I met with James last week at his office just outside Philo on Blattner Road. He’s a very busy man (“24/7/365”) as executive Director of the Unicorn Youth Services School and Group Home and it had taken even more persuasive powers than usual to get this interview arranged.
James was born in 1938 in the very rural community of Pickens, Oklahoma, near to the Arkansas border, to parents William Grable ‘Shorty’ Dean and Juanita Hill. The Dean’s were longtime farming residents of Arkansas but with Grable in the mining and lumber industries, when James was a youngster the family was always moving to wherever work could be found. The Hills had been in Oklahoma for many generations but James’ parents had actually met in New Mexico and were married in Arizona and continued to move around the southwest. This resulted in James’ sister (the oldest sibling) and six brothers — James was the fourth eldest — being born in several different towns across southwestern states.
James attended school in Grants, New Mexico, on Route 66, at one time the ‘carrot capital’ of the USA and in more recent times better known for the Uranium discovered there. In 1948, when James was in 4th grade, the family, apart from the sister who was now married, decided to leave the region and move to Prineville, Oregon, a small town in the center of the state, to where some uncles had previously moved and where Grable found a good job in a lumber mill. “We lived there for three years but then Daddy decided to move us all again and we went to Modesto in California’s central valley where he started to work in a small manufacturing plant putting zinc-coating on the large metal milk containers. He also put us boys to work in the fields around there at that time to earn money to support the family. Around Modesto there was all sorts of fruit and we’d pick everything from apricots, apples, potatoes, and a little further away we’d work on picking grapes in Lodi and cotton in Los Banos.”
James was a decent student, enjoying English and History, and he was good at math although he didn’t really like it at the time. “I was certainly more a scholar than an athlete but I did like to play some tennis and really enjoyed swimming. When not at school, when I was not doing my chores or in the fields, I liked reading about archeology and anthropology and was a keen stamp collector.”
James went on to attend the large Modesto High School with a senior class of about eight hundred students. ‘I was an easy-going kid and never got into any trouble. I was very obedient and, like all of my brothers, I knew my parents view of how important discipline was. It was a different time back then. There was great respect for parents, family, and adults in general. These days a lot more parents have abdicated responsibility. They are often unmarried and have kids at a young age. I guess the first major break with tradition came in World War 2 when women were working and moved out of home and then when the sixties came along with the hippies, free love, and the women’s and gay rights movements, the traditional family values that I had grown up following were lost forever.”
James graduated in 1956 and for two years attended Modesto Junior College before moving on to the College of the Pacific in Stockton where he studied for a major in Education. “We had always had food and clothes growing up but once I was at college and I met people from different backgrounds, it hit me for the first time that I was from a poor family. In high school I had no thought of going to college, it was always going to be the military or possibly working in the hospital industry somewhere. I had uncles in the military and an older brother too. However, a school counselor had put my name in for a two-year scholarship and I got it. Then, after the two years at the J.C., another counselor did the same thing and I received a Ford Foundation Scholarship to go and train to be a teacher. I graduated in 1960 and found a job teaching at an elementary school in Modesto.”
At high school, James and Vivian Hilts had become sweethearts and continued to date through college. “I was already teaching before I graduated and finished up my degree in night classes, and then when Vivian graduated from San Jose State in the June of 1960 we got married and were both teaching. Through a friend we had both been exposed to private education and were interested in starting something together along those lines. However, we soon started our family with James Bruce being born in 1961 and then Deborah Alice in 1963. I became active in the boy scouts and Vivian in the girl scouts and we made lots of friends on both sides of Modesto – a town with a significant ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side of the tracks – I grew up on the south side, the ‘wrong’ side... We moved three times within Modesto in those early years as our family grew but over time I became more interested in finding something new and wanted to move on within the educational experience, whereas Vivian was always happy wherever she was.”
As a teenager living in Oregon, James had occasionally traveled out of state to work with his father wherever he went and at some point he had found a winter job for Dorsey Logging in Anderson Valley working on the split wood. “I was really pushing for a change from Modesto and remembered this place and talked to Vivian about it. I did have a brother and sister in Redwood Valley, but Vivian still said ‘No’. However we did begin to look to move somewhere and checked out Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. At some point I even suggested Australia and she said she’d think about that! I jumped at the opportunity and we went through the process and were pretty much set to go and start a new life with our kids down under. Things were held up though as to get a visa we needed either a firm job offer or have $5000 in an escrow account over there. Well, all of our savings would be used in getting there so we would have had to wait for a firm offer from the Sydney Board of Education, who were definitely interested in us.”
While waiting for this to happen, James and his family took an Easter vacation in 1966 and camped in Dimmick Park on Hwy 128 just beyond the Valley towards the coast. They were sightseeing in and around the Valley and came across a workday for the staff at the school that was taking place in preparation for the new library at the Little Red Schoolhouse. They stopped and talked to various people and met the School superintendent, Bob Mathias. “It was a nice visit and we returned home a few days later to find a job contract from Bob to work at the school. We signed it and our Australian adventure never did happen, although the job offer did arrive shortly afterwards. It nearly turned out so very differently.”
They moved up to the Valley, living south of Boonville and both teaching at the school. During that first year, the department of Social Services in Stanislaus County contacted James about a troubled youngster who had been a student of his in Modesto, wondering if they could take him into their home. The social services came and checked out their place and gave them a license to have as many as six children there. Not long after that Bob and Lois Mathias announced they were going to go to Brazil for an extended stay and offered their ranch, between Boonville and Yorkville, for lease to James, with a home and new A-Frame building to act as a schoolhouse if James and Vivian wanted to start their own school there. “We accepted this great opportunity and started a summer school, The Rio Rancheria School, in 1967, keeping our jobs at the elementary school for the time being.”
Soon James and Vivian had six kids placed in their home who attended their school too, with local kids also there in the summers. It became too much so James left his job and ran the school while Vivian stayed at the elementary school in town. However in 1968, the new Superintendent, Mel Baker offered James the job as Elementary School Principal, which he accepted, and so they reversed roles with Vivian taking over at the ranch. By 1971, Bob Mathias was planning to return from Brazil and James knew they needed to get their own place. “I knew by then that we wanted to run a full-time residential school. With the help of friends we found and purchased a thirty-acre ranch on Ray’s Road just north of Philo here in the Valley and together with friends and the boys we built the place up and in 1971 opened the ‘New Hope’ school. We ran the residential group home and the private school there. At the time there were also other such places in the Valley, such as Clearwater Ranch and the Bachmann-Hill Group Home. I retired from the elementary school in 1972 to concentrate full-time on this – we had eighteen kids at this point.”
In 1979, Howard and Ynema Daniel, James and Vivian’s partners in the ranch, retired and wanted to be bought out. This could only be done one way, so the property was sold and a new, five-acre location on Blattner Road was bought, developed, and the program moved there, with James and his family now living in the main house there. This became the ‘Unicorn Youth Services’ we are familiar with in the Valley today. The final big move came in 1985, when the people who had bought the first property in 1979 wanted to sell it back and so James did so and re-opened there in 1985 with Jerry Blattner, who had joined the project in 1977, running the school there, as James and Vivian kept the set-up on Blattner Road going too.
“We still have the two places and have now been going in one place or another for nearly forty-five years. For all of that time we have treated the kids like family. If Vivian and I took a vacation they came with us, all of them. They really are our family. I should say that Vivian and I did take one week off alone in 1985 to go to Hawaii... We offer individual educational programs for kids with difficulties. They are generally placed here by social services from foster care homes, although some come from the probation department. They are mainly rural, country kids – ‘softer’ kids, and most are between twelve and fifteen years old, all boys.”
Meanwhile, James and Vivian also added two more children of their own, Laura in 1971 and Eric in 1980. Vivian passed away in 2006. Eldest Bruce passed away in 2008 and his wife a year later so James has their children, his grandchildren, with him at the house. Daughter Deborah (Hart) has four children with her husband in Windsor, Laura (Cannon) is in Philo with her two, and Eric is with his child and wife in San Diego. All four of the children went through the A.V. school system. “At this point we’ve had close to five hundred kids go through here that we’ve had for between one and three years each. We had one for eight years. We work with the social services departments in Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, and more recently Contra Costa counties. They refer the kids and I review them before coming to a decision whether they would fit in here or not. I have Barbara Blattner as the Site Director and my secretary is Nancy Meyer. They do a great job. We have about twenty-two staff in total – childcare workers, social workers, psychiatrists, cooks, etc. We also have people come in to teach specific classes such as pottery – Alexis Moyer, and music – Don Paslay.”
“The whole program had evolved from an idea Vivian and I had many years ago to combine schooling with home life and recreation, all together at one place, supporting one another and therefore being more effective. We then added the clinical component and treatment and it is now a multi-layered, integrated system. It has worked. We have had a success rate of over 90% who have graduated through our program and gone on to productive lives and more than 50% keep in touch with us over a period of time. I have asked my own kids how they have felt about all this and they all say they would not have traded it for anything – ‘it made us what we are’ is their general comment. I have always had my faith to turn to and remain a keen follower of the Mormon Church, attending services every week in Ukiah.”
During the eighties, James began to do the accounts for a computer data processing company he started, becoming an enrolled agent in accounting. He went on to do tax returns for friends and started a computerized bookkeeping service. “I have done the accounting at the County Fair for some years now. That was a program written by my son Bruce. I now have a dozen or so clients for bookkeeping; we do six or seven payrolls, and perhaps one hundred and fifty income tax returns, both individuals and companies. Nancy, who has been with me for 15 years, is a big help with all of this.”
“The Valley has changed a lot in the forty plus years I’ve been here. There were no vines back then, it was mainly apples and sheep. When I arrived to stay in 1966, there were just the old families and a few hippies were slowly arriving. There were may be three or four Mexican families here then... Vivian soon settled down here and, as I said earlier, she was perfectly happy wherever she was — she could see the good in just about anyone and anything. She was a remarkable influence on many, many of the kids, who all had so much respect for her, always calling her Mrs. Dean. In fact for a time our own kids called us Mr. and Mrs. Dean! We insist that the kids call all of our staff ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’, except some of the teacher’s aides who can be referred to by their first names. Most of then have been with us for some years now and they add to the family feel that we strive for and which has led to so much of our success. We live here together, this is a family first and a business second.”
I now asked James for his thoughts about various Valley issues.
The wineries and their impact? “They have probably been a good thing overall in that they have certainly provided permanent jobs for many and have brought lots of visitors and their money here too. They have been very significant in terms of the Valley’s population growth and have been responsible for the influx of the Hispanic community here that has been viewed differently by different people. Water is an issue of course, as is the use of pesticides, and they have not been very active with the problems of affordable housing for employees, while also resulting in housing prices going up for long-time Valley folks to buy.”
The AVA? – “I have read it since it was owned and run by Homer Mannix when it was more of a little family weekly. I have kept old copies since then, and over the years, when my kids articles or pictures were in it. It has done more than its fair share of rabble-rousing and became quite radical in flavor when Bruce Anderson took over. I like Bruce and have always got along with him but it must be tough to be a flaming radical and a liberal at the same time. He tells it the way he sees it and sometimes stirs the pot. He’s not always right but he’s not always wrong either and I think he sometimes likes to play the devil’s advocate.”
The School System? “It has changed a lot over the years. By and large it is pretty good but there are problems there. I think teacher loyalty to the educational process over time has dwindled and to some perhaps it is just a job. In my day it was done for the ‘love of teaching’ and I sense that this is not the main purpose for some in recent years. That’s the case for all educational institutions, not just our local one. There has become too much bureaucracy and concern with legalities rather than getting the job done and moving forward with the kids’ education. Education to me has always been a profession, not a trade. Be a teacher, not a friend of the kids; teachers should dress accordingly, not like the kids; they should be spoken to accordingly, with respect, and be referred to by ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ There should be a level of respect from the kids for the teachers but it does have to be earned. I guess I’m old fashioned.”
I posed a few questions to James.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Working with my kids.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Pettiness.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “Nice soft music – generally country and western.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Rap music – it grates on my ears.”
What is your favorite food or meal? – “Breakfast – bacon, pancakes, and eggs.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “President Obama.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? – “My scriptures; my painting supplies; and my Sudoku books – the number-placement puzzles.”
Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “I like Disney movies – my favorite is probably one called ‘The Ninth Avenue Irregulars’ – a comedy with Cloris Leachman and many others...As for books there is the ‘Cat who...’ series and mysteries such as the ‘Miss Seaton’ books with an English clairvoyant/art teacher/detective... As for a song – I like country, gospel, and also stirring songs such as ‘Climb every Mountain’ or ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’ – emotive songs like that.”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Landscape painting; reading mystery books – nothing too graphic, ones that require deductions to be made.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? – “An anthropologist... A journalist may be... Working with the mentally ill...”
What profession would you not like to do? – “Fruit-picking... Construction. I have done both and wouldn’t like to do them again.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “My wedding day; the days my children and grandchildren were born and then later when they graduated; the days we make breakthroughs with the kids here.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? – “Whenever I lose someone close to me – I’ve lost quite a few.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically / mentally / spiritually? – “That I do care about people.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well, I follow the Mormon faith and we believe that life is eternal and that we will sit on the right hand of God. If he said ‘Welcome home, you’re family is waiting’ that would be good. I am married for all time to Vivian, not just in this life.” ¥¥
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be popular AVA contributor Bruce ‘Pat’ Patterson.)