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 LA 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 UCLA. “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 UCLA 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, LA, 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 LA 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 LA 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 SF, 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 SF. 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 AVA 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 radio? “They serve a great purpose and in their manager, Mary Aigner, they have someone who is pretty amazing.”
The AVA? “I love the AVA 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 Anderson Valley? “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.”
I posed a few questions to Terry.
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.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Super loud noises; people being uncivil to each other.”
Sound or noise you love? “Bird’s singing; coffee percolating.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Leaf blows; the heavy bass sound on boom boxes.”
Favorite food or meal? “Roast chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a nice glass of Greenwood Ridge merlot.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Profession other than your own you’d 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.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A bookkeeper. I don’t like numbers.”
How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 15 and went to the movies with Peter. It was not a stellar moment.”
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.”
A memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “It’s too hard to pick just one.”
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.”
Favorite thing about yourself? “My creativity and resilience.”
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.”
To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com.