Jerry Karp – October 13th, 2012

I met with Jerry at the home he and wife Stephanie bought a few years ago on Ornbaun Road on the outskirts of Boonville.
Jerry was born on July 4th, 1955 in Newark, New Jersey the second of two children born to parents Joseph Karp and Elinor Rosenberg, the first being older sister Martha, born four years earlier. “At that time we lived in the Weequahic neighborhood, a predominantly Jewish district and on the same street as author Philip Roth, although he is fifteen years older – yes, the neighborhood of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’. My father’s family had come to the States from Russia, in fact my paternal grandfather had on his documents that he was a ‘subject of the Tsar of Russia’ when he arrived in 1902, and my father was born in 1918 in Newark. My mother’s family came sometime in the 1890’s also from Russia, I believe, and they settled in Bayonne, New Jersey, about ten miles away. My father was raised in Newark and was very open-minded, accepting the Black migration from the south, believing that ‘we are all the same’ as the district change dramatically in the early sixties when the Jewish deli, bakery, etc all began to just disappear.
Jerry’s parents met at a Jewish mixer or community event. “My mother was born in 1923 and they were married in the late 1940’s when she was in her late twenties, relatively late in life for those days. My father had very bad arthritis and was not involved in the war while my mother worked for an agency that helped Jewish immigrants settle in this country.”
The family lived in this neighborhood for the first ten years or so of Jerry’s life. “I had a very happy childhood and when I was young, living there, I did not even realize that Jews were a minority. The school was 80% Jewish at first, but by the time I left there were about four or five white kids remaining and there were some good lessons for me to learn about accepting others. I played outside a lot – it was the days when you knew all the neighbors and, as a twelve year old, I would travel by the city bus unaccompanied. I had chores to do and would get a little allowance for doing so. If I wanted something I was always told ‘save your allowance.’ On just two occasions I asked for something and it was given – a chess set and a sled. A big influence at an early age occurred in 1964, when I was about 9. My sister was 13 and was caught in the teeth of Beatle mania when it hit this country. I remember the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, sitting on my father’s lap and him shaking his head and saying ‘Awful.’ I loved it and it was the start of my lifelong interest in music.”
Jerry’s father worked for Lockheed Electronics as a traveling salesman. He was often gone from Monday to Friday, selling components for oil trucks, returning home at the weekends. “He would go all over the country and after his passing we found in his documents a letter from the State department granting him permission to carry certain material and documents – was he a ‘spook’? I don’t know and I’ll guess I never will. After a few years of that he started working in customer relations for Automatic Data Processing (ADP), a company that did payrolls for companies by computer. This was in New York City and meant long hours but he was to remain there until his retirement, even being allowed an office to use beyond that. Clearly people liked him there and when he died the company CEO visited us to pay his respects.
Meanwhile, Jerry’s mother raised the children until Jerry was eight when, in 1963, she returned to work as a ‘secretary’, which really meant office manager, for an architect and several draftsmen.
The ‘tipping point’ had arrived by 1966 and it was time to leave Newark. “All of my friends and the friends of my parents had left by then. The school system was imploding and my parents knew it was time to move out. A year later, in the summer of 1967, the Newark riots took place. We moved to Maplewood, a town not far away that was a mixture of Jews, Italians, and Irish. That was in November 1966 and the very next day I met and befriended Ed Sacher, who later changed his name to Dallas Sacher. We are still best friends to this day. In fact, I really have two best friends. Just the year after I became friends with Dallas, I also met Dan Hirshberg. Dan and Dallas and I became sort of a three musketeers and we have stayed that way. Dallas lives down in Redwood City, south of San Francisco, and Dan is still back in New Jersey, but every year we get together for a guys weekend in a different city to see some baseball and have some fun. We’re trying to go to every major league ballpark. We started in 2000 and haven’t missed a year since. It’s great to have a couple of friends who know just about everything there is to know about your life and what you’ve been through.”
Jerry did three years at Junior High and in the fall of 1969 went to a three-year high school, Columbia High. “Maplewood was a working class, suburban neighborhood but the school district was combined with the more affluent South Orange and so there were some rich kids at the school too. I was a skinny kid, not comfortable around girls and not that good at sports, but I loved baseball. Then between 8th and 9th grade I had a growth spurt and began to play some basketball. I was a big Yankees fan and would get the bus into New York’s Port Authority, and catch two trains, passing through Harlem to Yankee stadium – I was maybe 12 and you could do that then. I also watched baseball with my father a lot and would love to play but as I said I was not very good. I collected stamps, like my father, I have his collection still, and I was an avid reader, always have been, and would often visit the public library and stay for hours.”
Jerry had a part-time job at the Shop Rite Supermarket after school and at weekends and had a fun core of friends he hung out with. However, for the first time in his life, at about 15 or 16 years old, he experienced something that could be construed as anti-Semitism. “Some of the Irish and Italian kids liked me until they found out I was Jewish. It was a very small number but it shocked me all the same.”
Jerry was expected to do well at school by his parents and he did. “It was the stereotypical Jewish family – ‘life begins after graduation from medical school.’ In my last year or so at high school the counter culture period had come and virtually gone but I smoked pot and did have long hair, a bone of contention with my father who was conservative in those ways. Grades did not interest me and I was not good at nor able to focus on math and science but loved English literature and history and did very well in them.”
Jerry graduated in 1973 and was accepted at Boston University. “I was very happy to be leaving New Jersey and the suburbs. It was good to get out and not be isolated in that suburban, middle class environment. The world had been changing since 1968 and I had wanted to get out since then. That was all on the downslide by 1973 and it was frustrating to have missed out, but I was very aware of the politics and changes of the times, and was still acting like it was the sixties but knew in my heart that it was over. I moved to Boston and found there was a great music scene there. I was into country rock – The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, and then in late 1973 I heard Bruce Springsteen – that blew my mind and I went to see him and the E-Street Band at Seton Hall University during spring break in 1974. I lived just two blocks from Fenway Park so I was also able to get my baseball fix.”
Jerry was a journalism major at the B.U. School of Communications and worked on the alternative student newspaper starting out covering the wrestling team. However, following a situation in which he quoted a couple of the players and was admonished for his use of some profanities in his ‘on the record’ report, he felt that if this kind of thing was going to occur often, it would not be a good vocation for him. As a result he changed his studies to Public Communications in the Media and Advertising and took a number of literature courses on the way. “I got good grades and took learning seriously.”
Boston University was an urban campus but Jerry had led a relatively sheltered lifestyle and as his college days came to an end he felt that “there was a whole lot of life I really knew nothing about. I had read Jack Kerouac’s writings and was enthralled by his stories. I wanted to go and see the country and go ‘On the Road’ myself. I was not ready for the structure of a real job and despite my parents begging me to go to graduate school I had other plans after my graduation in 1977.”
In his junior year, Jerry became involved with the college radio station and after a time of grunt work and filing he was offered the chance to do a jazz show. “I had three jazz albums – by John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and Miles Davis and knew very little but I figured I could read the liner notes and get by so I did one show a week during my final two years.”
After spending the summer of 1977 in New Jersey, Jerry and a friend took a drive-away car that had to be taken to St Louis and ‘on the road’ they went. After St Louis they got another car to Davenport, Iowa, then drove a Karmann Ghia all the way to Anaheim, California, a trip that took them through Amarillo, Texas and an incident with local police that saw the “New Jersey Jew boy nearly thrown in jail.” They made there was to San Diego and stayed with Jerry’s uncle for a short time before getting an apartment near to the beach. Jerry found work as a busboy/dishwasher “at a diner in a department store in a mall. We were there for about five months and had a fun time but decided to head for Las Vegas where my sister lived – she still does. My friend lost all his money there so I lent him some and we moved on the New Orleans where I really wanted to be for Mardi Gras of February 1978.”
After a few days, Jerry’s friend decided to leave but Jerry stayed and found a job as a busboy at the Hyatt Hotel and a room in the Garden District. He was there for about five months and had a great time with his co-workers and saved some money. He and another friend left in the summer and went to Key West for a time, staying in a tent camp for two months and living off his savings, before moving on and hitchhiking back to New Jersey, where he visited family before continuing on to Boston. “That whole year was full of memories that I will always treasure, particularly my time in New Orleans where the camaraderie among the crowd I worked with was great. I was one of the few straight guys in the group and took a lot of ribbing but it was a great experience.” He had worked in a warehouse for a clothing store in Boston before and found work there again but soon found himself thinking about hitting the road again.
“I heard that Seattle was a cool place so I got a drive-away car and headed west once again. I crossed the country in this big ‘boat’ of a car with a tent in the trunk and ended up in San Jose. My friend Dallas was in law school in nearby Santa Clara so I visited him but he was busy with his studies so I didn’t stay long before hitching to Seattle. That was the fall of 1978 – I remember it well, watching the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the play-off game and eventually going on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series.”
“I found a job as a busboy once again, at the Hyatt, and found a place to stay on the outskirts of town in a warehouse district on a street ironically called West Magical Way. I was the only person with a job at the rooming house but soon became friends with the other tenants. That Thanksgiving was a memorable one with those guys. I got a turkey from work and a case of beer that I’d won for the high score on the pinball machine at the local longshoreman’s bar. They were a tough bunch but we had mutual respect and trust and I never locked my door.”
Jerry returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras of 1979 and initially resumed his busboy duties at the Hyatt before talking his way into a waiting position at a Creole Restaurant on the edge of the French Quarter, where he was living in an apartment. He then found a job in a fancy restaurant at the Hotel Monteleone. “New Orleans was a great place to be for a young man with no ties and good income. The bars are open 24 hours a day; everyone mixes together – black and white, straight and gay. The lifestyle was great fun.”
After a time, Jerry grew tired of waiting tables and wanted “a more intellectual challenge. I volunteered for the local NPR radio affiliate that played classical in the day and jazz at night. After six months I had my own show playing blues from midnight to 5am and then I got a show with a friend in the 9pm to 1am slot, playing jazz and gradually becoming quite well known on the jazz scene in town. It was cool and thrilling to me and although I didn’t make much money I loved it.”
On the show Jerry also interviewed jazz folks who talked and played the music of their choice, including B.B. King, Kenny Burrell, Betty Carter, Les McCann, etc. “It was amazing and it really worked well with the local music scene. We had complete freedom and I got to do 39 one-hour segments on jazz history with Ellis Marsalis – a wonderful experience and certainly one of the highlights of a time full of many great times and memories.”
By late1985, early 1986, Jerry was getting tired with the city. “New Orleans is relentless. Plus there was so much poverty, unemployment, not to mention the racism and violent crime. Life was sort of cheap there. I was held up in my bedroom one night, a gun at my head as I lay on my bed. By that time my radio work was pushing me towards a management position, which I did not want, and I was thinking of leaving the station. I had been writing short stories and decided to make a change – I would go to graduate school to do fiction writing. In the fall of 1986 I started that at San Francisco State.”
Jerry lived in the Mission district and got a part-time job at a stationary store in Stonestown Mall, near to the campus, while he studied creative writing and English Literature. Soon he became involved with teaching English composition at the university and stopped the writing. “Maybe I chickened out on the writing – anyway, I never went back to it. I taught Composition Writing 101 and soon found out it was not for me but I stuck it out. I took some E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) classes, and kind of fell into a sort of inertia for a few years. I moved to the outer Sunset and then to Cole Valley, at Stanyon and Parnassus – I lived there for 20 years!”
For eight months in 1993, Jerry lived back in New Jersey, living with his mother during the final months of his father’s life until his death from pneumonia, following heart problems, on December 1st, 1993. “It was a very hard time and I didn’t work at all for almost a year. I returned to S.F. and there was no job for me at the university. They didn’t want me, the feeling was mutual; so I did a few temporary jobs to keep the body and soul together.”
Being a big proponent of volunteering while you look for work, Jerry volunteered at the Center for the Arts before, in 1994, he took a temporary job when he took over for a friend’s sister who wanted three-months leave of absence from her position as publication coordinator for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. “I needed a job – this was writing, editing and a paycheck. On her return, she didn’t want the job so I took it on permanently. It was very demanding work, working on the writing and editing all of the banks publications, mass mailings, etc, that went to their locations in seven states. It was a huge responsibility but paid well and had benefits. I was there for five years, one too many. It was never really my environment. They grew tired of me and my act, and I grew tired of them. I will say that it was an environment where many people worked very hard and, while it was not an experience I would have foreseen for myself, it was very positive in terms of my growth and learning”
Throughout these years Jerry’s social life was centered at Finnegan’s Wake pub/bar (previously Maud’s bar for women from 1966 to1989). He played on the bar’s baseball team, became a good pool player, and hung out with a very tight-knit group of bar regulars. He was in and out of a few different relationships with women in these years, the longest of which was for three years. “I also spent a lot of time on my own but loved those days – they were a very important part of my life.”
In 1999, Jerry left the bank. It was the time of the dotcom boom. “People were making big money from being freelance writers whom I thought I could write rings around. I figured I’d be a technical writer. I set up a website and my first job was for the industry magazine for prosthetics – much more interesting than I thought it would be. I networked and soon was making a living off various small jobs. A friend of mine was involved with a free monthly jazz newsletter and asked me to do some articles for it, without pay. I was not at all involved with the S.F. jazz scene but this was like giving heroin to an addict – I was back in the jazz world. Little by little I realized that I could combine my two major interests – writing and jazz, so I re-invented myself and began to built up a portfolio.”
At the time the S.F. Chronicle was notorious for its lack of jazz coverage. Jerry sent in an article to the editor of the Sunday Datebook section who loved it and ran it in the newspaper. “It was my ‘fifteen minutes of fame.’ I was known as the guy who got a jazz article in the Chronicle and was given a monthly spot on the paper. Musicians now knew me and I felt what I had achieved was very much appreciated by those in the jazz scene. I was soon contributing to various publications, local and national, and did many interviews, biographies, press releases, and even liner notes for the album released by the S.F. Jazz Collective, an all-star band representing the S.F. Jazz Festival. In a couple of years I had worked my way into the very welcoming jazz community of San Francisco. It was all very satisfying.”
On September 29th, 2002, Jerry was at a party when he heard a woman talking about ‘Turtle Back petting zoo in New Jersey.’ I stopped to talk to her and discovered she was from Caldwell, three towns away from my hometown. Her name was Stephanie Gold, a Jewish woman, five or so years younger than me. I asked her out and we had dinner at Tommaso’s Italian Restaurant and then to the Washington Square Bar and Grill for drinks. It turned out she was a Yankee fan too! A few months later we went on vacation together and had a very successful time together. We continued to date and she and her books moved in with me the following August and all went well. I had never lived with a woman before. It really worked. I was resigned to being a bachelor so this was an unbelievable turnaround in my life – something really, really good had happened. That much was so clear to me. It was a shot of luck right out of the blue. I thought this was a wonderful meeting of minds – and she’s cute too!”
From 2002 to 2006, Jerry continued to do his jazz writing, always with Stephanie’s full support and encouragement for his endeavors. During those years, Jerry and Stephanie came to Anderson Valley for her birthday and stayed at the Anderson Valley Creek Inn owned by Grace and Jim Minton. “I had been here by myself some years earlier and had walked around the town on my way to Mendocino. I thought it looked cool and had it in mind when thinking about a bed and breakfast weekend for Steph’s birthday. That weekend was the Super Bowl and we watched the game in The Buckhorn, buying some squares in their football pool. It was lots of fun and we started to come up here a couple of times a year.”
They were married in May 2005 and started to think about possibly buying a house in the Valley. They contacted Sheri Hansen at Rancheria Realty. “I had thought I was never going to buy a home but my perspective had changed and the second place we looked at was this house on Ornbaun Road which we fell in love with and bought it in 2006. We came up at weekends and had no real plans to make our future life here but over time we found ourselves coming for three days at a time, then four, and even more, always going out in the community when we were here. By this time we were both freelance writers, Stephanie having left her teaching position at the Chinese American School, and so we were flexible. However, being in two places felt like not being in either. We decided to go for it, have the adventure, and made the move to the Valley on October 1st, 2008. We were not unhappy in S.F. but felt it would be a backward step if we stayed there so we made the decision to go full-time here – with the accompanying lifestyle, the garden and the dog – Yosarian.”
Jerry continued with his writing and Stephanie taught at the adult school before becoming the counselor at the high school. “I had an office in the Missouri house in Boonville but over time realized that I was no longer motivated by the freelance writing. I thought about a bookstore but then Loretta Houck opened her Laughing Dog Books in town – I was their first customer. One day I noticed that the ‘Village Book Exchange and Gift Store’ in Ukiah was for sale. We gave it a lot of thought; obviously I was looking for a change, and decided to do it. I took over on February 1st, 2011, modifying the name to just ‘Village Books’ to satisfy the current customers while also trying to bring in new people and it has gone very well.”
Shortly after moving here full-time, Jerry started to volunteer at the radio station and now has his own show, ‘Jazz Odyssey’ on alternate Monday afternoons. “It is good to still have a finger-hold in that world… We have been here four years now and love it. With its very interesting and diverse community, Boonville is not just any rural town. We attend most of the community events and fundraisers and feel we have been accepted to some degree at this point, while we are well aware that we are still newcomers. We go to the various restaurants and bars and I feel very comfortable playing pool in the Saloon, or Lodge as it was called, and eating at Lauren’s. Many people here have practical knowledge on how to do and fix things that I just don’t have – I have learned a lot from many people here. There are lots of beautiful places in the world but I am not aware of any that have such a community as this.”
“Sure there are days when I wish I could just go out and hear live music down the street. I am very used to city life and you can certainly feel a little stir crazy or get ‘island fever’ here, but luckily my wife is my best friend so at times like that I always have good company. We recently celebrated ten years together and living here in Boonville is part of our adventure together. I am now 57 years old, and since 50 I have had many new experiences and adventures. I have never felt I was stuck in a rut. There is something to be said for this sort of circumstances, the lifestyle I have followed. It is not better or worse than other alternatives, just different and it has certainly worked out for me.”

I asked Jerry for his brief thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation…The Wineries? – “I wish they would contribute more to what is going on here. Some do, but many do not do as much as they might”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I wish they didn’t have it in for the radio station and sometimes print things that I know not to be true. I know it is their ‘brand’ to be like that but when it comes to certain remarks about the radio station it ceases to be good journalism”… KZYX & Z, local public radio? – “Obviously I am part of it. I can see that things could be improved upon but I believe that the Valley is a better place for it, as is the county as a whole.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Jerry and asked him to reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? – “My wife and music.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down? – “Malice – it’s one thing I cannot forgive in people. There is no bigger waste of time than holding a grudge.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “The birds singing – even the ravens.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Cars without mufflers.”
5. What would be your ‘last supper’? – “A New York pizza with a pint of Anchor Steam beer.”
6. If you could meet one person, dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “My father… Or perhaps Bruce Springsteen.”
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 Yankee Stadium chair that my father bought for me when they renovated the place in the seventies; our traditional Jewish marriage certificate, a ketubah; and my books – along with my music, they provide a record of my life.”
8. Does anything scare you? – “Heights and claustrophobia – a ride in a small plane would not be good!”
9. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “Italy, or perhaps Oslo, Norway. I have been to Europe a lot but never those places.”
10. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “The film would be ‘Down by Law’ –not the best but my favorite; the book is ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad’; and a song? Wow, that’s tough – ok, let’s go with ‘Can’t buy me Love’ by the Beatles.”
11. What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? – “Back then it was probably reading; now it’s my radio show.”
12. Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you use? – “Pint of Guinness.”
13. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Shortstop for the Yankees.”
14. What profession or job would you not like to do? – “Coal miner.”
15. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “At 14, I took a girl named Barbara to the park.”
16. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I wish I’d found out more about my grandparents… I also wish I had been a little braver about pursuing the fiction writing after graduate school.”
17. Tell me about a moment or period of time you will never forget. – “Watching my father die… On a brighter note, being on the radio as a jazz dj in New Orleans at such a young age – my mid-to-late twenties.”
18. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “I’m proud of how we have been accepted by the Valley community. Also that I’ve done so many different things by living my life and seeing what happens; doing something for as long as it feels right and then moving on. The advantage of this is that you get to do many different things but the downside is that you spend a lot of time as a beginner.”
19. What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? – “My friendliness – my default is to like people, to be positive.”
20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Here’s your glove, you’re playing shortstop!”

The next interview will appear on November 15th, the 3rd Thursday of November (which has five Thursdays this year).
The guest interviewee from the Valley on that occasion will be
David Jackness

Published in: on October 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Coming next week…

The series is published on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month and the next interview will appear on Thursday October 25th when my guest will be Jerry Karp, KZYX & Z dj and bookstore owner.
Thanks for your continued positive comments and support,
Kind regards, Steve Sparks.

Published in: on October 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Joe Dresch – September 10th, 2012

I met with the former Philo Post Master, Joe Dresch, at his Russian River Estates home in the hills a few miles southeast of Ukiah. Although officially retired, Joe has managed to get himself hired by friends to work at their winery in Hopland a few days a week and getting together was not as easy as we thought it would be. Now we had managed that, the cookies came out and the wine flowed…

Joe was born in 1959 in Graceville, Minnesota, at the nearest hospital to the rural town of Beardsley, where parents Vern Dresch and Shirley Schneider lived. He was the fourth of six children, with siblings Karen, John, Jim, then Joe, Jerry, and Kathy, all born within eight years. “My parents were going to keep going until they had a second girl – a sister for Karen. They were determined and would have kept going to ten or more if needs be – it was a big deal to them.”
They grew up in Beardsley in west central Minnesota, just seven miles from the border with South Dakota. “On the day I was born there was a terrible blizzard and then on the way to the hospital the car stalled. We were stuck on the side of the road and a driver of a semi-trailer truck stopped and picked us and got us to the hospital. Because of the weather there had been a few accidents on the roads and they told my mother not to start pushing as they had to deal with the accident cases first. I guess I was put on hold for quite a time – that may explain quite a lot!”
The Dresch family had originally settled in Iowa several generations earlier before moving to Minnesota. Joe’s father was the only child of Werner and Betty Dresch. The Schneiders were from Germany and had come over to the States in the early 1900’s, also moving to the German/Norwegian settlements of Minnesota. “My mother had one brother – Stuart. My parents met and dated while at the local high school. My mother was a farm girl while my father helped out at the local general store. After getting married they soon started the family and we lived and grew up in ‘Tornado Alley’ – during certain times of the year we were frequently sent down into the cellar to be safe from the tornadoes. The town’s population in those days was less than 400 and my first class at school had twelve boys and twelve girls. That went to twelve and eleven when one of the kids was hit by an 18-wheeler!”
“I was with those same kids all the way through school, from the sandbox to high school graduation. We lived in an area with many, many lakes, some of them very big, including Big Stone Lake, a freshwater lake 26 miles long, where we’d swim, water-ski, and fish for Walleye, the Minnesota State Fish. They were delicious to eat and you can find them on the menu at every restaurant in the state; the same with jello and bread pudding.”
The area around Beardsley was populated by farming people, with lots of livestock – mainly dairy cattle, with corn, beans, and sunflowers. “My mother was a Lutheran but converted to Catholicism when she married my father. We went to Mass every Sunday and together with my three bothers I was an altar boy – something I did for nine years until I left high school. Before church I would deliver the Sunday newspapers. I enjoyed that, and one year, as a result of selling a large number of newspaper subscriptions, I won a trip to Disneyworld in Florida.”
Joe’s father managed, and later bought, the local general store, while his mother raised the children before she worked at the store too. “I helped there – starting at the age of seven. I did more and more in the store as I got older, from stocking shelves to working in the butcher’s department. I also had a job rock-picking. This involved walking around the fields continually emptying a bucket full of rocks into the scoop of a tractor. These were rocks you’d pick up from the ground that would otherwise damage the farm equipment used for ploughing the field. It was very hard work.”
Joe was a very social child, always outdoors, and he participated in many sports at school. From 7th-grade on, he played on the school teams in football, where he played tight-end on offence and right guard on the defensive line, basketball, and track, but his passion was music and he was very involved, as the alto saxophone player, in the school marching band and the concert band. “We’d play at various parades, and Homecoming of course, plus many home football games, although it was crazy sometimes when I was supposed to be playing football and in the band on the same night.”
Academically Joe graduated as an honor student with a particularly strong showing in science. “I was a very well-behaved teenager; very respectful of adults and the teachers. That was certainly somewhat because as local business owners, my parents had instilled in all of us kids that we had a reputation to maintain. They were well known in the community and I was never involved in smoking, drinking, or drugs – yes, I was almost too righteous!
As the middle-ish child, Joe had grown up interacting with both his older and younger siblings and played a part in both of those worlds. “Over time, I was drawn into a role of parent to the younger kids; I was certainly a role model to them. I was always very close to my mother and she would take me to various community events where I would play piano and sing and dance. This together with all of my activities at school meant that I really did over-extend myself. With the competitiveness within our family I never seemed to stop. I moved from alto sax to baritone sax and entered music competitions continually in my last three years at high school and was very successful, winning many awards. Add to all this my sports, my serving of mass on Sundays, and my work in the butcher’s department at the store, and for a couple of years there it was non-stop.”
This all came to a head on the awards night in Joe’s senior year. “I received several awards that night: for being the President of the Senior Class, for my role as editor of the year book, as Vice President of the Student Council, an All-State football plaque, and a basketball plaque for representing the district. The one thing I really cared about was the John Phillip Souza Award for music – a big trophy – I won that too! I remember people laughing when I struggled to carry all my trophies and I was very embarrassed. I also realized at that time just how much time I spent on these endeavors and how stressed I was as a result of all the competition. This was kind of expected of me by my parents. I remember that at football games you could hear three voices shouting and screaming above everyone else – the coach, the school superintendent, and my mother!”
During his senior year, Joe tried out for the Air Force Band. “For a couple of years I had known that I wanted to join the U.S. Air Force. My two older brothers had joined and I had read lots about the opportunities and programs available. Many of my teachers were a little upset that I was not going to college but it was a done deal for me. I graduated in June of 1977 and two weeks later I was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas. Meanwhile, by that time I realized I was not going to be a professional musician so I had decided to not join the Air Force Band and I went into the intelligence field.”
From Texas, Joe moved to the Mountain Home A.F.B. in Idaho for direct duty and on-the-job training. He received his secret security clearance and joined the 390 Tactical Fighter Squadron as support for those that flew the F111 fighter jets – low level bombers. In his first year Joe was stationed for a time in Taegu, Korea in an exercise called ‘Team Spirit ‘78’ and also in Osan, Japan. “My job involved the surveillance of maps and photographs as the Air force played war games and ‘practiced war’ on maneuvers. I loved my job, it was nine-to-five and I got to travel. After a couple of years I put in for a transfer and was re-assigned to the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean where I joined the 1605th Supply Squadron. I was a sergeant by this time and I organized the administration of the fuel at the base which was on the flight lines for planes flying all over the world and therefore a major refueling stop for the army, navy, and air force.”
Joe had received a commendation medal for his work in Idaho and then received a second such award for his time in the Azores for meritorious service. However, while at the Idaho base, he had his eardrum blown out when standing too close to an F111 taking off. “Ear protectors were not provided… A year or so later, when I was based in the Azores, I had to go for my annual ear check-up but there was no doctor there so I was flown to Germany for an appointment and was put up at a hotel in Wiesbaden for two weeks. That was January 1981 because I remember it being a month or so after John Lennon was shot. I went to my appointment at the Air Force hospital nearby and there were yellow ribbons everywhere, with cameras and hundreds of press people outside the building. I had no idea what was going on. I walked outside the main doors and was confronted by the press asking me about the hostages – the 52 who had been held in Iran for a year or so had been released that day and were in this same hospital for medical check-ups and de-briefing! The reporters asked me how they were and, even though I had no idea, I said they looked great and were doing very well – I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame.”
Joe wished to extend his military service but only on the condition that he got to choose the next base he would be assigned to. “This was not acceptable, so I was honorably discharged in June 1981 after four years of service. I was 22 years old and life started anew.”
Joe moved to Minneapolis to stay with his younger brother Jerry and, wishing to remain in federal employment, decided to take a test with the Department of Agriculture at the Federal Building. “I was accepted and became the manuscript/editorial supervisor for the department’s Forestry Experiment Station. I was there for a few months but hated it, so one day I just opened the phone book and turned to the federal pages. I thought that the Comptroller of Currency and Administrator of the National Bank for the U.S. Department of the Treasury sounded an interesting place to work. I called and found out that they had an opening. On the following Monday I went for an interview and started a week or so later as a bank auditor. This was also in Minneapolis and was a job I enjoyed for a short time but then my oldest brother, John, called and told me to ‘get my lazy ass down to the post office and take a test.’ I did so, scored very well indeed, and two weeks later, in March 1982, I started as an intern with the U.S. Postal Service. I had actually gone in a few days earlier in my three-piece suit thinking I was there for a follow-up interview. It turned out I had already been accepted and I was being called in for a physical – not something you would normally go to in a three-piece suit!”
“On that first day of orientation I was already working out my retirement date. The instructor caught me doing this and made me stand up in front of the class and announced, ‘Gentlemen, this fellow will go a long way in the Postal Office.’ He was right – I was there for thirty years!”
After six moths in Minneapolis, Joe was transferred to Honolulu where his speed on the computer led to a promise of promotion to full-time employment within a year. “They broke that promise and so I asked for a transfer. I wanted somewhere where I thought there would be warm weather. After a time there was a job opening for the postal service in Santa Rosa, a place I knew was in California but had no idea where exactly. I was hired sight unseen and accepted their offer with no idea about the place I was going. A month later, in November 1984, I moved to California and started work. Within a few days they made me a full-time employee.”
Joe remained at the Santa Rosa facility for a year or more before being transferred to Petaluma, a little further south towards San Francisco. “That was what I referred to as ‘Stalag 13.’ I was the express mail manager for a time and then later promoted to maintenance control. I did not like it there and in 1989 I transferred again – this time to Occidental, west of Petaluma near to Sebastopol. I was the counter clerk there for about five years.”
During that time, on July 11th, 1993 to be precise, Joe met a man by the name of Joel who lived in Yorkville and they started seeing each other. “I have never heard of Anderson Valley and didn’t know anyone there. Our relationship developed and we were talking of selling my house in Cazadero and getting a place together somewhere in between our jobs – Joel was the manager of Valley Oaks Winery in Hopland, south of Ukiah. However, before that plan developed any further, as I was by this time the acting Postmaster in Occidental, I applied for the vacant Postmaster job in Comptche, a few miles north of Anderson Valley’s west end. They offered me the position and, in February 1994, I moved into Joel’s place on Elkhorn Road in Yorkville and began to commute to my new job – the Postmaster in Comptche.”
During the nineties, as a result of the perks Joel and the winery received through his relationship with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper’s advertising department, Joe and Joel traveled often, including trips to France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Canada. “We also had some great parties at our place in Yorkville – the Lizard Point Ranch as it was called. I loved my job in Comptche with its small and close-knit community and I really felt part of the scene there. We would also attend many of the Valley events in those years, including the County Fair, the Woolgrowers Fair, and the Yorkville Fire Department’s Ice Cream Social for which Joel and I did the bbq for many years, also serving up our baked beans and organizing the raffle.”
By the late nineties, Joe was looking for a change and became aware that a new post office building was planned for Philo in the Valley. “I applied for a lateral transfer when the vacancy at that location came up and towards the end of 1999, I became the ‘officer-in-charge’ although it was not until a year later, in October 2000 that I was officially sworn in as Postmaster… And then in July 2012 I retired – nothing had happened!… No, I had a great time in Philo – working with Sheila Hibbs, Ann Carr, and Amy Bloyd as our custodian, was wonderful. It was a delight to have them alongside me dealing with the public. It never really seemed like a job. I so enjoyed the community, so many wonderful people there, and I felt a real part of it. I miss it tremendously at this point. I was nurtured to deal with people and that has served me well – treating people the way I’d like to be treated. We were always busy, it never stopped, and we always had something to do. The journey to Philo was a much shorter commute than my Comptche commute, but then we moved here to Ukiah in 2005 after selling the ranch in Yorkville and it was a long drive once again but I soon got used to it. More importantly, we were able to let go of all the work it required to maintain that ranch.”
One of the highlights of his time with the Post Office was when Joe won a competition between postmasters nationwide, base on sales and revenues relative to size, and was flown, along with Joel, to Nashville, Tennessee. “We were wined and dined and I got to have a one-on-one chat with the U.S. Postmaster General. I was scared to death. What would I say? Fortunately, the regional manager, who covers San Francisco to Eureka, was with us, and for her, meeting the Postmaster General was like meeting ‘God’. It helped break the ice for me. I even got to suggest that the Post Office should consider shipping wine as thousands of dollars worth of business are being turned away in our area and others like it. Joel and I were given the V.I.P. treatment and I figured I’d worked for the guy for thirty years I might as well meet him.”

I asked Joe what he most enjoyed about his life in Anderson Valley. “The people in general, and the sense of community. The smallness, the friendliness.” And next, Joe’s thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation…The Wineries? – “Well water usage is a question of course but most of my friends are in the industry, including my partner Joel. The wineries are a very important part of Mendocino County at this point and generate lots of money from tourism”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “As postmaster in Philo, I was mentioned a few times over the years – and they were always very nice and positive towards me. I don’t subscribe but always enjoy it when I read it – and I do like the interviews!”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “It was always on in the post office and I regard it as very important to have such a station in a community”… Changes in the Valley? – “There were many more tourists and walk-in customers in recent years. When I was first Postmaster in Philo there were 400 P.O. Boxes. Now there are 596 with a waiting list. In post office speak, in ten years we went from Level 13 to Level 18 in terms of growth; now we are the same as the town of Mendocino.”
To end the interview, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I have added. Hopefully you will find Joe’s answers interesting and illuminating…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? – “Talking with Joel.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down? – “Getting too many phone calls; winter rains so I can’t play tennis. There is very little actually – I’m generally a very happy, positive person.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Wind chimes; squirrels chirping.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Loud gun shots; Stellar jays screaming; my friend Margaret singing! I actually can sing a little and do so for friend’s birthdays.”
5. What would be your ‘last supper’? – “Sushi, sushi, and sushi!”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “Monica Seles – the great tennis player. Watching her gave me my love for tennis.”
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? – “Our three animals – two cats and Cozmo the dog. We did have to move out once because of nearby fires – I got the animals out first.”
8. Does anything scare you? – “Sharks. I like the ocean but I’ve had a couple of near encounters.”
9. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “The Holy Land – Jerusalem.”
10. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “A book would be ‘Where the red fern grows’ by Wilson Rawls, about a boy who buys and trains two Redbone Coonhound hunting dogs; a film might be ‘Julia and Julia’ about Julia Childs and starring Meryl Streep; and a song would be anything by jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.”
11. What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? – “Music, basketball, fishing, and now tennis.”
12. Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you use? – It might be ‘Are we there yet?’ – a phrase I often use before I’ve even left the house.”
13. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “Director of a cruise ship – combining travel and people.”
14. What profession or job would you not like to do? – “A mortician.”
15. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was sixteen and took Teresa to the bowling alley – it was during my ‘confusing years’!”
16. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I wouldn’t work for the post office – I’m joking! Perhaps I would pursue a career in music but I stopped when I was eighteen.”
17. Tell me about a moment or period of time you will never forget. – “There are many. Kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland comes to mind. I have had the gift of the gab ever since.”
18. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “My eighteen years as a Postmaster and my nineteen years with Joel.”
19. What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? – “That I am friendly and treat people decently, and I am kind-hearted.”
20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “How about ‘What took you so long?’ – it would mean I’d had a long life.”


Published in: on October 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Coming next week – definitely!

The series appears on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month and the next interview will appear on Thursday October 11th when my guest will be former Philo Postmaster, Joe Dresch. The interview following that will be with Jerry Karp, and that will appear on Thursday, Oct 25th.
Thanks for your continued positive comments and support,
Kind regards, Steve Sparks.

Published in: on October 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment