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!”

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

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