fellow Buddhist, Brian McSweeney at the company, and they were married in 1986. In the late eighties they left their job and moved to Santa Rosa and began to foster children in the juvenile justice system. They had six boys who would live with them and attended the Family Life Center School in Petaluma.
Terry and Brian mutually agreed to end their marriage in 1992 and “I began my ten-year ‘business phase’. I sold graphic design services for a small advertising agency in North Beach in S.F. I got the taste of making money for the first time and ate at the top restaurants and lived the high life of the City. I made the most money I’d ever made but it was the least rewarding period of my life. I was once handed a check for $10K in commissions and I asked myself ‘Am I happy? No’. Money cannot buy happiness; it can buy a hell of a lot of convenience though.”
“During that time, in the early nineties, I came up to Anderson Valley and as I drove along Hwy 128 for the first time I had a ‘funny’ feeling about where I was going. It was like the ‘yellow-brick road’, so pretty, so interesting. I knew I would be coming back here; I had a very specific take on Anderson Valley. I rented out a cabin here with a client and came up at weekends from the City, She eventually backed out and I took it over by myself. For two-and-a-half years I was a businessperson during the week and up here virtually every weekend. I hated going back to the City but eventually I found myself becoming a real hermit, holed up in the cabin alone every weekend. I felt that was unhealthy so I decided to let it go.”
For a time, Terry sold advertising for the East Bay Express in Berkeley but when that was sold to a larger syndicate things changed and she wanted to move on. She was offered a job at The Bohemian in Santa Rosa, another liberal alternative newspaper. “I decided I would take the job if I could find a place to live in Anderson Valley. I fortunately hooked up with John and Dee Pickus who had property on Big Oaks Drive in Yorkville and I moved into the little house there, commuting to Santa Rosa. After a year of that I could not see the point of living in the Valley if I was always in Santa Rosa so I quit the job and started to get work in the Valley’s wine industry.”
Terry worked in the tasting rooms at various wineries, including Christine Woods, Greenwood Ridge, Maple Creek, briefly at Standish and a little at Philo Ridge. She also worked at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville and at the Wellspring Resort in Philo, ultimately working in hospitality for several years. “I particularly loved the Wellspring job, where I did catering, housing, and was also the office assistant… One day I was in Ukiah and decided to check out the Sun House at the Grace Hudson Museum. While there I saw an old puppet-collecting friend, Alan Cook, who was installing a puppet exhibit at the museum. He introduced me to the curator, Marvin Schenck and we ended up at the Schenk house where I met Marvin’s wife, Colleen. One thing led to another and I ended up getting a job as her assistant in her job as Community Liaison Officer for the schools in Anderson Valley. I cut back on the hours at whichever winery I was at and eventually quit those jobs all together.”
Terry’s job with Colleen continues and sees her at both the elementary and junior/high schools, most of her time spent assisting Colleen with various prevention programs funded by federal grants. An extension of this is the Community Action Committee that rises up to help on any number of Valley issues such as ensuring the Valley maintains its two sheriff deputies and working with the Unity Club on getting the new police dog, Bullet. Terry also writes a weekly column in the A.V.A. newspaper called ‘School News’ covering school activities and connected updates.
“Before answering your questions that I know are coming, I want to mention a few people specifically… First my boyfriend, Bob Sites, who would be highly disappointed if I didn’t mention him! We met at the weekly Trivia Quiz when it was held at The Highpockety Ox, now called The Buckhorn. I thought he was a quirky individual and set my cap for him. I think he was oblivious for a long time but I finally penetrated that and we started going out in 2006 and now live together in a house on the Pickus property next to that first one I moved into ten years ago – we love our neighborhood and our neighbors… Then there is Allan Green, owner of the Greenwood Ridge Winery – one of the most generous people I have met in my whole life… Terry McMillan at Wellspring, who taught me more about how to treat people than anyone… Lauren Keating, of Lauren’s Restaurant – a force of nature – they don’t make people like her anymore… and finally Colleen Schenck who has the patience of a saint and we are a good complement to each other.”
I asked Terry for a verbal image of her father. “He died about six years ago of congestive heart failure. He was very creative but an artist who never found his medium. As a parent he was very involved and gave us lots of guidance in his own way”… And her mother Muriel (who incidentally is one of the best players at the weekly General Knowledge and trivia Quiz held at Lauren’s Restaurant every Thursday evening) – ‘I am so grateful that I got her for a mother. She is brave and bold, smart as a whip, and very loving. At the Quiz, she is much more competitive than me.”
And what about Anderson Valley? “I came for the beauty and found so many people who enrich our lives. By comparison, there is nothing to whine about compared to other situations I’ve been in – it would be petty to complain.”
What about various Valley issues? The wineries and their impact? – “Well they keep the land in agriculture. I have worked for many of them and they have all been very good to me”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “They serve a great purpose and in their manager, Mary Aigner, they have someone who is pretty amazing”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I love the A.V.A. and Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella are unique individuals. However, I must say I dislike their criticism of ‘School News’ and the school system”… The school system? – “I’m a huge booster for the school. I am in the position to know many teachers who are extremely bright and committed. The proof is in the pudding – check out the comparative test scores”… Changes in the Valley in recent years? – “Boonville is very different and looks more upscale these days. It is very pleasant but I am sorry some of the salt-of-the-earth people cannot afford to live here anymore. That goes for the young families too and that is very disappointing; an aging population is very sad to me”… Marijuana in A.V.? – “There is so much grown here apparently and it always surprises me that I don’t smell it more. So much is invisible to me. People are more discreet than I would have expected. My job in prevention makes me very aware that developing brains, those under twenty-five years old, are very negatively affected by marijuana.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Terry and asked her to reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The scenery of Anderson Valley; when Bob Sites is funny or makes me laugh.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Super loud noises; people being uncivil to each other.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Bird’s singing; coffee percolating.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Leaf blowers; the heavy bass sound on boom boxes.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Roast chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a nice glass of Greenwood Ridge merlot.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “My Dad – I miss him.”
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? – “My cats; my family photographs; family jewelry.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The film would be ‘Apocalypse Now’, or maybe ‘Moonstruck’, or perhaps even ‘Bridget Jones Diary’; the book would be ‘Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx; and the song – ‘Over the Rainbow’ by Judy Garland…”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Currently it’s learning to play the accordion. In the past it was making stained-glass and I hope to go back to that when I retire.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Hospital nurse, but I was too poor in the sciences to do that… Or a schoolteacher – that would be a rewarding career.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “A bookkeeper – I don’t like numbers.”
12. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was fifteen and went to the movies with Peter. It was not a stellar moment.”
13. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “May be to have studied harder when I was at high school so I would have gone to a better college straight out of school.”
14. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – “It’s too hard to pick just one.”
15. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Of having stuck with anything that was hard without quitting. I believe it’s important not to quit.”
16. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “My creativity and resilience.”
17. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Welcome – we are glad to have you.”

Published in: on December 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Susan Newstead – December 10th, 2011

I met with Susan at her lovely home in Rancho Navarro and we sat down overlooking the meadows outside with a cup of herbal tea and began to chat…
Susan was born in Boonville, Missouri – strange but true! Her parents were Hurst John and Martha Bates. The Bates side of the family was a mix of English/Irish/French/German and they had settled in Churdan, Iowa sometime in the mid-1800’s. Her grandfather was the comptroller for Kemper Military School in Boonville and her mother, the younger of two sisters, attended Stephens College for two years and then finished at University of Minnesota where she obtained a degree in Architecture.
The John’s were Welsh/Dutch who settled in Tennessee but left there for Missouri during the Civil War. Susan’s great Grandfather was a prisoner-of-war and vowed that he was ever free again he would start a church. He was and he did, opening the Broadway Baptist Church in Maries County, Missouri where the family cemetery was set-up. Susan’s father was born in 1911, the youngest of six, with four brothers and a sister. He went to college for a time but left and worked in an architect’s office and earned his qualifications through hands-on experience. It was there, at the office in Columbia, Missouri that he met Martha and they were married.
Susan was born first with a brother coming along a year later. He would suffer from severe cerebral palsy all of his life before dying in 2001 at fifty-three. She also has a sister and another brother. “We grew up in Columbia, a sizeable town of about 36,000-plus back then and the home of the University of Missouri. Both sides of my family had religious backgrounds and we went to a Baptist church most of the time I was growing up. My mother kept on with that church the rest of her life while my father was more of an ‘explorer’ in religious and spiritual terms, searching for something that would embody his views. He read an article in Life magazine once about Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian, philosopher and medical missionary, and was so taken by the man’s thoughts that he went to visit him – and ended up designing Schweitzer’s kitchen! He found that he and Schweitzer could communicate without a common language. My father was a very unusual person – people found him to be either wonderful and amazing or crazy. As a father he was somewhat difficult.”
The family lived in an area of Columbia that her father was somewhat instrumental in building. When Susan was born they lived in a house that her mother had helped design, then when the family got too large they moved across town to an ex-tavern for a year and then back to the original neighborhood – into a 1872 house right behind their first home. Her father re-modeled it, despite the fact that he said ‘architects should never solely design their own houses – they should get another opinion too.’ “He was very serious about his architecture projects, interviewing clients for hours to really know family dynamics and what they might want.”
Susan attended the local public school where she was not a particularly social child. “I was close to my siblings and also played with the two girls who lived next door who were close in age to me and my sister. I did like the outdoors and loved climbing in the trees in our yard especially one particular bald cypress tree that was great for climbing and a catalpa that was shaped just right for playing imaginary games. I was fairly shy in my early teens but I enjoyed school pretty much.”
Towards the end of her 8th grade year, because of her father’s position on the board of Kemper Military School, he was asked to find a new headmaster for their school. “As part of his search he visited a Kent School in Connecticut and decided that would be a good school for me to attend for my high school years. I took and passed the tests, had an interview, and was accepted. It was an all-girls boarding school up a mountain although there was also the boys’ section – about 4 miles away, down at the bottom. It was an Episcopal prep school and I enjoyed it. I was not terribly homesick although I was close to my mother and there was some sadness when I left. There was tension at home between my parents and I believe my father wanted to get me away from my mother’s influence and to get a new perspective.”
Susan’s favorite activity at school was theatre, which she really enjoyed, not acting but getting involved with various activities backstage. ‘I also liked the way some of the teachers at that school really made you think about things in different ways. I was not involved in any sports but somehow I became the cheerleader – yes, the cheerleader – there had never been any girls doing that before at the boys’ school football games, boys only, and I had to dress like the boys. Cheerleading was not considered ‘proper’ behavior for young ladies. I got to do it because I had a loud voice.”
Susan graduated in 1965 and had always expected she would go to college. “My mother had graduated from college and I was looking forward to it. However, my Dad wanted me to return home to look after my younger siblings, as he did not think my mother was doing a good job. He said I could go to one of the local colleges, Stephen’s College, and live at home.”
Susan attended Stephen’s College for two years and got an associate Arts degree, focusing on interior design, then theater, and film. At that point she felt she really needed to get away from home and her father, through his various contacts, arranged for her to work at the bookstore in Boulder, next to the campus of the University of Colorado. “He was a powerful presence in my life and it then took me many years to come out from under his shadow after he died. He was very unusual. He had a list of ten questions that he would put to anyone he found himself talking with – wherever that might be. On of them was ‘Do you do what you want to do every minute of every day?’ He himself would answer ‘Yes – you make the decision to do that.’ Another was ‘Do women rule the world?’ He would say ‘Yes – lock, stock, and barrel. Women rule by assignment.’ He would hand it to the person he was talking with to fill out and then get into a discussion about it. My mother took him to see a psychiatrist once and he was very proud to prove that he was sound of mind, although he remained mad at her for the rest of his life about that.”
“In the sixties, the hippy years when people were searching for something spiritual to follow, there were groups of people who thought he was ‘Christ-like’ because of the things he would talk about with authority. Sometimes I felt like he had ruined my life. Yet I was the one in the family he would talk to about all of his ideas and he wanted me to be a certain way, which didn’t feel like my way. Conversely, after he died, I also felt he was one person who knew what I was trying to do with my life. I have had a spiritual bent since my early teen years and took college courses comparing different religions. I could have stayed at Stephen’s College but in 1967 I accepted the chance to move away. I had some interest in politics growing up and by the late sixties was very interested but I never really got actually involved with any of the movements of the time.”
In early 1968 Susan decided that she would like to go to University of Denver to study radio, television, and film. She enrolled in summer school thinking that she was accepted but found out that she would have to wait until sometime in the fall session to know if she was accepted in the Radio TV Film Department and there was no guarantee. “I was annoyed and decided to join some friends of mine who were living in Central City up in the mountains at a short-lived hippy commune. That was fun for a time and whilst I was there a fellow by the name of John Newstead arrived to hang out for a while before continuing on to southern California. He had been mining near to Steamboat Springs but while he was there the U.S. Coast Guard called him up for active duty. We got married that December, a very small ceremony for close friends – and my Dad came too! He was very happy; he had always wanted me to get married. After that we moved out to Norfolk, Virginia and John was supposed to move on from there and catch a boat to the war in Vietnam.”
However, John’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he and Susan had visited her at Christmas. “John’s family had decided that nobody was allowed to talk to her about dying. They were trying to protect her, but to me that was awful. I would never want anyone to do that to me and may be part of the reason I now work with Hospice. Anyway, one of John’s superior officers became aware of this situation and took him off the list for Vietnam and he assumed local Coast Guard duties. A short time later we found out I was pregnant and that seemed to lift John’s mother and she lived longer than expected, hoping to see that grandchild but unfortunately she passed in the June of 1969, before our son was born in September – Jason John Newstead, which he changed to John ‘Johnny’ Edward Newstead III in 2nd grade, and much later he became Bones when he took a semester off of college for a three month Outward Bound trip.”
John was in the Coast Guard for a year or so and then the family decided to head for California. However, they stopped in Missouri on the way, where Susan’s father had some farmland in Boone County. “For one reason or another we stayed on the land where there was a cabin for us to live in. John found various farm-work jobs in the area and I was a homemaker, although I did work for my father as an architectural drafter in Columbia on occasion for a few years and my mother would baby-sit Jason. We got forty acres of the property from my folks and built a house in 1973, the same year our daughter Miel was born. We’d visit John’s father and family in Riverside, California quite often, including family gatherings in the summer when they would rent a beach house in Newport Beach. John started working on the river as a deckhand on towboats that pushed long strings of barges up and down various rivers in the Midwest – the Mississippi, the Ohio, and Illinois. He worked his way up to captain so he was usually gone for a month and then home for a month – a situation that lasted for twenty years.”
John’s job was well-paying and therefore Susan felt she could spend more time at home raising the two children so she quit working for her father and took classes at Stephen’s College in her efforts to learn more about “what made a home a healthy environment to live in. I didn’t get very far! However, I was working with group of folks on city planning and was introduced to some people who were putting together a series on the local community radio station on ‘Columbia in the Year 2000’. I was invited to help create a series of produced pieces which led into broadcast discussions and I fell in love with doing volunteer production work for them.”
Meanwhile Susan’s spiritual exploration continued and she discovered Findhorn in the north of Scotland – a community working with nature, not so much a commune as a spiritual community. Findhorn has no formal doctrine or creed and offers a range of workshops, programs and events in the environment of a working eco-village. The programs are intended to give participants practical experience of how to apply spiritual values in daily life. Susan visited Findhorn for a month following her father death in February 1979. “He had Legionnaires disease and wouldn’t go to a doctor until he was actually dying because he did not respect medical science. He thought he knew better. Just like with his ten questions – he would listen to the answers and then say, ‘Well that’s all very well but the correct answers are…’ He was very charismatic and won many people over.”
Susan made good friends with people at Findhorn and kept in touch with them but she returned and went on with her life in Missouri, deciding to get more involved with the radio station and soon, as well as production work, she had her own music show, called ‘Joy.’ “I played any sort of music that I thought fitted that description. I became KOPN’s production manager and we were one of two public radio stations in town – the other one featured National Public Radio (N.P.R.) programming; we were the ‘imagination station’.”
By 1986, Susan was the radio station’s General Manager. “John was still on the boats and our son Bones had graduated high school and was attending U.C. Santa Barbara studying electrical engineering, telling us he would not be coming back to live in Missouri. By the time Miel was looking at U.C. Santa Cruz in1990, we knew she would probably have similar thoughts. As a result we began to have serious thoughts about moving out this way to live. The main criteria in our search were for a place where I could have a job in public radio and if possible somewhere in northern California.”
“Around 1990, I came out to San Francisco for a convention of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and as part of the trip I came up to Anderson Valley to help this new radio station, run by Sean Donovan, on a fundraiser workshop. It seemed like a lovely place to live, and we had grown to love living in the rural area outside of Columbia, so when Sean told me he would be leaving and that the General Manager’s position would be opening up I decided to apply. In January 1991 I came out for an interview and got the job. John and I drove out here and were fortunate that Jan Wax said I could live in her daughter’s yurt on her property on Holmes Ranch. I took over from temporary manager Johnnie Bazzano, starting at KZYX & Z on March 1st.”
After a few months of looking, Susan and John bought a house at the edge of town in Boonville and John continued to work his ‘month on, month off’ schedule. Susan was General Manager at KZYX & Z here in the Valley for two years and “that was enough, although I continued to do a show after that on which I played swing music. In 1993, I found a part-time job with ‘New Dimensions’, a spirituality-based weekly radio show out of Ukiah that was broadcast on stations all over the country and even in Australia and elsewhere. Michael Toms was their main interviewer and I was the distribution person and worked from home in Boonville. I also worked for ‘New Dimensions’ on a series of programs about healing. I did another tape for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, co-founded in 1973 by former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, about their 20 years of research into spontaneous healing.”
“I had done a series of short produced pieces on traditional artists of Missouri when I was the General Manager back there at KOPN and so I started working with a group of people from Hoopa in Humboldt County on a documentary radio series about the Native Indians of California. I worked on that for six years with Joe Orozsco, Peggy Berryhill, and Rhoby Cook, doing interviews and production and in the end I had done five of the thirteen half hours that were distributed to public radio stations around the US in 2000 by N.P.R.”
Susan joined the A.V. Ambulance volunteers and was at the same time involved with her energy healing studies – “I was told by my healing teacher that ‘we were not emergency care workers’ so there was certainly some irony there. I had not been on the ambulance crew that long when the manager quit and I was asked to take that position and then John, who was also on the ambulance and fire department here in the Valley, finally quit the towboat job and started a small trucking company with Roy Laird and George Castagnola.”
Back in 1984, after it was decided that her mother could no longer handle him, Susan helped her mother find a place for her brother to live in Sacramento. “I visited him there often after I moved out here and brought him home with me for visits. I had suffered a small heart attack in February 2000 as a result of taking too much migraine medication – something I’ve dealt with all my life. Around that time we moved to a house on Estate Court by the airport in Boonville and when my brother got really sick in 2001 he came to stay with us there until he moved to a place in Willits which he enjoyed for a time before getting sepsis and dying in 2001. I had resigned as manager of the ambulance by then and was doing a little energy healing for a few people. I wish I could have done more for him and helped in his healing.”
John bought out his partners and later sold his trucking company to A.V. Brewery owner Ken Allen. In 2000, Susan started to work part-time for Bones as technical support for his software company and when she left the ambulance management she stayed on as an E.M.T. for a time… In the late 90s, Susan became interested in the Bôn Religion of Tibet, with its emphasis on respect for nature and the healing of physical and environmental as well as spiritual afflictions. In 2002 she visited the monastery in northern India that is the religion’s base which has a school for higher learning for monks and one for nuns and which also cares for and educates over 500 Bon children whose parents have died or are very poor. She wanted to make a pilgrimage to various sacred Bôn sites and learn about where they are. She returned in 2003 and then in 2005 went to Tibet for that pilgrimage for two months. “I visited several really wonderful places and made a 165-mile trek with Tibetans around a lake on foot for eleven days with donkeys carrying our belongings, all above a 15,000 feet elevation – certainly one of the highlights of my life. Afterward I put together a database for The Bon Foundation here in the US and then joined the Board, eventually becoming their Administrator.”
Susan and John split up in 2006 after thirty-eight years together. Susan moved to a house she designed on Bones and Holly’s property in Rancho Navarro. Bones and Holly live just up the hill with their boys Kai and Max. Bones is CFO and developer for a successful software company and his wife Holly is a sign language interpreter, and when they are not doing that they are often involved with their Mendocino Center for Circus Arts. Susan’s daughter Miel lives in Philo and works for Bones too – “she is my direct boss!”
These days, Susan continues to work for her son and tries to visit India every year as part of her administration work for the Bôn Foundation… She has been doing hospice work in the Valley and Ukiah since 1993, both with Hospice of Ukiah and Phoenix Hospice, and is a member of the A.V. Lions Club.
I asked her for a verbal image of her father. “Very charismatic. He had a lot of ideas that he wasn’t sure people were ready to accept. He was not an easy father to have.” And her mother? “She was a caring person and even though she had Alzheimer’s when she died, a part of such sufferers continues and her caring side went on to the end.”
I now asked Susan what she liked most about the Valley. “Living in the redwoods; the wide range of people”… The wineries? – “Well they have had quite an effect. I don’t drink wine but many people do and they have given a lot of people work”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “After many negative comments about the radio station I avoided it for many years. Maybe this will make me come back to reading it again”… KZYX & Z? – “I like it although I don’t listen that much. There are some really good programs but I don’t miss the job I had there”… Changes in the Valley? – “There are many more wineries and that was probably inevitable. There is less logging which is probably good as more sustainable practices were needed”… Marijuana? – It has become an income source for many but if other people are affected this is not good.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Susan and asked her to answer just as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Working with hospice and doing spiritual care.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “People who treat others badly in any manner whatsoever.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Music that lifts the spirits – it can be anything – rock, dance music from around the world, new age music.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – The traffic in Boonville was bad. Here it is quiet… The heater coming on irritates me!”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – Brown rice; veggies from my garden.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Rachel Naomi Remen – one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body holistic health movement and the first to recognize the role of the spirit in health and the recovery from illness. She is Co-Founder and Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program and has cared for people with cancer and their families for many years.”
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? – ‘My three Tibetan Thangka’s – art works; a collage I did of my brother; and a painting by Rachel Lahn, a local artist.
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The book would be ‘Apprenticed to Spirit’ by the spiritual teacher David Spangler; a song is Chris Williamson’s ‘Waterfall’; and a film, maybe ‘Gandhi’, I guess.”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Gardening.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A medical doctor.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “A janitorial worker.”
12. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was fifteen and we went to a dance.”
13. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “That is difficult… (long pause)… No. There are lots of things that I wish I had done better but may be I couldn’t have done. It’s best to let it be.”
14. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – ‘The walk around the lake in Tibet.”
15. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – ‘My kids – I have been very lucky. It’s them, not necessarily me.”
16. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That I have tried to bring as much goodwill into the world as I can through my work for the Foundation and with hospice. That I try to make good connections with people in the spirit of goodwill.”
17. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “As I said, there are lots of things I could have done better. If he said ‘Welcome, you did a good job’ then maybe I did one or two things well.”

Published in: on December 22, 2011 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eva Johnson – November 28th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, a few days after Thanksgiving, I met with long-time Valley resident Eva Johnson at the Fairgrounds in Boonville and we sat and talked in one of the rooms at that facility…
Eva was born in the town of Biggs in Butte County, California, in the Sacramento Valley. Her parents were Fred Abreu and Emma Rose. “My father was born in 1901, his parents having both come over to the States in the late 1800’s from the Portuguese Azores Islands – one from Pico, the other from Fayal. Actually my grandfather did not come of his own freewill – he was shanghaied off the island as a boy and forced onto a whaling ship where he worked as a cabin boy. At some point they sailed into San Francisco Bay where he jumped ship. Some years later, he met and married my grandmother. It was an arranged marriage that resulted when she was sent over from the Azores by her father, something he did with his other daughters when they became eighteen too. My father was the middle child – he had two older sisters and two younger brothers… My mother was born in Ukiah in 1895. The family had been in the U.S. for several generations, settling mostly in the mid-west. They eventually moved out to California and homesteaded on what is now Low Gap Road in Ukiah. They traded this home for the stage stop and post office in Ukiah, owned by a Mr. Snuffin, who has a road named after him there, and my grandfather became the postmaster.”
Eva’s paternal grandfather was a carpenter at the Hearst Castle and the family lived in the East Bay. Her father vividly remembered the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the fires that he watched from across the Bay as the city burned. “At some point, when my father was a teenager, they moved to the Sacramento Valley, to the Willows area near to Chico. Meanwhile, my mother’s parents were divorced and her father, the former postmaster, took her and her two sisters and moved from Ukiah to Eureka in the far north of the State. My mother and one sister married two brothers but mother’s marriage did not work out and she left town, with her young daughter Georgia, finding a job as a cook for a work crew back in Willows. She met my Dad and they were married in February 1922 and my brother Fred was born two years later. Then there followed us five girls – Mabel, Freda, Emagene, Ethel, and me in 1934 – we’re all still alive and kicking!”
The family settled three miles outside the town of Biggs and three miles from the town of Gridley, living on farming land. “My father mostly worked for other people, driving a dump truck, hauling gravel, and working with team horses. It was the time of the Depression with many things bought and sold by the barter system and we were also fortunate to have his brothers and sisters as we all helped each other with food and supplies – as we had the most kids in our family we got the most generous share. Like many immigrants at that time particularly, we were very proud people and did not accept charity easily. It was said that my Dad would prefer to dig a ditch for you rather than accept something for nothing. It was the time of President Roosevelt’s ‘chicken in every pot’ plan for the poor but my family would rather do something and be paid for it rather than accept the handout.”
“Where we lived it was mainly white families, some Portuguese, and one Mexican family. My Dad was racially prejudiced but my mother, a very big influence on me, brought us up to not be like that – she always said there was good and bad in all. I did feel a little of the prejudice though – we were half-white and half-Portuguese and it was the Portuguese who we lived around who would make the racist comments… All the races worked in the fields picking fruit alongside the many migrant workers from the southwest. I went to Biggs Elementary School where my friends in 1st grade were Eva Bower and a prissy little boy called Buddy Streeter – being a real tomboy, and the devil, I’d chase him down and kiss him!”
Eva grew up in a mixed race home but the American influence was stronger overall. ‘I could speak Portuguese back then and we did have Portuguese influences with some of the food and always had wine with our meals, watered down for the kids, but my mother was the strong influence and she was American. We entertained ourselves and helped with some of the chores like the cooking and I learned many farm skills such as chopping the heads off chickens and then picking and cleaning them, chopping wood, making fires, milking cows. My brother Fred worked with my Dad, when he wasn’t picking on us girls.”
In August 1943 the family moved to Anderson Valley. “My mother’s brother was living here and building the mill that was on Hibbert Lane near to the Pronsolino home, south of Yorkville. His wife couldn’t read or write, or drive, and my mother had gone out there to help him with some things when he became ill. She loved it and the climate here proved to be very good for her health, which was never good. After her brother got better, she came back to Biggs but decided that for her own health we would have to move from the area because there was so much field burning in the Sacramento Valley at that time. So we headed out here and lived in a house near to the corner of Hwy 128 and Mountain View Road, rented to us by Harwood Junes’ mother, Grandma June, who took the ‘risk’ at a time when many people were prejudiced and would not rent to immigrants like us. My older siblings attended the high school and junior high and I went to the elementary school which was then at the Veterans Building, and later to the Little Red Schoolhouse, now the museum, near to where the elementary school is now.”
The Second World War was raging and as a result there were few men around. “Mrs. Zigler would come to the schoolhouse at 7am and build a fire to warm the building up and at lunch-times the students would do any necessary janitorial work. Our bathrooms were only slightly better than outhouses. I was shocked having come from a modern school with a janitor, a furnace, a cafeteria, and decent bathrooms. The school bus here had seats that ran along the side of the vehicle, front to back, rather than from side to side with an aisle. The kids would slide up and down when breaking and accelerating. I was certainly very sad to leave my friends and my school to come to this place where most people did not want us and which seemed so far behind in many ways.”
“My brother was nineteen but because of suffering from a double hernia he was classed 4F and could not serve in the military – he had to deal with many comments and innuendos about that…We had lived three miles from the school in Biggs and would walk one way and pay 10 cents for the bus back. We would often go to the movies in town too. Here I was suddenly twenty-one miles from the nearest town – Ukiah, and because the road was just dirt and gravel, and very narrow so you had to wait as cars maneuvered past each other, it would take well over an hour to get to town. It was not paved until the logging boom after the war… Speaking of the war, the newsreels told of the Japanese concentration camps where they would torture prisoners of war. We were now fairly close the coast and supposedly there were Japanese submarines lurking in the ocean out there. With my wild and vivid ten year old’s imagination, I thought the Japanese would land and capture us and then torture me by poking bamboo slivers under my fingernails! It was a tough time for me – I kept asking myself ‘Why are we here? Why? Why’. I thought it was hell on earth!”
Eva also found herself a year ahead in terms of schooling. The teacher, Blanche Brown – “a wonderful teacher” – would not move kids up a class. “I therefore became very lazy and was an average student after moving. I did not like some of the teachers who were prejudiced against us newcomers. I played basketball and baseball where I played third base or in the outfield because I had the hardest throw. Not as hard as Arthur Knight, though – he hit me with a baseball once so I know! I was a tomboy throughout my childhood and always enjoyed sports and being outdoors.”
Following the War, the logging boom kicked in and many folks from the southwest moved up to the timberlands of northern California for work. “In 7th and 8th grade we suddenly had well over twenty kids in each grade – all in the same school room – I don’t know how we all fitted in. In 1947 I started at the high school and was joined by many kids from Arkansas and Oklahoma. I felt close to their community because I knew what they were going through as immigrants to the community. The Valley was a wild place at that time – every night was Saturday night in Boonville, with the three bars all packed full of many folks who loved to drink. The three main ones were The Boonville Lodge, Weiss’s Valley Inn, and The Track Inn. We moved to Navarro for a year and rented a place there but then returned to Boonville where my parents bought their first house – behind where the Hanes Gallery now is, in the middle of town.”
“Despite all these wild men from Arkansas and Oklahoma out on the streets at night, I didn’t worry about anything. The town was hopping but they did their fighting and carousing at the bars and never bothered us teenage girls. In fact more often than not they were very polite, with a ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ if you spoke to them. These rough and tough guys lived very sparsely and most of them were really good people, although of course they had a fierce rivalry with the young men of the Valley who had grown up here, fighting guys like Jack and Delmar June – fortunately the local girls generally stayed with the local boys. My mother was shocked that women went to bars at all. She occasionally drank a small glass of red wine at the most and continued to take us to Sunday school. She was very reserved and was a powerful influence on us girls. We were well behaved most of the time but I remember once I skipped class with Lovella Canevari and another girl and we were sent to the school office where the Principal, Denny Willis, (Beth Tuttle’s brother), told us off. I sniggered and then really got it. He made me cry but I think he then felt bad because I was a good kid most of the time.”
Eva, who since her sophomore year had been dating a young man by the name of Floyd Johnson, who was two years her senior, graduated in 1951 in a class that included people such as Edith Hiatt, Tom Burger, Virgil Senn, Julia Pinoli, John Childers, Laura Foster, and Barbara Fashauer. The Johnson’s had been in the Valley for a couple of generations and young Floyd worked for his uncle on the Johnson Ranch at the corner of Hwy 128 and Hwy 253 on the outskirts of Boonville. He left there and worked on the Bradford Ranch for a time before he and Eva were married in April 1953. They lived with his mother and stepfather in Boonville at the two-storey house where Eva’s grandson J.R. and his wife Kati now live, opposite the Farrer Building in downtown Boonville. Floyd was drafted into the army in August 1953, towards the end of the Korean War, and he was sent to Ft. Ord then Ft. Lewis but the war came to an end and he was discharged.
“Not long after Floyd’s discharge from the army, we moved on to the Johnson Ranch. It was Dec 12th, 1954, and we lived in the house on the property where Floyd was born. I’ve been here ever since, apart from a ninth-month period when we moved up to the Palmer House on top of the hill during the winter of terrible flooding in 1963/64. We ran sheep and drove a truck hauling livestock, hay, and feed and started our family. Janese was born in April 1955 and then Gary in November 1958. Floyd worked the ranch and I raised the kids and ‘held down the fort’ as Floyd would say. We became good friends with Donald and Donna Pardini and Bob and Barbara Canevari and ever since high school we would go to many gatherings at my mother-in-law’s with our friends, where we’d play poker, dice, and other card games. Gambling was frowned upon by some but at least the parents would know where their kids were!”
“At that time there was a bunch of us parents with little kids and we all gathered and ate Donald’s wonderful spaghetti with everyone bringing a dish. We would also go out dancing – at The Grange Hall in the Valley but also in Ft. Bragg, Cloverdale, and Ukiah, with Jim and Bernice Clow and Austin and Sylvia Hulbert – Jim was a guitarist and singer of tongue twisters! I loved to dance and had learned how to by going to the Portuguese fiestas. Janese was a school cheerleader and Donna Pardini and I were room mothers helping at the school for Gary and Donna’s daughter Julie all the way through their school years. Gary was a baseball and football player and Julie was ‘his’ cheerleader… I did the books for the ranch and often helped with the sheep and cattle – many was the time we had to bring them in when it was dark, although Floyd had dogs, one great one called Tip. He was also on the School board for seventeen years and I could not help but get involved in all of that. When Janese was in the 6th grade, in 1966, I remember she came home one day and said she did not like her new teacher. I said give him a week or so but then she said she still didn’t like him. He was a fake and tried to ‘buy’ loyalty and friendship, she said. It was Jim Jones, later of People’s Temple fame, who taught at the school for a couple of years until the School board, thanks to the insistence of Floyd and Paul Titus, finally got rid of him in 1968. We all know what happened ten years after that…”
“Of course, as many people know, the Valley has had far more than it’s fair share of bad guys. Charles Manson lived down there on Gschwend Road with his gang and all their girls and at some point gave an Arkie schoolboy some L.S.D. The boy’s father formed a vigilante force of local guys and went down there – he was so mad he probably would have killed Manson that day but he wasn’t there and never came back, fleeing the Valley after his place had been destroyed… This is a remote area where people can come and hideout. The mass murderers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng ran the Philo Motel here, now the A.V Inn run by Bob and Lydia, Lake’s wife worked at the Elementary School and they had a hot tub where they would invite teachers to join them… There was the child kidnapper, Treefrog Johnson and that guy who kidnapped and abused those young boys Steven Stayner and Timmy White, and others I cannot recall now.”
In 1967, Eva and Floyd, with their friends Donald and Donna Pardini, bought the Redwood Drive-In. “I was over-ruled on that! It was a diner without the mini-mart and gas pumps that are there now. We bought it from ‘Twink’ Charles, Chili Bates, and Bob Rawles and basically it was Donna and I who ran it for twelve years. We had good staff – Bea Coffman, Bev McGimsey, Ruby Rosenthal, and there were always some high school girls working there part-time too, plus Janese and two of the Pardini kids – Ernie and Julie. It was a lot of work and we always just got by – not unlike ranching! We sold it to Karen Ottobani in 1979 after Donna became sick but I was ready to leave anyway. I took a little time off before getting a job as a nutrition aid at the Elementary School – helping in the cookery classes and teaching the kids about nutrition. I was there for a couple of years before leaving and concentrating on helping Floyd with the ranch over the next decade.”
On Jan 12th, 1992, Floyd passed at the age of sixty-one. “On New Year’s Eve he had a serious coughing fit. He had been a big smoker but had quit five years earlier. He had said ‘if I die from it, I die from it.” I thought it was pneumonia but it was congestive heart failure which led to a heart attack a week or two later. It was a genetic condition and he had very high cholesterol. He had had a stroke four years earlier on New Year’s Eve when he was out on the ranch with Gary. He told Gary that if he had to die there and then – ‘What better place to go?’ He pulled through on that occasion but it left half his body numb. To look at him you’d think he was fine but after that day he said it felt like he was always ‘almost out of the effects of a Novocain injection, but not quite.’ Floyd was gone but, as you have to do, I ‘tied a knot in the rope and carried on.’ I was not going to put the ranch on the market – it has been in the family for about one hundred years. Sure, there have been times when I’ve said to my son, ‘What the hell are we doing here, Gary?’ but selling it is not an option… Floyd was a very capable person, and could have done so many other things but at the end of the day he said he had always wanted a ranch and that he’d done what he wanted to do. He was a real hands-on person who only regretted not going to college because it may have helped him with some business skills, not in any other qualifications. He loved ranching and he loved farming and got to do both for virtually his whole life.”
Following Floyd’s passing, and with Gary running the ranch on a day-to-day basis, along with his wife Wanda and also Janese and her husband David Summit, Eva took a job with ‘Mysteries by Mail’ through Soda Creek Press – selling mystery and romance books over the phone. She did this for five years part-time during which time she was a constant baby-sitter and cook. ‘I believe that if people work for you then you feed them as well as play them”… Following her stint at the bookselling, in 1997, Eva became the Executive Director for the A.V. Senior Center. “I enjoyed that but eventually I was burned out and it became too much, so I resigned. I also knew many of the seniors who passed and that was difficult to constantly deal with.”
In 2004, Eva noticed an ad in the A.V.A. newspaper for tasting room help at Roederer Winery. “I applied and Sharon Sullivan hired me. I had been there just a couple of days when someone left at their ‘sister’ winery, Scharffenberger in Philo and I was asked to help out there for a time. By coincidence, the tasting room was in a house where I’d been many years earlier – for Floyd’s aunt and uncle’s Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1954. It was like I was coming home! They asked me if I wanted to go back to Roederer and I said ‘No, thank you’ and have been at Scharffenberger ever since. I like it very much, meeting new people everyday, and I get to talk about the Valley history with the visitors.”
As for family, Eva has Gary and Wanda’s two children as her grandkids – J.R., who as mentioned earlier is married to Kati, and Nichole, who married a young local man Derek Wyant earlier this year at a wonderful event on the Johnson Ranch, and two more, Laura and Lane, who are Janese and David’s children… The ranch is 1800 acres with cattle and about three hundred sheep which Gary works, when he is not being one of just two County Trappers, with help from the family too of course.
I asked Eva for a verbal image of her father – “I remember him teaching us how to play cards, and cooking his delicious eggs with onion dish. He was a very hard worker, and a hard drinker. He was gone often when we were kids, often in the woods. He was ambidextrous, able to pitch a baseball equally well with either arm”… And her mother? – “He health was not good and she was ill a lot. She taught all of us girls how to sew, embroider but I had no patience with much of that stuff. She felt it was important for us to go to Sunday school for religious training and education in general. She had a beautiful voice and loved to dance.”
I then asked Eva for her thoughts on various Valley issues and institutions… The Wineries? – “I’d rather see them than houses and people. As for the ponds they have, were it not for them we’d have floods as we used to have, which most people here today have never experienced”… KZYX & Z local radio? – “I don’t listen – I can’t get it at the house”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I read it sometimes. I believe it used to be so negative that it turned me off. There was a lot of B.S. that was unnecessary and sometimes cruel”… The schools? – “Why did they let the Elementary School get into the current state of disrepair?”
Changes in the Valley? – “Well I was glad that the marijuana dispensary idea went away. That young woman should do such a thing in her own backyard. If the federal government says it is illegal then the State should follow suit. And I hate all these big fences around town – we all know what is there and nothing is done about it. Medical marijuana? We can all have a bad back but some of us have consciences”… Tourism? – “Good and bad. The Valley is not too accessible and so there are limits to it getting too many visitors and I am glad for that.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Eva and asked her to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The sunshine; looking outside and seeing the livestock on the ranch.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The smell from the brewery across the road.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Birds singing.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Trucks using their noisy jake-brakes at 4am in the morning as they pass the house.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “A spaghetti dinner with good friends.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Floyd.”
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? – “Well, I went through this once and went for Floyd’s gun collection, my Dachshund dog, Czena, and family photographs.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The film would be ‘Gone with the Wind’, the song ‘Goodbye my Friend’ by Linda Ronstadt, and the book – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
9. What is your favorite hobby? – Reading – mainly mysteries and romance, which I had to do as part of that job.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A trapeze artist in a circus.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “Someone who had to empty the chamber pots of a bed-ridden person.”
12. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was thirteen. His name was Oscar Price from Navarro and he was a year older. He came to see me and we held hands.”
13. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “Probably not.”
14. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – “I’ve had too many to pick just one.”
15. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “My family, the kids, the grandkids.”
16. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “That I am dependable, hard-working, and a pain-in-the-neck!”
17. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Welcome! Step right up, young lady – you deserve to be here!”

Published in: on December 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

John Scharffenberger – November 18th, 2011

I met with John at his lovely home set amongst thirty-plus beautiful acres just outside Philo. He made some strong coffee and we sat down to talk in the spacious dining room, with dogs Boris and Mocho nearby, relaxing alongside the wood-burning stove.
John was born in 1951 in Paterson, New Jersey to parents George Scharffenberger and Marion Nelson. The Scharffenberger’s were from the Catholic Bavarian region of Germany and it was John’s great, great grandfather who had fled their homeland in the 1860’s during the Franco-Prussian war, and moved to the United States, settling in the New York City area. “He was drafted into the Union army towards the end of the Civil War and then married my great, great grandmother, half American Indian, half English, and they settled in the rural area outside the city. My grandfather was a skilled lithographer and my father grew up in a working class family in Hollis, New York, which is where J.F.K. airport is now situated on Long Island. It was an open area with small farms – they had fruit trees and my dad kept bees. My grandfather died when my father was 10 and he was raised by his mother with help from relatives, who also helped send him through college.”
The Nelson’s were Swedish who, along with many other Scandinavians, came to the States in the 1880’s following two years of failed harvests in their homeland. “Many of them settled in Minnesota and that region of the U.S. but they settled in New Jersey, where there was work in the many textile factories that were opening at that time and it was a bustling place. My grandfather was a seaman in the merchant marines who joined the Navy and was in China during the twenties. He later served in the Navy during World War 2.”
George Scharffenberger graduated with a business degree from Columbia University and then lived in northern New Jersey where he had found work in the booming telecom industry of the day. He met a secretary, Marion Nelson, and they were married in 1948, living initially in the densely populated and industrial Patterson, where John was born, one of six children. “We were brought up Catholic but by the age of seven I was suspicious of the stuff the nuns taught at Sunday school and decided to take it all with a grain of salt.”
When John was three, the family moved to Wyckoff, New Jersey, which was real suburbia. “The neighborhood was mostly made up of Catholic families with lots of kids. With Mom at home raising the family, my Dad was moving up at the telecom company and by the time I was nine, in 4th-grade, he had become very successful and was offered a job with a high tech company in California – Litton Industries. We moved out to southern California and that was a real wrench for me. I had to leave my many friends in the neighborhood where we lived and where I was always hanging at their houses – I was a very social kid.”
The family moved to Woodland Hills, to the lot where the factory to be run by George Scharffenberger was situated. This was rented from Warner Brothers film studios, and the house where the Scharffenberger’s lived had been the ranch home of the Warner family. “We were in this huge house on two thousand acres and so I went from being very social with lots of friends in the urban suburbs to hanging out with my brothers and sisters, in our family ‘pack’ in the countryside for a few years. However, when I was twelve, my parents bought ten acres in a ‘horsey’ part of Los Angeles – Rolling Hills, and I went to junior high and high school there. It was the suburbs again but spread out and a nice place to live. My father had started out with nothing and now he was very prominent in his industry – the developing space and aeronautics field and L.A. was the ‘capital’ of this new industry…”
“The public education in Rolling Hills was very good, as good as it got anywhere in the sixties, I believe. However, I did not like school and had become less social than in my earlier years. I was a crappy student with lots of B’s, although I guess I did like history, geography and literature. I think I perhaps had a learning disability. I was on the tennis team and joined the film club where the ‘radical’ kids hung out. I was on the student council and was in charge of the morning announcements. The national anthem was played every day but on one occasion I played Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. A right wing teacher physically threatened me after that. The next week I played the Jose Feliciano version of the national anthem and was relieved of the ‘job’…
I had various paying jobs as a teenager, such as gardening, fence building, and painting, which I liked. My mother was still making us go to Mass and take catechism but the perk of this was that, at sixteen, I got a job as the driver for the local Monsignor, a senior Priest. That was fun and sometimes I’d drive him, in my mother’s station wagon, to meet with his girlfriend at a fancy hotel in Beverley Hills!”
In June 1969, John graduated and in the fall went to college at U.C. Santa Barbara studying for an Economics degree. “I dropped right in with the student radicals and was soon involved in the protests of the day – just some stupid kid suddenly hanging around with these serious radicals. My roommate was one of the Santa Barbara Twenty who were charged with burning down the Bank of America in town and made the national news. The police came to our house and pulled me out of bed and dragged me downstairs naked, thinking I was him. Another good friend, Suzy Fong, was arrested and I ran the committee to raise money for her bail… Needless to say, I was doing badly with my studies, spending lots of time on the beach – surfing, partying, taking drugs, as well as attending the protests. I headed out to attend the Altamont Music festival that fall but the traffic was so bad that we couldn’t get there and I spent the weekend in Berkeley. That was something else and I thought ‘Damn, this is where I want to be!’ It was more urban and exciting and I decided to move there and change my studies.”
John was accepted into the landscape architecture program and lived in an apartment with friends. “I realized that I really wanted to go ‘back to the land’ with my studies, something I had always been into. Meanwhile, my friend Suzy now lived on an anarchist commune and I’d stay there sometimes. They were really nice people but years later they were the ones who formed the Symbionese Liberation Army, who would go on to rob banks, commit murder, and kidnap Patty Hearst… It was a time of great change for me, I was ‘coming out’ and being exposed to other cultures for the first time in my life – black people, Jews, etc, etc. I decided to work as well as attend school so I got a job at the Botanical Gardens where I met many ‘crazy’ and fun older women gardeners who taught me so much. Then in my second year I got a job as live-in gardener at a home in the Berkeley hills which had a big community garden and I got to work with many eco-gardeners.”
John realized that his coursework as a Landscape Architecture student was not really teaching him about what he wanted to know so he arranged his courses around his own ‘personal’ major, combining classes in soil science, forestry, botany, ecology, the relationship between plants and mankind, and the interaction between agricultural systems and nature. It is taught now as Agricultural Geography at UCLA, where Jared Diamond who wrote ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is the main professor…
Meanwhile, some of his ‘radical’ friends from high school were studying under Alan Chadwick, a bio-dynamic gardener, teaching this, then new, system of looking at the natural world and growing plants, at UC Santa Cruz “This went way beyond organic gardening as it attempted to understand the whole natural system and was then a somewhat subversive type of gardening which has now become much more mainstream.”
“My ideas about farming began to form when I rode a bicycle over a thousand miles in Europe when I was 15 and was taken by the beauty of the small-scale farming there. Vineyards were my favorite because they were so beautiful and could be planted on variable topography along with other crops. My friends from Santa Cruz and I started to plan a small farm in the same style, using the things we had learned from Chadwick – we could grow pot and make enough money to start a winery”
The first step was to getting this started was to look for a place and John and a friend came up to Anderson Valley in 1971. “Husch Winery had just started, Edmeades too. Tony Husch showed us a property on Greenwood Road that is now Greenwood Ridge Winery. It was perfect for us, but it was taken off the market when we showed some serious interest. Anyway, it was back to the drawing board so the project was put aside, but I was certainly now aware of the Valley as a beautiful place to live and farm… My father had tried his hand at running a dairy farm in New Jersey when just out of college. He almost went bankrupt and went to work to pay his debts off. He kept the land and rented it out. Now that we were on the west coast he asked me about the farming possibilities in northern California. From my experience of trying to start the little farm with my friends, I knew that Napa was too expensive and crowded but Mendocino was far enough away to not be a commuter place and still reasonably priced.”
While his father continued to encourage John to keep looking for the ‘right spot’, John stuck at his studies, including summer school in UC Santa Cruz for chemistry and physics. There were lots of opportunities to work in the anti-war movement and John volunteered to participate in those pursuits in Ukiah, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. On top of all that, some weekends were spent in Santa Cruz working on garden projects.
Dr Russell Lee, who had started the first community health clinic in the States, had bought 40,000 acres all over Mendocino County and Sonoma. Some thought him a socialist, he was wealthy and a devoted gardener and beekeeper. John had looked at one of the ranches in Sonoma, met Dr Lee, and the two had got along well. “Russell was very happy to talk to anyone who had a passion for the land and growing like I did. By my senior year I really had decided that I wanted to work in the wine world and he said he’d hire me after I graduated to do an inventory of all his properties in terms of what would grow well and where.” Meanwhile John began to take viticulture related classes at U.C. Davis and worked at Stony Hill winery in Napa. “They were innovative, being the first American winery to put chardonnay in French oak barrels, planting on hillsides so that there was no frost damage, and doing a minimal treatment of the grapes with a light touch and few chemicals. They were also devoted democrats, causing a stir when they refused to sell wine to Richard Nixon!”
John graduated in June 1973 with a degree in Biogeography and was hired by Russell Lee. However, Lee suffered from a stroke not long afterwards and the Lee family decided to sell the properties. “I found a job at the Souverain winery in Geyserville, and was staying on Lee’s property in Cloverdale. A month later my father called and told me he’d sold his property in New Jersey and, to avoid taxes, we needed to buy something within sixty days. A few days later I passed a sign on the highway for a ranch that was for sale near to Ukiah. I checked it out and it was perfect. It cost about the same as the property had sold for in Jersey and so he bought it and hired me, on a salary of $12K a year with a truck and house, to develop the ranch. I did not even know how to change the oil in my truck when I started but now began to run a two thousand acre ranch. Over the next 12 years, I dove into the project, hands on, building fences, planting vineyards, reforesting, and doing most of the mechanical work. It was a 25-minute drive to Ukiah so I was stuck with a lot of challenges to fix things and figure stuff out alone. I had a guy advising me on some of the vineyard stuff for the first year, but found that my study of horticulture proved to be more helpful than anything else I’d done.”
Over the previous years, John had dated several girls but had always known that he really liked guys better. “I was a bit of an anomaly being a gay redneck – there were few professional farmers who were gay – at least that I knew. I began to develop a social life in the San Francisco area and spent free time there when I could get away.”
“In 1979,I was at a wedding in Ukiah and the American champagne served was horrible yet the French ‘bubbly’s’ were great. ‘Why is there such a difference?’ I wondered. My studies taught me to look for factors of geography and it occurred to me that the Anderson Valley had summers as cold as in Champagne, France and maybe should be producing like the French. I decided that I’d like to try to make something like Champagne over there some day.”
During this time he bought a little farm in Ukiah but ran into trouble and couldn’t keep up the payments so he sold it for a surprise profit of $100K. “I now thought that I had what I needed to make begin my ‘champagne’ project was to go to the ‘experts.’ I traveled to France with a winemaker friend and visited twenty or so wineries in Champagne and talked to anyone I could find who knew anything about the process. On our return, I rented an inexpensive steel building in Ukiah, and began to fit it out with the equipment for production. We were on a shoestring budget, so we fabricated things and bought a lot of used tanks and pumps. In 1981 I made a deal with Valley Foothills vineyard in Anderson Valley to buy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and began production. By 1983 we came up with a bottle of sparkling wine that was drinkable, made from the 1981 crop – a year before Roederer.”
“We struggled along, but I was able to hire some top people, including Tex Sawyer and between us we figured it all out and by 1987 we were making pretty decent stuff… What I hadn’t counted on was that about twenty other people had similar ideas at the same time and many of these were larger established French wineries that had deep pockets and existing marketing channels. I decided to spend all of my time working at the winery so, I sold the equity I had in my Dad’s ranch back to him and bought an old house on Anderson Valley Way just north of Boonville, near to the elementary school. I needed a place to show the wine and this was a beautiful house. I planted a great garden and I really got into the hospitality aspect of the business and put on wine lunches and parties for wine buyers. It was a success and I was soon one of the largest buyer of grapes in the Valley.”
Despite the success, money was always tight and by 1989 investors were needed. “With more that a little luck, I was invited to a lunch that John Fetzer was giving for some French people. It turns out that they owned the Pommery and Lanson Champagne houses. My sparkling wine was served at lunch and they were impressed. They visited my modest facility in Ukiah and brought up the idea of us working together. I couldn’t believe my ears, but over the next few weeks we developed a plan to expand Scharffenberger Cellars, buy vineyards, build a winery and expand. The French guys were from what is now called Danone Company, who produced Evian water, Danone yoghurt, etc. I found the sheep farm that is now the home of Scharffenberger and began what became the most fun project of my life. I was very lucky – I was working with lovely people who wanted to do everything right and they had the funds to make everything happen. We did make a mistake once when we unknowingly pumped water out of a well, which was 100 yards away from the Indian Creek. We stopped as soon as we found out that the pumping was reducing its flow. To make sure that the mistake never happened again, we pulled out the pump and gave the water rights there to the A.V. Land Trust. We planted about 18,000 trees on the overgrazed lands above the vineyards and it is a great pleasure to see 20’ tall trees growing in canyons that had been barren when we started.”
John built a lovely winery and grapes that did well in the local climate. “Together with the knowledge brought in by Tex Sawyer and Tom Hartlip, this led to increasingly better wine being produced. Many of our Mexican workers were with us for many years and we had a very nice continuity. We had a grand opening in 1991 on my 40th Birthday by which time I had learned a lot about the process myself and I was very aware of being careful about the pressing and the handling of the grapes. We had a very successful few years.”
By 1991, Danone were changing their focus and sold their champagne holdings to Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods company. This company did not see Scharffenberger as a good fit but for a time made it work. However, by 1995 John had had enough. “They were difficult to work with and I sold my shares back to them and I decided to quit my job. They changed the name to Pacific Echo and basically ruined the business. The company was bought by Roederer and has been brought back to life with most of the original employees.”
In 1996, John moved from his house in Boonville to the property in Philo where he continues to live. Looking for other agricultural projects he became involved in areas other than grapes, including planning a sparkling cider like the “scrumpy” of England that would save the waste of hundreds of tons of apples and pears that were growing around the county. In 1996, a good friend of his, Robert Steinberg, had an idea about making top quality chocolate. “I was asked to come up with the business plan and with another friend we started Scharffenberger chocolate. We rented a building in South San Francisco and began to scrounge up the needed equipment much as I had done with my first winery. We employed similar tasting assessments as I’d done with the sparkling wine and by 1998 we came up with a blend we liked. Fortunately we ended up with a good product before my savings ran out.”
“We found investors who liked the product and soon the consumers did too. We basically re-wrote the book on American Chocolate. There had been no new chocolate manufacturers started in the US, since the forties. Despite his terminal illness, Robert remained a great analyst of flavor and design. I was more pro-active, working full time and spending lots of energy. We worked very well together and we were both equally as important for the company’s success”… They opened a factory in Berkeley and “did it right. “We paid our staff well and had a wonderful team. Within a year we were in People Magazine, were written about in the New York Times, and appeared on Martha Stewart’s show. It all became very big and soon I was doing public presentations all over the place. Robert and I became the go-to guys for anyone writing about chocolate and we shared our information freely. If one “googled” the word chocolate in 2001 Scharffen Berger would be the first, and usually 4 of the 10 results worldwide.
“To find the right beans to make the chocolate we had to visit all of our cacao suppliers and that meant visiting twenty-eight countries around the world, such as Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, Vietnam, etc, etc – all very different with a wide range of agricultural practices of which I wanted to be aware. We discovered that “fair trade” was a sham in the chocolate world and paid over double what most “fair trade” chocolate makers paid their growers.”
Meanwhile, John built a beautiful rammed-earth home in Philo and would spend two days up here and five in the Bay Area every week. “Around 2005, Hershey’s showed up and offered to buy the business. We said ‘No.’ They doubled their offer and Robert and other investors said ‘Yes’ but I said ‘No’ again. Hershey’s doubled their offer again. I loved our company, but people had invested and wanted returns on that so in 2005 I agreed to sell. The Hershey Trust, an organization that helps under-privileged kids now runs it but I still consult with Scharffen Berger and began a project to grow both cacao and mahogany together in Guatemala. In the end I finally realized that I really don’t like the tropics! So I now help some small companies in the Bay Area and spend 5 days a week in Anderson Valley.”
John is now working on a blog that provides information on the 3 million small farmers of cacao around the world, articulating the agricultural and economic differences between them. 85% of all cacao is produced on family farms of less that 8 acres, vastly different from coffee, tea and most other commercial crops. “Hopefully spreading “best practice” information will eventually lead to better farm incomes – even the poorest farmers that I have met have some access to the Internet”.
One of the practices that he is focused on is the abuse of child labor in Africa. When traveling in Vietnam he noticed short trees that were carefully pruned and produced large crops. The trees in Africa are unpruned and twice as tall. “This means that children have to be used to climb the trees to pick the fruit, many times carrying machetes. During harvest, they are taken out of school by their families and put to work. If the Vietnamese method of training was employed, adults could pick the fruit easily without any children helping. The Gates Foundation is running a project with 25 cooperatives using my specifications and we will know in a year of so if we can get the results that we are hoping for. I have also been working as an advisor with small food companies to continue my interest in the food business and I’m currently working on a sauerkraut project. Other than that I am on various boards – the UC Berkeley Foundation, the UC College of Natural Resources, the Botanical Garden in Berkeley, but I try to be up here for five days and elsewhere just two.”
I asked John for a verbal image of his father. “Tough love. Very loving and generous with a tough edge. He was the bear you approached carefully”… And your mother? “We were never very friendly but now she is the best friend I have. She is wonderful.”
John remains very busy with his various projects and social life. “ I am lucky to have an evening free and alone here and have more going on than I can deal with sometimes. However, I originally came here to grow things and I still do so that’s why I stay here. The Valley is a beautiful place and I love this area although it does get a little hot in the summer…”
I asked John for his responses to various Valley issues… The wineries? – “I don’t know why anyone would move here without a passion for food, farming and forestry – maybe some have come to hide from the world and it may be these people who seem to object to any kind of change. With a few exceptions, traditional agriculture was dying out here; the wine business is keeping agriculture vibrant. It is exciting to see all kinds of new food production follow it. This place would just be a suburb of Ukiah without farming”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Great literature – I wish there was more journalism, although I do think it the local coverage is getting better”… KZYX & Z local public radio – “It gives people with too much time on their hands something to complain about though I’m glad it no longer plays all that Celtic music. It was a struggle to get started and I feel lucky to have it in our community”… The school system? – “I don’t know much about it but I believe that it is doing a pretty good job”… Marijuana? – “Been there, done that. I am bored talking about it”… The Health Center? – “I support it”… The Elder Home – “Good idea but nobody seems to know what has happened with it”…
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to John and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The autumn colors.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Too many days of rain in succession.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Kids playing. I have lots of friends with kids.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “A single dog barking.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “The hot turkey sandwich at Lauren’s Restaurant – simple but delicious… Oh, and I must add a hot fudge sundae with toasted walnuts.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Walt Whitman.”
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? – “My dogs and my computer.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “Well the music would be Handel’s opera Aria’s… The film ‘Paisan’ directed by Rossellini, with Fellini also involved; and a book would be ‘The History of the World in 10½ Chapters’ by Julian Barnes – it’s very funny and very good.”
9. What scares you? – “I’m not afraid of much – that is kind of a problem… Maybe of somebody veering into me on Hwy 128.”
10. What is your favorite hobby? – “I’m crazy about growing things…”
11. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A civil engineer – building stuff.”
12. What profession would you not like to do? – ‘There are loads of those… Let’s go with a job at the D.M.V.”
13. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was 15, she was 16 and she could drive. That was Denise Dorr and we went grunion hunting on the beach, which was just an excuse for taking a girl to the beach.”
14. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “Perhaps I should have gone to university back east – that may have broadened my horizons earlier.”
15. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – “The Santa Clara Pop Festival of 1968 – it was the dry run for Woodstock with many of the same acts. It was the first time that I felt like I was in charge of my own destiny.”
16. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Making a chocolate that was delicious, and enough of it so that people around the world could enjoy it… And my garden here in Philo – something I am very proud of.”
17. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “I am tall! Also my curiosity – I have more than most people and it gets me into trouble, but at the same time it has helped me do everything I’ve done.”
18. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well it would be great if he just said ‘Welcome, would you like a hot fudge sundae?’… Actually, when I was still around the nuns as a child, one of them told me that heaven was all the strawberry ice cream I could eat. Well, I hated strawberry ice cream so I never wanted to go to heaven. Meanwhile, as you can tell, ice cream generally is very important to me.”

Published in: on December 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm  Comments (1)  

Lanny Parker – November 4th, 2011

I met with Lanny at his home south of Boonville near to the Meyer Family Cellars tasting room. We sat at a dining table, where we were to later enjoy some delicious shrimp quesadillas that Lanny prepared, and began our conversation…
Lanny was born in 1935 to parents Sam and Rose. Both were Russian immigrants. His grandfather was from Odessa, in what is now southern Ukraine, and he ran a quarry there so his father grew up very proficient with work horses, receiving only a 3rd-grade education which meant he could read and write and not much more.
In 1902, with the possibility of military service facing him, Lanny’s father came to the U.S. as a nineteen year old because ‘I wasn’t good enough to get more education from the Tsar but I was good enough to die for him.’ He came through Ellis Island and settled in Boston. “My father was uneducated and had no training or skills. Many Jews back then went into the garment trade but he became a laundryman at a hospital. He married and had five kids but then his wife died.”
Rose grew up on the Russian/Polish border in a Jewish ghetto – she did not speak Russian, only Yiddish. “They were ‘persona non grata’ and she was not allowed to go to school, although she was very bright and her father taught her arithmetic. She worked in a bakery and was married at eighteen. In 1913, when she was four months pregnant, she and her husband came to the U.S. and settled in Boston. However, when the baby boy was just eight days old the father died of pneumonia – for lack of a penicillin shot. So now she was a single mother who spoke no English and had no money. For a couple of years, she had a candy store. She lived in the back. She met and married a widower and they had two daughters. When her son was eleven and the girls eight and six, husband #2 died of food poisoning. Now she had another candy store and they were living above it.”
Meanwhile, Sam, who had the five children, was looking for a wife. In 1927, a matchmaker put him in touch with Rose and the three of them sat down over a cup of tea and arranged the marriage. “It was strictly a marriage of convenience and was certainly not the ‘Brady Bunch’! There were eight kids and it was not at all easy. They rented the two top floors of a triple-decker building in the Dorchester district of Boston – all the kids were on the 3rd floor and the parents on the 2nd and the candy store on the 1st. Then in 1935 I came along. My parents were fifty-seven and forty-three – I was definitely an ‘oops’ baby. At birth I was an uncle to my eleven-year-old niece – my father’s eldest daughter’s child. My Dad’s kids had all left home and my mother’s children were 21, 18, and 16 when I arrived.”
Dorchester was a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood with a small enclave of Jews. “It was a great neighborhood and I grew up a real city kid. We had a gas-lighted lamppost right outside and when we weren’t playing around on the front porch we played night ball while the girls played hopscotch or jumped rope. Everybody knew everyone else and I was a very social kid. I was also a couple of years younger than most of the other kids around and this together with the fact that I had much older siblings meant that I grew up very quickly… A very significant event happened when I was around four years old. My Uncle Jack’s wife died and his two daughters came to live with us. That was fairly typical. One of them, the eight year old, had already decided she wanted to be a teacher and would come home from school every day and need a pupil to ‘play’ with – that was me. I was soon reading, writing, and doing arithmetic at four. It meant that when I was in kindergarten I was bored as I’d already done what we were being taught. I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson while the other kids read Dick and Jane. Anyway, by the 6th grade, it was suggested that I apply to go to the Boston Latin School – the oldest school in the country, founded in 1635, before Harvard even. It was free to Boston residents and so I took a test and was accepted to this very exclusive school along with 1200 other kids from all over the city. It was very tough and I was one of only 200 of those who graduated six years later. It changed my entire life.”
During his time at the Latin School, Lanny studied years of Latin, French, German, English Literature, Math, Physics, etc, etc. He played sports, mainly baseball, but for a local club, not for the school, something he now regrets. “I remember the journey so vividly. I would go by myself as a twelve year old, catch a streetcar, then the train at an elevated station, then a bus, before passing by Harvard Medical School, to Avenue Louis Pasteur and the school – an institution that was attended by six of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, including John Hancock, (although Benjamin Franklin had flunked out). It had a very impressive history and list of alumni, including two Presidents.”
Lanny still hung out with his local friends but made many new ones at his school. “I met many friends through playing baseball and that also exposed me to different cultures for the first time. At home we always had many very animated conversations about religion, the Red Sox, World War II and politics. I also made a third set of friends whom I saw every summer. From 1946 my sisters rented beach houses on the ocean in Winthrop for the summer. I would go along as the baby-sitter for my nieces and nephews and get to play baseball there too. Another summer perk came from a distant uncle’s construction company. They had built Fenway Park in 1912 and they had a lifelong box next to the Red Sox dugout. Eight seats! Thus began a lifelong, heartbreaking relationship. Ah! 2004! ”
“While at school I did just about every crappy job from delivering chickens, to packing maternity clothes at a garment factory – (yes, I was in obstetrics at an early age), to working at a furrier, to driving a truck delivering cement and gravel. I did get some pocket money from this but some also went to the family.”
Latin School prepared all its pupils for college. Brandeis, which accepted me, was a new school of about 1000 students and they gave me a full-ride scholarship. In my senior year at high school, my father died. He was seventy-four and I loved him so much. I’m glad he knew I was going to college; first in my family.”
Lanny had planned to live at the college but following his father’s passing he decided to stay at home with his mother and commute the hour plus each way in his 1941 $200 Plymouth – “it was five gallons of recycled oil for every one gallon of gas.” Then in his freshman year of college his mother had a heart attack and died at sixty-one. “I was all alone. My sisters had to shut down the house and everything seemed to just disappear; no mementos were left of my parents. Even my $35 catcher’s mitt disappeared. However, I now have the candlesticks my mother brought over from Russia. I inherited $1000 from insurance and continued my studies but I slipped badly as I started to drink heavily and party and was soon a C or even a D student. Losing my mother really hit me hard and I was trying to numb my feelings. I couldn’t even say the words, ‘mother’, ‘father’, and ‘death’. I couldn’t say them until I was forty years old. I was cutting many classes. At the end of my sophomore year I was informed that my scholarship could not be renewed as my grades were not good enough. It was agreed that I would stay in the dorm and consider that as a loan. Tuition was to come out of my “inheritance” and summer jobs. It was a last chance. That first semester in my junior year I took organic chemistry so that I might ultimately get into grad school. I loved it and soon my grades were back to A’s, I stopped drinking, and began to date a steady girlfriend. I went from two years on the shit list to two years on the Dean’s list.”
Lanny’s scholarship was reinstated and in 1957 he graduated, with former President Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt as the speakers for his class graduation. He decided he did not want to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry as this would involve too much time confined to the laboratory. Instead, medical school was his preference and he was accepted at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “This had a small town atmosphere and I was ready to leave Boston. In my senior year, in February 1957, I married my steady girlfriend, a psychology graduate from Brandeis who became an elementary school teacher. We had a son three years later – Doug, being born in 1960.”
Lanny graduated from medical school in 1961 and went to Northwestern University at the Evanston, Illinois, campus to do his internship. Daughter Pam was born in 1962 and the young family lived in a small apartment, borrowing money in the form of a student loan to supplement Lanny’s $162.26 a month salary. “A year later, after completing my internship, I began a four-year residency in OB-Gyn back in Vermont and in our second year back there our third child, Melissa was born. By 1966, at the age of thirty-one all I had done was go to school.”
Now the Vietnam War was really having an impact and Lanny’s student deferment was done. In the summer of 1966 he was drafted and stationed at the 8th Air Force SAC headquarters in Spokane, Washington where “I delivered babies, did other gynecological surgery and stamped out gonorrhea for two years at the air base.”
As this period of military service was winding down, Lanny spotted an ad in the New England Journal of Medicine for a position as Chief of the OB-Gyn Department and Head of the residency program at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. “I flew down to Oakland on a medevac plane, along with many wounded and maimed soldiers from the war – one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I took the job and we moved to Walnut Creek in the East Bay. I was there for three years before opening my private practice. A few years later, I received a call from some faculty I knew at UCSF who had the idea of starting a program that would turn nurses into nurse practitioners in the area of family planning. This was not agreeable to the majority of OB-Gyns who did not want nurses (women) doing a gynecologists (man’s) job, but I thought it would be a great idea, so I became the medical director of this program at the UCSF School of Nursing. The program was so successful that it led to the establishment at UC of many nurse practitioner programs now available in all specialties. There was also a growing demand for home births. So subsequently I introduced the ‘Alternative Birth Center’ (ABC) that was a room which looked like a bedroom but was in the hospital near to the necessary equipment in case of an emergency. Safer! There was also opposition to the ABC, the second one in the Bay area. This was the beginning of family and kids watching and assisting in the births of their children/siblings and was a fabulous move. The C-section rate amongst my ABC patients was just 2%, which is phenomenal. Other doctors were not sure about it as they did not want to be watched and needed to be in control of the situation.”
OB-Gyn was very hard work with long hours. In 1980 he and his wife were divorced. In 1981 he met a woman by the name of Sandy when they were on a hospital manager’s retreat in Yosemite. She was the manager of Health Information at Eden Hospital where Lanny was now the President of the Medical Staff. “There was a little flirting, I suppose, but then I just did not see her around for about six months. Then one evening our paths crossed at a “local watering hole”, we went for nachos together in Jack London Square in Oakland, and the rest is history. We fell in love with each other, and with Kauai, on Sandy’s first trip to the islands. We bought a house together in Orinda, and shortly after we were married in Lihue in January 1986.” Over time the workload took its toll on Lanny and at the age of fifty, in 1985, he had a heart attack. “My friends joked about the ‘physical exertions’ that might be affected by the big difference in my age and Sandy’s age. I said ‘Well, if she dies, she dies’!… And then I had my second heart attack. That was a life-changer.”
Lanny realized that he had been very fortunate to survive – about 50% of people die with each heart attack. “I thought ‘How can I die, I really haven’t lived yet?’ I had been working all of the time. I met with my partner and asked if he wanted to take over the practice, which was huge by this time. He said he would and I sold him everything – even my stethoscope!”
Lanny now embarked on his second avocation — home design. “I took a drafting course at UC Berkeley. I began to help people remodel their homes. I had always liked thinking about designing and planning and even though I had no license I found work. It was fun and brought in some income.”
By about 1988/89, Lanny and Sandy decided they wanted to buy a second property. “We looked from Carmel all the way up to the Lost Coast. We wanted beach property and soon fell in love with the Mendocino Coast. However, after many visits when we’d stay at the Albion River Inn we realized the weather out there was not to our liking. We would drive through Anderson Valley to and from the coast and we stopped in Boonville. It was sunny and warm as we walked around. We had lunch at the ‘Smiling Deer’ (now Lauren’s) and decided to look around the area. We had three offers turned down before finding this place, forty acres with nothing on it apart from the original sheep barn. We bought in 1990. After a couple of years, I really started to wonder why we’d bought the property – perhaps I was a city boy after all. However, Sandy is a country girl who loves horses so I decided to persevere and we built a small guest house. This led to a larger building – the design of which had been in my head since college. We’d come up most weekends and then we stayed here for the summer with the horse and dog. That was it. I decided I was not going back! It really did happen that suddenly. I fell in love with something that I didn’t even know existed.”
Sandy returned to Orinda as she had to complete her teaching commitment at Chabot College, but by 1994 they were both living in the Valley. For his first two years up here Lanny awarded himself the ‘Hermit of the Year’ prize – “I basically just contemplated my navel. I was what Bruce Anderson at the A.V.A. calls a ‘hill muffin’, but I had earned my right to do that.” Sandy was now teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College where there became an opening to teach a couple classes – medical terminology and pathophysiology. Lanny took the job and for the next seventeen years worked there two days a week. “I loved the teaching but then the politics, the administration, the money I saw being wasted, the commute, were all too much and I resigned – that was this past May.”
In the mid-nineties it came to Lanny’s attention that only six out of thirty in the senior class went to college from the Anderson Valley High School. “I volunteered in the AVID program to help these kids get into college, many struggled with the language – I could relate to that given my parents’ background and I became a tutor and mentor. Now nearly all of the kids go to college. I was invited to join the AV Education Foundation (AVEF) Board. We find fun ways to raise money, then use the money to fund student scholarships and internships and myriads of enrichment experiences for students.”
A whole social life developed from Lanny’s involvement with the AVEF and it did not take long for Lanny and Sandy to not miss the city life. “We seem to have a full social calendar; there is so much going on here. Everyone is here because they want to be here. This is a real community. It is an unexpected joy over and over again. At my granddaughter’s school the motto is ‘The first third of your life is spent learning; the second third spent earning; and the final third is spent giving back.’ That is my story – after spending so much of my early life hearing the alternative mantra – ‘You’re born, life sucks, and then you die.’ “
I asked Lanny about his religious upbringing. “I was sent to Hebrew School at the age of seven. That led to my early decision to become an atheist. There are three Jewish groups – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. We were the unofficial fourth group – the Food Jews. Yes, my folks did two days of Rosh Hashanah and a day for Yom Kippur, but that was it – we were three-day Jews and did not go to Temple. However, I was bar mitzvah’d so I did comply and fulfilled my obligation. Done!”
What is a verbal image of your father? “He always dressed immaculately, with suits pressed and shirts ironed by himself. He was only 5’ 6” but very strong. He was old so he couldn’t play sports with me but we did go fishing and horseback riding a few times. We would spend time together in his basement workshop. He’d collect pieces of old wood and remove the nails. He taught me to straighten them out for reuse. I guess you could say we are what America is supposed to be all about – in one generation I went from straightening nails to performing microsurgery on fallopian tubes. And he taught me everything one needs to know about economics — whether you are rich or poor, it’s good to have money.”
And your mother? “She was quite a gal. I was so lucky. She would put her hand under my chin, look at me with love in her eyes, just stare at me, and then give my chin a little squeeze. She had no rules but we followed them anyway! We knew what was expected of us. She was a real character with many friends. A heart of gold and very loyal. Simple yet intelligent with street smarts. She was a good cook with a limited repertoire of dishes. We may have been very poor, but I never went to bed hungry.”
And what family do you now have? “Well Doug is in Washington D.C. with his wife and two kids, Maddy and Andrew; Pam is in Charlotte, N. Carolina, with her husband and three children, Alison (my oldest grandchild at 23), Ryan, and Evan; and Melissa is in Leesberg, Virginia, with her husband and their three, Alex, Samantha, and the youngest of all, Brooklyn who is 9. The three oldest have graduated from college – N.Y.U., Boston, and Colorado – and all have got jobs!”
I asked Lanny for his brief responses to various Valley issues… The wineries and their impact? – “Well they do provide jobs and the vineyards enhance the landscape. I do like seeing the few apple trees that are left. There seems to be an increase in the amount of large corporate money coming into our valley; I prefer the locally owned, community oriented wineries”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – I am not a big listener but do enjoy Jimmy Humble’s show, W Dan’s, and Trading Times. I miss Garrison Keillor”… The A.V.A. – “In the last couple of years it seems to be more of a community newspaper and the Valley People and Turkey Vulture columns are interesting to me. It is considered one of the top alternative papers in the country and is used as a case study in universities as such.”… The school system? – Well, we’re doing very well there and I get irritated with the ‘white flight’ that some parents have undertaken. Students get a very good education from a young, energetic faculty. I do think that we need to teach both English and Spanish as a second language”… The Elder Home? – “No comment”… Marijuana? – “This is a drug that should be legalized and researched more and more. Eventually it will be, of course, and will greatly help with so many ailments and symptoms. Booze is legal and marijuana isn’t??”…
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Lanny and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Good food, good conversation, good friends.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Bigoted people.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Kids laughing – I’m a sucker for kids. I wanted to be a pediatrician but when a kid died I couldn’t handle it.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – The sound of bagpipes and the accordion… Screeching brakes…”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “Crab – even though I grew up on lobster living in Boston.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “My parents – Sam and Rose – here for dinner tonight.”
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? – “Sandy and the pets, photograph albums and my important documents.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The song would be Peggy Lee’s ‘Is that all there is?’; the movie would be ‘Fever Pitch’ about the Red Sox winning the World Series – I have kept count and I’ve seen it 28 times; and a book would be The Celestine Prophecy.”
9. What is your favorite hobby? – “Cooking and gardening.”
10. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “An architect.”
11. What profession would you not like to do? – “A politician.”
12. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was 14, Elaine 13. We went to the movies – I met her inside. We dated for six years and fumbled our way through the mysteries of puberty.”
13. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I wished I’d played more baseball.”
14. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “I felt I owed something for my parent’s healthcare and believe I paid it back by starting the first abortion clinic in the East Bay in 1971, stopping people from killing themselves by undergoing illegal and unsafe ones… I made clinics humane… Plus the Nurse Practitioner program and the Alternative Birth Center.”
15. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “My reliability – if I agree to do something, I’ll do it.”
16. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Wrong again, Lanny… But you got it right anyhow!”

Published in: on December 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment