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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Gene Herr

I met with Gene for our chat a week or so ago in the unofficial ‘meeting room’ upstairs in the Farrer Building in downtown Boonville.

Eugenia ‘Gene’ Donnelly was born, in 1932, the youngest of two girls, (sister Nancy is one year older) to parents T. John Donnelly and Mary Clayton in Marin County, northern California, and grew up in the town of San Anselmo. On her father’s side, the family came over from Roscommon, Ireland in the mid-1850’s, following the famine there in the late 1840’s, and they initially settled in Boston. Her grandfather was born there but in 1861 they moved out west to San Francisco. Gene’s father was born in 1895 but immediately following the earthquake of 1906 the family was forced to move across the Bay to Marin. A couple of days later, he was sent back alone to the City, at the age of eleven, to see what was left of their neighborhood, The Mission district. It had been wiped out so they would have to stay in Marin. On the Clayton side, the family was English, from Henley near London, and her grandfather was one of nine children. They moved over to the Bakersfield area of California in the 1880’s and planted a peach tree farm. However, several years later the crop failed and they sold the land back to the oil company they had bought it from and moved to San Francisco. There, Gene’s grandfather, Ernest Clayton, became an artist of some repute, specializing in wildflower paintings, some of which remain in the history room of the SF Library to this day. Following the earthquake, they too moved across to Marin where her father worked in the stained glass window business and where Gene’s mother was born shortly afterwards.

“I grew up in San Anselmo and attended schools in that area all the way through high school, going to Drake Middle School and finally Tamalpais High, where both my mother and uncle had gone many years before. The public transport there back then was very good and my mother had caught a train to school, which you could take either all the way to Bolinas on the coast or inland to Sausalito where you could catch the ferry to San Francisco. After the war, in 1946, the whole rail network was disbanded which was very shortsighted of them, the beginning of a perverse social pattern, I’m afraid. I never understood why. We had enjoyed lots of fun catching the train and the ferry and going shopping in the City with my mother and grandmother. They were both excellent seamstresses and would buy the materials to make our clothes. Those were delightful trips.”

Gene’s father had been a chief engineer on oil tankers in his days before marrying Mary and had frequently visited Alaska, Japan, and the Philippines. However, after getting married in 1928, he settled into a job as ‘traffic’ engineer for Pacific Bell telephone, making sure there was enough equipment and people in the right places at the right times. He enjoyed traveling and got to do plenty of that in this line of work, eventually becoming the North Coast District Manager. The family would sometimes go with him and Fort Bragg was often on the route so Gene had been through Anderson Valley on several occasions in the late forties when the logging was booming. “I remember the smoke from the timber mills was so thick you could hardly see. Much earlier, when I was a toddler, we would go as a family on trips to Garberville where my parents had spent their honeymoon at the Benbow Inn, and we’d stay at the Palace Hotel in Ukiah on the way, and later, when I was about ten-ish, I remember stopping in the Valley on our way north to Eureka and going for a swim in the Navarro River near to Hendy Woods.”

Gene’s mother had graduated high school at fifteen and worked at the Federal Reserve Bank but after getting married she was forced to quit. That was the way it was back then. Once the girls were born she did not work again until during World War II, when she worked for three years as a draftswoman in the shipyards in Sausalito. She was involved in community work and coincidentally, given Gene’s later activities, she was on the San Anselmo planning commission. “My parents were very law-abiding but always had a little liquor in the house during prohibition in open defiance of the law. They were strict in that they expected us to do as we were told, without whining. I never felt that they were unreasonable. They simply would want to know who we were with, what we were doing, and where we were, and to call if we were going to be late. We could not try to get away with doing something by saying ‘well so-and-so is doing it’. They were always willing to listen to us and as long as we did our chores we could then go out with friends, or on a date in later years.”

“Growing up we biked practically everywhere and during the summers we could always be found playing around San Anselmo Creek where we fished and damned. I went to summer camps with the Campfire Girls, a group similar to the girl scouts but with an American Indian orientation. I loved going away camping for four weeks or so. My mother was concerned about me being homesick but in fact I cried when I had to go home! There would be about ninety girls from Marin and Sonoma counties, camping on Austin Creek near to the Russian River in western Sonoma County — a gorgeous spot in those days. At grade school the classes were small and I had lots of friends in my neighborhood. Then I met new friends in middle school. The teachers were very good and that period of my life was a particularly happy one. I enjoyed sports – softball and tennis, horse-riding too, although one of the great sorrows of my life was that I never had a pony of my own. At ten I was convinced I was getting one for my birthday but there was no pony on the lawn that day. I was heartbroken.”

Gene did well academically at school, with history and science her favorite subjects. “I am still in touch with my history teacher today. She is in her nineties. I graduated in 1950 and we have just had our 60th reunion. It was wonderful. I was always going to go to UC Berkeley from an early age. My sister was there and there was never any thought I’d go anywhere else. It was also an economic decision with tuition just $67.50 per semester, including fees. Pretty good for a top quality education.”

Gene studied Political Science, specializing in International Relations, and became involved in many student activities, particularly of a political nature. She was Vice President of the student body in her senior year. “I was there before the Free Speech movement but during and after McCarthy’s ‘Red Scare.’ It was a very interesting time with our professors taking oaths that they would never become communists. In the academic world, we were at the center of the opposition to McCarthyism. I joined a sorority and had a very good time socially. I had smoked at 15 and now I would have a drink too — beer or liquor, there was little wine at that time. Did you know that in 1932, marijuana was legal and alcohol wasn’t? But that was before my time. Anyway, there were about 70 girls in the sorority and we lived in a big three-story house with three girls to a room and I made a tremendous number of friends, many of whom have remained friends for life. We would always have each other’s backs. Meanwhile, I still got to play some sports such as tennis and swimming, and a little golf, and overall I had a terrific time at college. I enjoyed my studies and wanted to do so much more but there was just not enough time. By the time I was ready to graduate in 1954, I had given little thought to job possibilities. I did know that I was going to have to do something because my parents had made it clear that if I planned to stay at home then I’d have to start paying rent.”

Gene got a job at the International House, a dormitory for foreign students at the university, and home of what became a famous coffee shop. She met a graduate student, Richard Herr in 1954, when she was performing administrative work on a model UN debate and he was the faculty advisor on that project. They were engaged in the summer of 1954 and married on May 1st 1955. Richard had been a reserve in the National Guard during the Korean War and, following a draft deferment while he attended Yale University, he had to complete his service in the army’s military government and intelligence branch, which he joined in the spring of 1955. However, as members of his German family were living in Bulgaria and Israel, he was disqualified from working in military intelligence so he was given quite a plush spot — in Arlington, Virginia, as a reporter and later the assistant editor for the base newspaper. Gene moved too, finding work briefly for the State Department as a clerical worker, and then taking an internship in their budgeting and program development section, leading to a job for the Department of the Air Force involved with personnel management and later employee relations. Prior to their move east, Gene had worked in Berkeley in the State Department’s Public Information Section, reviewing the Indian press, and her work there proved to be very helpful when she went to work in Arlington.

After a year, she moved to the Air Force Employee Relations section. “That was not my favorite but it was extremely instructive, dealing with daily problems and getting backstairs insights into how big bureaucracy works. It was a very interesting time. President Eisenhower was cutting back the civil service to raise money for the country’s new freeway system and a massive reduction in the federal government was the result, without much drop-off in efficiency. Washington DC was also a very interesting place to live of course; really fascinating, and we had a wonderful time exploring it. Too bad about the climate though!”

Richard was done by 1957 and he went to work for the Department of Agriculture. Gene was getting itchy feet and wanted to do some traveling. She nagged Richard to transfer to the Agency for international Development and eventually, with the awful weather playing its part, he agreed. “He piddled around with agriculture for a year or so and then in 1959 he joined the Agency in DC. Over the next couple of years I quit my job and had two children. John in 1961 and Serena in 1963.

“Then in the spring of 1964, Richard was assigned to El Salvador and we moved there; kids and cat too. We had a wonderful time for three years before he was re-assigned to Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 for two years, which became four in the end. I returned to Washington in 1967 and raised the children. I joined a marvelous baby-sitting club in which you could accumulate hours worked and then turn them in later for whatever time you wanted off. That meant I could enroll as a ‘Teacher of English as a Second Language’ and taught Cuban refugees in the evenings.”

“After two years, the children and I went out to join Richard but we lived in Thailand — a ‘safe home’ for families of American personnel in Vietnam. That was a terrific time — a whole new place to ‘play.’ The kids went to school but I was not allowed to work, my ‘orders’ being to ‘assist in the representation element of your husband’s position in the Foreign Service’ and we were graded on that. Some might think that it was intolerable and some wives did not like it, but on the other hand, over the years I got to learn in great depth about the four very different cultures in El Salvador, Thailand, Indonesia, and India. We had a nice house, medical services and a very good support system for many things. I did a little volunteer work at times, including being a docent at the National Museum in Thailand. Following Thailand/Vietnam, we were in Indonesia from 1971 to 1973 then finally India from 1974 to 1979, at which point Richard retired. I found in general that the Thai people were very friendly, helpful and honest, whereas the Indonesians were constrained by their recent history and would adopt a rigid social behavior, telling you what they thought you wanted to hear rather than the reality. The whole experience was wonderful; I had always wanted to travel as long as I can remember and for this period of my life I did it extensively. A couple of strange things came out of all this. We were to buy our property on Holmes Ranch Road here in the Valley from the military officer who had been on the last helicopter out of Saigon in 1975. Somehow, a rumor got out around here that Richard was that guy. We thought it was quite a ‘useful’ rumor so we never addressed it either way. Then it was thought that in some way we worked for the CIA in Indonesia during the overthrow of Sukarno’s government and the communist PKI Party in 1965, but we weren’t in Indonesia until 1971, It was another odd Anderson Valley rumor that was completely illogical but we didn’t get upset and just ignored it.”

Gene and Richard returned to the Bay Area and wanted to retire to Anderson Valley. “Richard had friends of his family who had vacationed in Mendocino on the coast and I had been through many times growing up, plus the scenery reminded me of Austin Creek and my campfire girl days. Back in 1962, when I pregnant with Serena, we had looked at property in Comptche but couldn’t afford it. However, in 1966, my sister found a spot there that we went in on with her and other friends. That is still ours and is being used by third generation now, but the zooming codes meant that we could not build for each family so we just had the one cabin there. We wanted something else nearby and in 1978 I found property on Holmes Ranch Road and we bought the twenty-acre parcel we have lived on ever since. After returning from our travels, we moved here full-time in 1979, living in a trailer while a house was built with neighbor Tom Jones’ help. We had found another culture to explore, had a vegetable garden, sheep, and dogs and cats and we soon got to know many Valley people through the endless pot lucks and parties held at every conceivable excuse.”

After living here for six months or so, Gene attended a Community Services District (CSD) meeting to see how small communities are run. “It was me, five old guys, and Homer Mannix, the fire chief. I went mainly because we needed fire protection at the top of Holmes Ranch Road but I was also a reporter for Homer at his local newspaper – the AVA. (I later worked for Bruce Anderson for a time after he bought the paper from Homer, doing CSD stuff, biographies and local news). At a meeting not long afterwards, they fired Homer which I have always thought was a catastrophe. He was a man with great vision. I was annoyed at the directors and applied for the CSD manager position and got the job, which I performed for two years. There was still more improvements needed so I ran for and became the Director and did that for four years. During the 80s I also worked for Vicky Czapkay in the business office of the School District.”

By 1989, Gene’s mother was suffering from severe Alzheimer’s and Gene backed off from some of her activities to share in her mother’s care with her sister and a caregiver, spending lots of time down in Marin. The two children had grown up, finished college and were working, they had never settled in the Valley and neither had gone to school here. John was at Berkeley when his parents moved here and Serena stayed in the Bay Area with Gene’s sister and cousins for her final two years of high school. “It was a strange time for the schools system here in the late 70s. There were seven supervisors in a very short period of time.”

Gene’s mother passed away in 1993. She and Richard returned to working on their house. “Once the roof, bathroom, and stove are working, things tend to go very slowly after that. We finally completed the house this year with some wonderful bookshelves and cabinets by Steve Anderson who does such wonderful work.”

Gene’s primary activity in the community lately has been involvement with planning for the Valley’s future. “It has been very frustrating — people fight the same battles over and over. I worked with Barbara Goodell and Kathy Bailey on the AV Local Plan, a good plan, which is part of the County’s General Plan. It incorporated the ideas of over 300 people and it relies for implementation on the revision of ordinances and laws to make it environmentally acceptable. Unfortunately the government is not going to do this – they say there is no money. It is very fashionable to talk about the County going broke and now we have been in limbo since 2009. A lot of it is just fads in thinking; hype and political manipulation. As I said, it’s very frustrating. As for the CSD here in the Valley, they get no money from the county sales taxes. This could go towards providing some services such as a sewer system in Boonville but nobody there seems willing to look at this. The Teen Center is their current new program – that’s the most they can do I think. They could do a lot with grants, planning grants, construction grants, but there is little vision I’m afraid. Homer Mannix had the vision that is sorely missed today. He was way ahead of his time.”

I asked Gene for her responses to some of the issues that affect everyday life here in Anderson Valley.

The wineries and their impact? “I am as concerned with a lot of the social issues associated with the prevalence of wineries here, as much as with the economic story. Lots of the land here is under production and this monoculture takes away from the habitat of many life forms. Apart from the wildlife, the California wild flowers have taken a real beating and where there used to be poppies and lupines there are grapes. Also, the owners and many of the management class at the wineries are not permanent residents and therefore I’m not sure that they are personally involved or interested in the Valley’s well-being.”

KZYX radio? “Richard is on the air twice a month with his classical music show and I do like some of the programming. I love Ross Murray’s spot and enjoy listening to Norman de Vall and Joy LeClair. However, I think there is far too much time spent on the marijuana issues. It’s so boring; and there is not enough local news. There is room for improvement certainly but it is tough to maintain it on a shoestring budget.”

The AVA? “I really like parts of it, although the inaccuracies continue. Some parts I read religiously, some parts I never read. I wish Bruce would do more of his personal stories. They are very, very funny and true. Overall I think they do a very good job.”

The school system? “Well I am not involved anymore but I have been disappointed in some of the results I have seen. The continued participation by parents at all levels of their children’s education is very important. Meanwhile the work done at the Adult School has been a stellar accomplishment.”

Changes in the Valley? “There is a lot more traffic on the roads these days certainly. I think the changes in downtown Boonville are a great improvement, same with the Navarro Store, although the rest of Navarro is a blight on humanity.”

I posed a few questions to Gene.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Wildlife, puppies, kittens, baby lambs.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The endless whining on television by people responding to questions from news commentators. The term ‘whatever.’ The implication that nothing matters is annoying.”

Sound or noise you love? “The absence of sound, the quiet.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Moron music. Thank you, Mark Scaramella for that phrase.”

Favorite food or meal? “Roast leg of lamb with roast potatoes, and green peas; with a shrimp salad beforehand.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “The American author, Ursula Le Guin, who has written most notably in fantasy and science fiction although her works also explore Taoist, anarchist, ethnographic, feminist, psychological and sociological themes.”

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 snorkel, my flips, and a good mat to sleep on.”

Favorite word or phrase? “Well in certain company it would be ‘Oh shit’.”

Favorite hobby? “I’ve never really had one. I have always liked to read and occasionally enjoy some handcraft projects. At the moment I am working on getting my Grandfather’s paintings at the SF Library being made more available commercially.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if given a chance? “Probably an anthropologist or archeologist. Even a constitutional lawyer or perhaps a nurse. I enjoyed my time on the AV Ambulance crew.”

Profession you’d not like to do?  “Restaurant work. That would be miserable I think.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 16 and we went to a dance. That’s what we did on Friday nights.”

What things have you found yourself doing that you said you'd “never” do? “Urging my children to eat. My parents did that to me and I said I’d never do that to my kids.”

Tell me about a memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. “Hiking in Tuolumne with my mother and sister. We reached a ridge top and saw the moon rising and the sun setting. I had a sort of epiphany about participating in eternity.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “I try not to be too proud. I am happy that I’ve gotten this far and that I’m still somewhat together.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The births of my two kids.”

The saddest? “The day my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I try to be responsible and competent if I am going to do something.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well if he said ‘There’s lots more out there to explore’ I’d be happy with that. That was a long interview for you, I’m sure. I guess the moral is to interview younger people!” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Eminent Valley Musician Michael Hubbert.)

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