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Franz Schulte-Bisping Interview (Jan. 14, 2004)

I was born in Germany in 1945 just at the end of the Second World War, the eldest of seven children. We grew up on a farm that had been in the family for 400 years. My mother encouraged all of us to learn to do things with our hands, so if any tradespeople came to the farm to work for us, like a blacksmith or a carpenter, my mother would always tell them to take the time to give nice answers to all the children's questions, and teach us, in addition to getting the task at hand done. So as a five-year old I was building birdhouses — it’s nice to look back at something and say, “I made that.”

You are impressed at the thought of a farm in the family for 400 years, because you don't have that in America, but it has its drawbacks as well as its good side. A long tradition can be very rigid, with parents and grandparents always telling you, “You can't do that; we always did it this way,” and sometimes you feel you are forever trapped in the past.

I was a very rebellious teenager, so even though, as the eldest, my mother wanted me to take over the farm, I just couldn't get along with my father. If he said “Yes,” I said “No.” And if he said “No,” I said “Yes.”

So in 1966 I went into the German army for two years, not knowing what else to do. When I got out, I went to university to become a school teacher, first in elementary school and then high school.

I went to college during the sixties, during the time of the Vietnam War, when college students in Germany were protesting violently. The university I was in, in Muenster, was very conservative, so again I was rebelling against authority.

After teaching for five years, I again thought, “This might not be the right place for me.” I quit and went back to school to get a degree in psychology. Many friends of mine thought studying psychology would be helpful to me personally, and that I would then be able to help others because I had dealt with so many issues within myself. My friends told me I'd make a good psychotherapist because I was learning to be more relaxed, and more patient.

So I got my degree and then a friend urged me to meet his boss, the director of the Psychosomatic Clinic Bad Herrenalb, a well-known institution in Germany in the Black Forest. I was reluctant to meet this man. I thought, “I have too many problems to be a psychotherapist, I'm too young.” But to my great surprise, when we met I was instantly struck by him and thought that he was my ideal of what a father should be. Many years later when I was able to tell him this, he responded that he had had the same feeling for me, that I was his ideal of what a son should be.

So I agreed to take a job and work under this famous man, at first promising to give it one year. At the end of that first year, I was ready to make a further commitment and promised by handshake I would stay until he retired, which was scheduled to be another fourteen years, in 1988.

After a while, things were going very well for me at work. We gave workshops, and some social worker type of people from big companies, Daimler-Benz, and BMW, were so impressed by a workshop they took, they wanted one of us to do private consulting for them. I was reluctant to take the job but my boss said, “You are the only one without a family and some extra time. You should take this job.”

I said, “They are making tanks and weapons and everything for the next war — I don't want to help them!” My boss was smiling and he said, “Then all the more reason they need support!”

He had a lot of humor. He said, “Franz, if you need a reason, do it for me. If you want to do this job, you need a lot of humor. That's the most important thing. Everyone has problems in life, and they don't mean anything, they just make life easy or difficult! Our job is to help them see that their problems are easy to solve. If you make their problems seem easy, by using humor, you have done a great deal. You take this job, and make some extra money, and it will all be fine!”

I was suspicious that it couldn't be this easy or simple, but I did as he said, and it did work out! I appreciated their technology, and became proud of what I was achieving, and felt like I was a part of their companies.

At the same time I bought an old farmhouse in the Black Forest, and in my spare time I was reconstructing and restoring this old farmhouse, which I did in the manner it would have been historically. So in the end I had a lovely home which all my friends admired. When I wanted to sell it and start a new project it sold in one week.

In 1982 I married my wife, Christiane. She was a psychologist, too. In 1988, when my boss Walter H. Lechler, M.D., retired, I left the Clinic and my wife and I moved closer to Duesseldorf where we opened a private practice. I specialized in treating clients with cancer, psychosomatic diseases, alcoholics, and workaholics (and, ironically, I was a workaholic myself!). In addition, I still consulted more and more for Daimler-Benz, BMW, and also United Aluminum Company, from 1988 until 1997.

My wife treated children and was also a counselor, to keep as many legs on our stool as possible, which you want to do if you are self-employed.

When I sold the old farmhouse for a good price, in 1988, bought a ruined castle nobody wanted! Only one room was still standing. It had been lived in fairly recently, but the rest was indeed in ruins. I planned to spend the next ten years restoring it. The castle had originally been built in 1096, with a newer section built in 1495, so the history was there to make it worth restoring. And I liked working with my hands. I liked walking by each day and seeing the bricks I had laid the day before — it was so satisfying to see the progress. I got 65,000 old bricks from other buildings that were being torn down and used them for my project. I felt the work was therapeutic for me. I was never sick. And when I got to my office, I was totally relaxed, because I had been up working at laying bricks since maybe 4am because it gets light at that hour in the summer in northern Germany.

But by 1993, my wife and I were getting lost. I could see that my marriage was falling apart and I needed to get away. For years, my sister Elisabeth and brother-in-law Gary, who live in Rohnert Park, California, had been inviting me to come visit them. I'd always said, “Yes, sometime.” I decided the time had finally come.

So I came to California for three weeks in August of 1993. My associations with the United States at that point were the Vietnam War, Mickey Mouse, the plastic, and McDonalds! I was not a fan of the United States, and I was depressed and sad about my family situation.

But driving my sister's car around, looking at new sights, I was incredibly impressed. Every day was like a new miracle!

The last weekend of the trip they invited me to a party “way out in the country.” I didn't have to come, but some friends were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Given the state of my own marriage after ten years, I could hardly believe anyone could be married 60 years! We looked for a card for a 60th anniversary, and of course there wasn't such a thing! We had to make our own!

What a memorable day it was! It was Dot and Perry Hulbert's anniversary party, in Katherine Eubanks' grove. I didn't even speak that much English, but I still remember first meeting people I know now at that party! And I remember when we drove up here for that party, when we came down 128 into Anderson Valley I said to Gary and Elisabeth, “It looks like a doorway to heaven!” I remember that feeling even now every time I come back from Cloverdale.

After the party, they took me to the Brewery to taste some Boonville beer and another customer in the Brewery told me about Shenoa which I had read about in some literature from Findhorn, which I had visited in 1979. Shenoa was a spinoff from Findhorn. I was close to speechless at all these events that had such significance to me, that I was near Shenoa by coincidence, and I learned it was in Philo, which I knew meant love, all these things just were like little miracles adding to my euphoria.

Sunday afternoon John Hulbert, who was a neighbor and therefore good friend of Gary's, took me to see the property he was moving to, on Ruddock Road. It was near sundown, and the sun was reflecting off the windows of Johnnie Peterson's house — it was spectacular — it looked like the whole house was on fire! I had so many lasting impressions from that short weekend! I wanted to stop the car and get out to admire the sunset. Jokingly, John said something like, “You’re a guy from Germany, you can see a sunset every day!” I said jokingly, “You’re a guy from Boonville — come to Germany where sometimes you don't see any sun at all for six weeks when it's raining!” So many people I met in Boonville that weekend — I felt as if I had known them for 20 years!

I went back to Germany, and I was completely different. Any time I was relaxed, watching a sunset, I was feeling I was back in the Anderson Valley.

In 1994 I met Monika, who is here with me now. When we met, we found we had so much in common! We each had three children, three cats, a dog, and even a VW bus! And she was impressed with the castle. Our children's ages were exactly staggered so between the two of us we had children 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.

A few months later, my phone rang in Germany in the middle of the night and it was Gary, calling me to say that house lit up like glory was for sale — and was I interested! I tried to breathe, and wake up! I talked to Monika and all the children. Monika said, “Why not!”

We made a trip over at Easter in 1995 bringing all the children and decided to go for it! And you know, I had sat at the same table with Barbie and Johnnie Peterson at that original party for Dot and Perry Hulbert! I remembered meeting them back then!

My tax advisor had pointed out to me that I had a lot of capital tied up in that castle back in Germany. I realized that I wasn't tied to it, that I could leave it all.

So my ex-wife and I agreed to quit fighting, for the sake of our children. We got together and Monika and I bought out her share of the castle, and we went our separate ways.

We thought it would take two years for Bobbie's stepson to arrange the sale, but we told him we'd buy it at any time. That fall he gave Monika a call and she bought tickets the same day. We came for just for a week or ten days. And Barbie let us sleep in the Peterson house, even though the deal wasn't finalized yet.

We sold the castle and moved here in 1997.

One problem reared its head when I went to Building and Planning to ask about adding some rooms to the two-bedroom Peterson house for all our children, plus Monika was pregnant. They were most discouraging, saying the septic system would have to be expanded, etc. etc. Here I thought California would be the land of hippie freedom, instead I was reminded of all I didn't like in Germany, rules and regulations and authoritarianism!

Before we moved here, I had a friend from Germany visiting and he fell in love with the Peterson property, too. He asked me to keep my eye open for anything else like that for him! The Monday after my discouraging trip to Building and Planning, Monika called T. J. Nelson and Rex McClellan showed us Ann and Lee Simon's place for sale, up at the top of the Holmes Ranch. It had two houses on it, right next to each other. Monika and I looked at all that space and I said, “How about we buy this and sell the other house to my friend!”

So we bought the Simons' place in June of 1997, and then we moved there in July. The kids had a house and we had a house, with a basketball court between the two. It worked out so well, because the Simons' renter needed someplace to go, so we rented her the Peterson place temporarily. My friend in Germany changed his mind, and decided not to come, so eventually we sold it.

When we came here, I retired! I read, I listened to music, I went fishing, I coached soccer, I met a lot of people.

I also developed a good relationship with Richard Starr and all his employees. Once he repaired an old boat of mine, and after a couple of weeks I hadn't received a bill. I mentioned this to him and he said, “Well, have you had time to check it all out, that everything is working OK? I don't want to bill you until you've done that.” That impressed me.

Another time I was stuck on Gschwend Road and Starr’s tow truck driver Robert Kraft came with the tow truck. His grandparents were German, so we got to talking about how he liked German beer. So the next time I came back from Germany, I brought him a suitcase full of a whole variety of German beers and he was so tickled — he said it was like Christmas in July! “You should be our boss!” he exclaimed.

Who knew then that it would come to be!

I knew repairs might not be the fastest at Starr, because they couldn't always get parts promptly, but I had more than one car, so this was never a problem for me. I knew everyone here and was friends with them all.

One day Richard said to me, “Franz, I'm really tired of owning this business after 24 years. You know a lot of people. See if anyone you know would be interested in buying me out.” I went home and thought to myself, “I could see myself doing that! I'm tired of five years of retirement!” I slept on it. Monika agreed. I went back the next day, Richard and I talked it over for a couple of hours, and then shook hands on the deal, it was that simple!

[Richard had bought a lodge in Trinity County, and that was where he wanted to be and is now, for those of you who knew him when he was here and didn't know where he'd gone. — BB]

I've had the business for 15 months now, and it's just what I needed. I was too young to retire. I don't want to be a boss, but I'm glad to be the “head,” which is what the employees told me the business needed. It's been satisfying to see what's needed and make things work better. For example, there was no office help, so the mechanics had to do all the paperwork themselves. When calls came in, guys had to crawl out from under a car to answer the phone. Parts tracking and stock tracking needed to be computerized.

Luckily for me, Jim Dean was already doing payroll and was willing to continue, so I didn't have to worry about that. And the employees came with the business, so I didn't have to find them.

As I mentioned before, getting parts in a timely fashion was always a problem, because there was no one to go get them. Richard had to wait for a delivery, or someone making a trip to Ukiah.

I'd known kids at the high school, so I offered a deal to some of those who had cellphones who were now going to Junior College in Ukiah. If we need a part, I call one of them, and if he can, he picks it up and delivers it to us when he comes back to the Valley. If he's not available, I call the next one on the list. Every time they can do me this service, I pay them $5, so it's a benefit for them and a benefit for me. It's made the operation of this place more efficient. Plus, I hired Andrea Johnson as my office assistant, to answer the phone and do the billing. Then I learned her husband, W.T., works for the County road crew only four days a week in the summer, so he could work for me every Friday, doing all the hauling of wrecks for me. In the past, that job never got done on a regular basis. Plus, W.T. is now the emergency tow service person on call on alternate weekends. Bob Macki used to be the emergency tow person 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now Bob gets alternate weekends off, so he's happier. So it's all working out really well.

After paving the parking lot and generally spiffing the place up out front, the next project was to clean out and remodel this house into office space for Andrea and for me. There was a lot of stuff stored in here, we tried to get rid of it all. We cleared it out and then started fixing it up. I took out the old linoleum, and there were nice redwood floors. In only four hours with a sander from Jack's, we had lovely old flooring! Now Andrea and I both have office space here.

I had a good laugh the other day when I was driving the tow truck and I suddenly remembered when I was eight years old, seeing a photo of an American truck driver driving a huge truck — that was a childhood dream of mine — and here I was finally achieving it!

I just want to end by saying how thankful I am to the Hulbert family. They have been so very, very nice to me and my family. And the whole community has been very welcoming. All the service we do — oil changes, brakes, transmissions, radiators, engines, etc. to a full service on cars, motorcycles, boats, tractors, chainsaws, weed-eaters, lawn mowers… — for me it’s like a daily thankful payback to all the people in Anderson Valley. We are honest and reliable and the looks like a competent auto-repair shop. I am so happy to be here and I again want to thank everyone!

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