Gary Sheppard’s Sudden Departure

by Mitch Clogg, September 2, 2009

Gary Sheppard died on July 7. A lot of you knew him. We were all affected by him. He was long prominent in Mendocino affairs.

He was born in Los Angeles in October 1937 to the former Maria Ramirez and Lloyd Sidney “Sid” Sheppard. It seemed for a moment he was headed for a movie career. At the age of eighteen months, he was “discovered” by a scout for Paramount on the street outside of Bullock’s Department Store in downtown L.A. The scout asked Maria, who was twenty but younger-looking, if Gary was her little brother.

Movies ruled. These were the years of Gable, Grable, Bogart and Grant. Bette Davis, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard were seen not just on the screen but in the streets and clubs of the City of the Angels. Then, at the age of six, Shirley Temple rocked the industry with a box-office thunderclap called “Bright Eyes.” Child actors were already popular. Kids like the Little Rascals were escape artists for Depression-troubled audiences. When little Shirley rocketed to stardom and packed movie houses, the studios redoubled the hunt for new talent.

Impressed by Baby Gary’s looks — big brown eyes, dark, curly hair, gorgeous mommy — the scout gave Maria his card and told her to bring her baby to the studios. Gary’s parents took him to see the child-talent lady at Paramount. Sid was reluctant because it meant losing a day from work at a time when jobs were scarce. The lady had, Maria remembers, a big, furry rug with toys on it for the children. She liked what she saw and told them to get professional photos made.

Sid was less stirred by the prospect of having a child star than Maria, and he spiked Gary’s cinema career when he refused to spend thirty-five hard-earned Depression dollars for a pack of eight-by-ten glossies.

Gary’s independent nature showed early. On day one of his formal education, the U.S. was less than a year into World War II. Self-reliance was a kid’s patriotic duty — and an excuse for rejecting supervision. He insisted on starting kindergarten, three blocks from his home, without his mother taking him. Maria hid behind date trees along the sidewalk to see him safely to school. He spotted her and demanded that she go home. She agreed, then hid more carefully. That was the model for rest of their lives, spent mostly close together.

Maria and Sid parted and she married Bill Ferganchick, with whom she remained until his death in 1998. Bill spotted the potential of the newfangled, little-noticed device called television early on, before the first commercial broadcasts. He sold sets for a while out of Bullock’s and installed roof antennas for L.A.’s leading-edge consumers when the United States owned an impressive total of 3.6 million television sets.

He established a fancy restaurant for customers from Orange and Santa Ana. It was hard, never-ending work. Maria said they all but kissed the feet of the man who bought it from them. For a while, she had a store selling Mexican carry-out. Her own heritage notwithstanding, she had little knowledge of Mexican food, but she hired a woman who cooked the real thing.

Bill bought a liquor store near the beach in Orange County. California issued licenses to sell alcoholic beverages by lottery, and there were only six up for grabs when Bill and Maria applied. A big crowd assembled to try for those six. Each number was greeted with screams and shouts of jubilation by the winners. This happened five times before Maria’s number came up. The store did well. These were the goings-on of Gary’s boyhood.

He was a good student, an avid reader and a tough athlete, football foremost. He went to college, joined the Army reserves and served six months on active duty. The stories of his childhood, adolescence and young manhood come straight from the Southern-California legend: a Garden of Eden, a dazzling escape from depression and war to great good times — beaches, blue sky, tan skin and Stan Kenton; Raymond Chandler’s pitch-dark detective novels, cool West-Coast jazz and the white-hot arrival of rock-’n’-roll — all with the prettiest girls on earth. Steamy Mexico was to the south, Catalina Island and the Avalon Ballroom were to the west. You worked to play.

Gary met and married Pamela Ross. They had a baby girl they named Sloan and soon parted. Sloan stayed with her mother. When she was grown, she moved here.

Gary liked to travel. Europe, Africa, Central and South America — many countries stamped his passport, but his favorite destination was India. He met Tinley there. Both were trekking in the mountains. He cooked her a great meal. They went to England to meet her family and married. They were back in India when their son, Noah, was born in Bangalore in March 1972. Their marriage was short. Their friendship was lifelong.

As traffic, smog and crowding changed the feel of Southern California, Gary looked north. He checked out the Bay Area but was soon attracted to the wilds of Mendocino. A separate world was opening up here. Fishing and logging were the economic mainstays, but the culture was changing fast as young people — infused and inspired by the seductions of the late sixties in San Francisco, Marin and Berkeley, blown free from the ordinary by the violent fusion of the idealistic and the sensual — moved here to homestead the woods and towns. Gary made the rounds of these new-frontier communities, settled on Albion and stayed there the rest of his life.

Many of the major characters of his life and family gravitated toward his homestake and remained on or near the property that he bought, cleared and built on, his cabin in the Mendocino style: handmade, no straight lines, cozy and functional; the house he built for his mom and Bill, spacious, handsome and accommodating. (He lured them north when they were ready to retire, but he continued to return to Southern California for the decades of his grandmother’s long life, to see to her wellbeing.)

Gary started a food cooperative in Albion. It moved to Mendocino and gained international fame and the love of its customers: The Corners of the Mouth.

When the oil industry, with the eager approval of the federal government, threatened to drill wells off the North Coast, Gary and I were among the early resisters. I joined the Ocean Protection Coalition the day it formed at a rousing meeting of the then-new Mendocino Greens. I took the job of being the press contact and the writer. Gary spent huge amounts of his time, prodding and helping me to get my work done, in addition to the duties he assigned himself. For a big oil hearing in San Francisco, he conjured up a motorcade of full-size buses. Everyone who wanted to go went, and the big Mendocino delegation dominated the hearing, staging ingenious demonstrations to dramatize the crisis and bring nationwide publicity to the Coast and the threats it faced. The great, climactic Fort Bragg event of 1988, when federal officials sat through a marathon of passionate public testimony, three days of it, followed from our efforts to make the issue large in the public eye.

When work was done, Gary and I lifted many a glass.

He died at the Coast Hospital, his family around him. He was a victim of Hepatitis C. It is a disease that can live in its host undetected for decades, then suddenly turn critical and deliver a deathblow to the liver. Gary discovered he had it when it was in this final phase. He was seriously sick for only a short time.

Maria, vigorous at ninety-one, was the matron and mourner of honor at her son’s memorial, beside his Albion cabin on a bright, clear day. There was a web of relationships among those present. His daughter, Sloan, stood with her husband, Bim Huxley Place, who was very close to Gary. His son, Noah, presided, standing with his fiancée, Zoe Bachelor of Fort Bragg. Lenny Laks, a friend of decades, and Lavender Kent sang and played guitars. Lenny remembered Gary’s purple face when he gave up a big poker pot to Lenny’s bluff on a worthless hand.

This is truly an “extended” family — Lavender is half-sister to Pippin Kent, Tinley’s daughter by her husband after Gary. Pippin is half-sister to Noah. Sloan’s son, Trevor Acor, has two young children, Nathan and Anabella, making Sloan a grandmother, Gary a great-grandfather, and Maria a great-great-grandmother. In addition, Gary is survived by a half-sister, DeeDee Sheppard.

This gathering was unusual only for its purpose, saying farewell to a man who died — especially someone with Gary Sheppard’s vitality and zest for life — way too early. This company of family and friends were used to each other, used to countless long-table dinners at Maria’s, where the talk was unrestricted and wide-ranging, and multi-course meals came and went as if by magic, Maria, Gary and the others all polished in their different jobs.

Now the talk was anecdotes about Gary, funny and admiring stories, typical fare with this crowd, except for the tears. His ashes were planted with a sapling cherry tree, in the middle of that circle of friends and family.

Gary was an accomplished gardener. “Tender” is not the first word that would occur in describing him, but the things that grew around his home all displayed a fine and careful tenderness, and the knowledge common to everyone present was that Gary was always softer than he would choose to show.

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