Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Sandy Creque
by Steve Sparks, March 18, 2011
I met Sandy at her home on Indian Creek Road a couple of weeks ago and after being introduced to Rosie her wonderful old dog, we sat down to eat with a some scones and a nice selection of cheeses, salami, and crackers...
Sandy was born in 1936 in Oakland, California, the oldest of three children born to Alice Nitzberg and Clem Abrams. The Nitzberg family had come from Germany and Poland and settled in New York City where a philanthropic friend of theirs took an interest in Sandy’s mother (born in 1913). He would take her to the meetings of the city’s Algonquin group of famous writers and thinkers in the twenties, where the young girl would sit and write and draw. Grandfather Nitzberg lost his money in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and so they decided to move out west to the Bay Area, settling in a nice neighborhood of Oakland, where Alice resumed her studies at Oakland Tech High School.
Clem Abrams was born in 1911 to parents who had also come over from Europe (Russia/Poland) about the same time as the Nitzberg’s — the early 1900’s. They lived in Butte, Montana and were one of the very few Jewish families to settle there. This was near to the very busy Anaconda Copper mine and Clem’s father had plenty of work as a cobbler. The family moved to Oakland in the twenties and Clem attended Oakland High School and then went on to U.C. Berkeley where he graduated with a degree in Chemistry.
“My father’s side, the Abrams, lived in a bad part of town but he became the youngest Eagle Scout in Oakland and would swim across the nearby estuary every morning for his exercise. Grandfather Abrams was a big imposing man who ruled the roost in their house. He would pound the table if dinner wasn’t ready when it was supposed to be, although I loved him dearly and he loved his family very much. He had a brother, Abe, whose wife Betty was as nutty as a fruitcake. They had no kids of their own so sometimes Abe would give us kids money and one day it was $50 each — a huge amount. His wife went crazy and a big fight ensued. To keep the peace, my grandfather said it had not been $50 and asked me how much it really was. I said it was $50. I was about ten years old and my grandfather picked me up and grabbed my tongue between his fingers, saying, ‘With this tongue, she lies.’ I was really taken back — I was in trouble for telling the truth.”
“Three of my grandparents spoke little English, certainly not enough to help any of their kids with home-work. My maternal grandmother, however, spoke three languages and learned Yiddish after meeting her husband — my maternal grandfather, who particularly butchered the English language. On top of that he thought everyone was Jewish and referred to television’s Ed Sullivan as ‘Ed Solomon’ and ordered ‘Vinx’ cigarettes, when he meant ‘Wings’ cigarettes. He had a little money and would give some to the homeless for food, saying ‘better to be the one who is asked than the one who has to ask.’ “
Sandy’s parents met and were married in Berkeley in 1932. The family lived at 2233, 10th Avenue in Oakland and brother Marc was born in 1941 and then, much later, they moved to Oakland Hills and in 1951 brother Lannie came along— “That was when I was fifteen — it was terrible, all the kids knew what my parents had been doing! My maternal grandparents lived across the street and the Abrams were about ten blocks away so we saw lots of them and had many family gatherings. It was a very mixed neighborhood — black, Chinese, Japanese. During the war I walked to school and would pass two lovely houses with beautiful gardens and every day I said ‘hello’ to the people who lived there. Then at some point the gardens became overgrown — the owners were Japanese and had been interred in camps. I remember we had a local Italian-owned grocery store and, with Italy fighting on the other side, they had a big sign on the window saying ‘We are Americans’.”
“I did not do much to help around the home. In fact my father said ‘you are only person I know who has to take a nap before going to bed at night.’ Yes, I was lazy! My mother was a homebody who did absolutely every-thing. My father was a chemist who later owned two of his own paint factories. He was not allowed to serve in the war because he was seen as necessary to the war effort on the homefront. The factories made the paint that went on the warships. He was very upset by that.”
“Kids loved coming over to our house, and my parents threw wonderful parties. I was a very friendly kid, very polite. We had a wonderful family dog, Jezebel, an Irish Setter, with all the papers that showed the great line of breeding the dog had. My father said he knew more about the dog’s family than his wife’s!”
Sandy enjoyed school, attending Oakland Junior High and High School where she did well academically and was a popular kid. “I got on with everyone, from the Principal to the Janitor; from the Class president to the drop-out kids. I had a couple of boyfriends before I met Dave Creque, who was older than me and in the navy at the time we met. A friend set us up but I had decided I definitely wasn’t go to go out with a sailor. However, they pulled some shenanigans and we ended up going to the movies together. He was nineteen and I was fifteen, although I told him I was sixteen. We went to see ‘Strangers on a Train’ at the drive-in. My girlfriend was known as a ‘hot date’ and she was with Dave’s friend but I was very young and naïve so nothing was going to happen but I still ended up with a hickey on my neck. I liked him and tried to hide the hickey but my mother had the eyes of an eagle and spotted it. Oh, my, did she interrogate him! With the war in Korean about to break out, he was supposed to ship out a few days later, but when he went to get his inoculations he joined both lines of men who were getting shots — including the one that meant he could not ship out for a week. He had that extra shot for me and so we spent a few extra days together.”
While Dave was at sea, he and Sandy wrote to each other constantly. “He was gone for all of my 11th grade at school and came back in the summer of 1952. That November we eloped to Reno for a night, got married, came back to Oakland and then he had to go back to his ship down in Long Beach. My mother found out I had cut school and told my father. He had a temper but had never hit any of us. He took off his belt and gave me three or four whacks — but they were very half-hearted and I began to laugh. He was not trying very hard at all. He asked me if I was ‘damaged goods’ and I said ‘Yes’ because I did not want him to have the marriage annulled. He knew that he would have to accept the situation and a couple of months later, on January 25th, 1953, we had another wedding for everyone. I was sixteen; Dave was twenty. Everyone thought I was pregnant and that we had to get married. ‘Poor thing’ they thought and we therefore got lots of lovely presents. I wasn’t pregnant and look what happened — we were together for 54 years!”
Sandy and Dave settled in Long Beach where he was stationed. “The High School refused to take me — I had had ‘carnal knowledge of a man’, so I went to continuation high school which turned out to be a great thing for me — small classes, individual tutoring, and Dave making sure my homework was turned in on time! I made some wonderful friends at school and did lots of swimming and surfing — yes, we had a great time in Long Beach, although we had a very tiny apartment with a Murphy bed (in the wall). Dave was no longer at sea, he worked on the base, but I did not want to live in navy housing — the women there seemed to be very unhappy and at seventeen I knew that place wasn’t for me.”
Dave got out of the navy in 1954, and Sandy graduated high school early that summer. Daughter Geri was born in 1955 (son Stuart arrived a few years later in 1959) and they moved back to the Bay Area and stayed with family until getting a place in Oakland in a low-income and student housing area. “Thanks to the GI Bill, Dave went to SF State to get his teaching credential while I raised the kids. We moved to San Leandro near to the Marina and bought a four-bedroom house for $19,999 — thanks to lots of family support. Three of my grandparents were still alive and my paternal grandfather had mellowed and left some bonds for us. He had always thought I was ‘pretty, smart, and wonderful’ — although the rest of the world didn’t necessarily agree.”
Dave became a student teacher but didn’t really like living in San Leandro. “It was an all-white enclave and many wanted to keep it that way. He became the President of the Homeowners Association and rocked the boat a little. Over the next decade and more he did lots of wonderful things for many people, both in the neighborhood and through his work as President of the Teachers’ Union. In the late sixties, the local union joined with community groups in protesting the racist hiring practices of the School Board. The opposition culminated in a sit-in during a school board meeting. NAACP representatives and Dave ended up in a melee with the police. Thanks to a policeman’s billy club, he received several broken ribs and was arrested along with the black leadership group. They were charged with anarchy, trespass, and a variety of other charges. The defendants, known as the Oakland Five, ultimately agreed to a plea of ‘Nolo Contendere’ for the crime of standing in the aisle at a public meeting. The case was thrown out but then they tried to take away his teaching credential and I spoke on his behalf at the hearing. It’s amazing what some tears, blubbering, and a little eloquence can do. They backed off and he kept his credential.”
“He was a big activist for many years through those turbulent times and was involved with many civil rights and anti-war protests, and I was often by his side. We had to endure lots of abuse from the ‘other side’ during that time, this included hate calls at home in which they would call us ‘nigger lovers’ and they also put a dead duck that had been stabbed on our doorstep. Dave spoke his mind and no doubt he upset some people but if he thought you were right he’d support you all the way and was active and successful in East Bay politics, government, and labor unions for three decades.”
Sandy had been working at the courthouse in Oakland but decided to further her education. While her mother babysat, she took political science classes at Berkeley for a year or two. However, before graduating, she was offered a job at the office of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters and grasped the chance. “It was a job made for me. I loved it. I worked five nights and weekends on campuses all over the county, getting people registered to vote and teaching others how to register other voters too. It was something I really wanted to do and had a great passion for — people have a right to register to vote.”
By the mid-to-late 60s the Black Panther Party, despite the violence that was frequently associated with them, had become an effective political movement and they joined with the Peace and Freedom movement and became involved in voter registration. “I went to many Panther meetings and would often be the only white face there. I met and loved some of them for the work they were doing, people like Bobby Seale, but some I couldn’t stand — Eldridge Cleaver for example. I remember seeing Huey Newton being led away in handcuffs at his manslaughter trial and I gave him the Black Power salute as he looked over. I was so excited by all that was going on and I was at the heart of it. This was history, I was meeting people I’d read about — it was a marvelous time.”
“An FBI agent came into the office one day, they were concerned that I was attending Panther meetings. He said he thought it was ‘a shame that the Panthers had to feed the poor people of Oakland — it was as if they lived in a third world country.’ He was a good guy and we became good friends over time, but to this day, if I travel by plane I am pulled out of line for questioning. I loved my job and made many good, lifelong friends during my 38 years there. I never wanted to be the ‘Emperor’; I liked being behind the scenes. I loved dealing with people, often very angry people who were the ones always passed on to me. I enjoyed dealing with them and helping them find a solution. At one point, the music promoter, Bill Graham, who had heard about me from various young people who I had recruited, offered me a job as a sort of ‘mother hen’ to the various rock bands whom he represented but I turned him down. I loved what I was doing too much to leave.”
“For many, many years the job was the driving force of my life and even Geri, when she was in high school, organized an anti-war demonstration. Together with Dave, who went on to become on the Central Labor Council, the Oakland Port Commission, the Civil Service Commission, and the Democratic Central Committee in Alameda County, we met many of the powerful Democrats of the times —including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, plus some Republicans such as Casper Weinberger and Ed Meese from the Reagan administration. I used to get my hair done in San Francisco’s Castro District and became friendly with the gay rights politician Harvey Milk — a very nice man, and Dave was a personal friend of the S.F. Mayor, George Moscone, who was shot and killed along with Milk in 1978. By the time I’d finished I was entered into the Secretary of States’ Board of Participation Hall of Fame.”
This hard-working lifestyle, and the many dinner par-ties and social scene that accompanied it, continued throughout the eighties and nineties during which time Sandy and Dave moved into the Oakland Hills where they built a geodesic dome home on some property where they raised some goats, and of course they always had their dogs. They traveled extensively, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but when at home they liked to host parties, Dave being such a good cook.
Many years earlier, in the sixties, they had gone camping and stayed at Hendy Woods in Anderson Valley. “The convict workers were still putting in the campsites at that time. On maybe our second or third visit, in 1970, we passed a ‘4 Sale’ sign at the end of Indian Creek Road and I called the number. It was a woman in Yorkville who was acting on behalf of the owner who lived in Missouri. He wanted $17,500 for the 7½ acres. I knew we wanted land to retire to but we are city folks — I didn’t even know what the septic tank was. I returned to work in the city and Dave stayed to camp for a little longer. Normally we had to talk everything over, even if we were thinking about buying a sofa, but I thought about the property and I called the realtor and said I could put $50 down — it was accepted and we had our place in the country. We paid it off in five years and Dave always said it was the second best reason for marrying me.”
“For years we camped on the land and used it as a weekend getaway retreat. We finally put a modular home on the property in 2003 and sold our house in Oakland, buying one in Modesto that is not far from my mother who was in Tracy — she passed in 2005. We moved up when we both retired in 2003 and I started to get to know some people here. I met Diane Herron at the Brewery Store in Boonville and she told me about the Independent Career Women’s group so I joined and love our monthly meetings. Then another women I knew, Monika Fuchs at the Philo Pottery Inn, had started a kitting/sewing group — Stitch and Bitch — and I joined that too. I am in the Unity Club and also play Bunko once a month with some wonderful women here in the Valley.”
Sadly, Dave Creque passed on Christmas Eve in 2004, aged seventy-two. “I was driving on Hwy 101 near to Healdsburg and he was in the passenger seat. He turned to me and said ‘I love you’ and then his head rested on his chest and he died. The son of a bitch was supposed to stay and take care of me because I have had cancer diagnosed on a couple of occasions. My humor stands me in good stead, my black humor particularly. I am very thankful it was quick. These days, if I was in the Bay Area I would go back to school but not finishing my degree and taking that job instead is not something I regret at all.
Sandy has three grandchildren from daughter Geri — Aaron, (who has now presented her with two great grandchildren — Jezzie and Bella); Rebekah (who married Mike), and Talia; and three from son Stuart and his wife Carole — Miriam, Chava, and Hannah. “Not to mention many nephews and nieces and Dave’s sisters, Joan and Marci and my adopted sister Linda, who all continue to be like sisters to me.”
Currently she has possible plans to start a non-profit, using her vast knowledge of the voting registration process. “All of these pundits fail to tell us what people say who are not going to the polls. I got together with some old friends and we started calling people and setting up coffee evenings. I think we can make a difference and feel very good that us little people can perhaps bring about change as well as those in the corporate world. I have been trying to make a difference most of my adult life. I have been involved in so many progressive movements — when my son was fourteen, I went on my first gay rights march.”
Before winding down the interview with the usual questionnaire, I asked Sandy for a strong image she has of her father. “A very smart man, a physically strong man.” And a fond memory of her mother? — “She never punished me unfairly — we were very close. Nobody had a bad word to say about her.”
I now wanted Sandy’s opinions on some of the issues we face here in the Valley.
The wineries and their impact? “I do not like them pumping water out of the creeks and I can’t even put in a summer dam in to save the fish. I also think some of them could do more to improve the lives of their workers. They should pay their fair share — thank God we have the medical center that helps so many.”
The AVA? “I like it. Sometimes, politically, I question some things, but it is a fun read and I always enjoy any local news.”
KZYX radio? “It’s right down the road and yet I can’t get good reception so I don’t listen.”
The school system? Well I have little knowledge of that other than when I was a judge at the science fair I was terribly impressed.”
Changes in the Valley? “Too many vineyards, not enough orchards.”
Marijuana? “It should be legalized. Absolutely. The same with same sex marriage. It’s nobody’s business.”
I posed a few questions, some from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My dog.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “I worry a lot about what is happening in the world.”
Sound or noise you love? “My birds.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Diesel trucks going by.”
Favorite food or meal? “Chicken Fried Steak and potatoes, with creamy, real country gravy.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be?
“Dave Creque. Or perhaps Mahatma Gandhi or Winston Churchill.”
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 dog and cat (Snoopy), my insurance papers, and some family photographs. Oh, and a painting I have by local artist Malcolm West. That’s more than three — oh, well.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Tony Bennett songs; the film would be ‘Casablanca’ or something directed by Mel Brooks; and the book would be Barbara Tuchman’s book about the beginning of World War I — ‘The Guns of August’ — a fantastic read.”
What is your favorite hobby? Watching movies on Netflix, or reading, mainly World War II spy novels or anything by the crime writer P.D. James.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “Am aid worker in Haiti — right now. I wish I were younger. There is a true crime going on there as the aid is not getting to those who need it.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Oncologist — dealing with cancerous tumors.”
Something you’d do differently if you could do it over again? “I wish I’d had the courage to confront and tell off some people in my personal and professional life. I could never quite go in for the ‘kill’.”
Something you’re really proud of and why? “My work at the Registrar’s office. I think I made a difference.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “Our real wedding.”
Saddest? “The deaths of close family members. My mother died just six months after Dave. That was very hard.
Favorite thing about yourself? “That I am not mean-spirited. That I love animals. I always have, my whole life — cats, horses, goats, and of course my dogs — my Border collie, Luna, was very special indeed.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Hey, Sandy, welcome. I’ve been waiting for someone like you my whole 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 Kelley Hiatt.
PS. With reference to the question I ask every week about who you’d like to talk to if you could, many thanks to R.W. Van Alstyne of Fort Bragg for sending me a copy of an edition of Hank Ketchum’s ‘Dennis,’ the newspaper cartoon, in which Dennis, when asked whom he’d like to talk to, anyone, living or dead, replies, ‘Well duh! Somebody livin’, of course.’