Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Hayes Brennan
by Steve Sparks, September 2, 2009
A couple of Thursdays ago, I met with Hayes Brennan at his home on Gschwend Road in between Philo and Navarro. Hayes suffered from a stroke nearly three years ago and his speech, while improving every day, can be difficult to understand at times so wife Linda sat in with us and also provided a much-needed glass of iced tea as we sat down to talk.
Hayes was born on February 15th, 1941 in Evanston, Illinois, the middle of five children (two younger brothers and two older sisters) born to Raymond Brennan and Genevieve Hayes, both first generation Americans of Irish descent. Hayes’ paternal grandfather had been a State Representative for Chicago in the Illinois Legislature; on his mother’s side his grandfather had been a newspaper editor. His father was an inventor and designed the reflectors that appear on road signs making them visible at night. His mother was a teacher. “My grandparents helped set up my parents in a wealthy suburb and I attended an all-boys Catholic School, St George’s, of about 300 kids, going to Mass every day from 6th grade all through High School. I was not a good student at all but I did excel at sports: football, basketball, baseball, and particularly track where I was a mile runner, once timed at 4 minutes and 31 seconds, and was all-state.”
“I was all-state at High School too,” I commented, “But my best was 4 minutes, 34 seconds.” “So I would have beaten you then!” Hayes quickly replied with a big grin on his face.
For his junior year in High School Hayes moved to the Evanston High public school. He didn’t really settle at this “Protestant” school but it was here that he met Linda Peterson. “She was a year younger and she knew I would be getting my driving license soon, on my 16th Birthday, so she agreed to go out with me!” Before his senior year Hayes decided he wanted to be a priest and his family, particularly his mother, were very pleased, although they did not push him into this. “In my early teens I had been getting into trouble, stealing cars and other bad stuff, but meeting Linda straightened me out and then I moved to Boston to attend The Divine Word Seminary. I cried all the way there. I was leaving home and Linda and I had parted, but it was something I wanted to do.”
Hayes enjoyed his new environment and hearing the stories that the priests/nuns shared with the students about their missionary work in New Guinea. “It started my lifelong interest in history and exploration and everything was good for a time. I also enjoyed that if the University of Notre Dame won its football game on Saturday the nuns would cancel school on the following Monday! However, after two years I seriously began to lose my faith and question the Church and its doctrines. I told a priest and he told me do extra prayers for a few days. The next day I hitch-hiked all the way back to Evanston.”
Hayes was 20. He had no high school diploma so getting into a college was not easy and for a time he found a job as a City bus driver at night on the very rough south side of Chicago. Linda and he had taken a break in their relationship and she was studying in Vienna, Austria. He did not care where he went and was accepted by tiny Milton College in Milton, Wisconsin and took 15 credits in his first year to catch up. “I actually studied seriously for the first time in my life and got straight As before entering the University of Illinois in Champagne where I was a History major. I was a bit of an oddball, I guess, and they couldn’t figure me out. It was a school that required students to take a ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) course, which I did not want to do. I’d not wear shoes, carry my rifle upside down and was generally disruptive. There were others like me and we were kicked out of the ROTC and some dismissed from the school altogether, but for some reason I was allowed to stay. I guess I was making a passivist statement; it was 1963 and war in Vietnam was on the horizon. Linda joined me in Champagne and after her father had said she had to finish college before we could get married, she graduated at noon and on the same day we were married at 3pm!”
At University Hayes was quite politically active, particularly in his opposition to Mayor Daly of Chicago, and also in his involvement with the NAACP and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-coordinating Committee), plus he attended many anti-war demonstrations. However, upon graduation in 1964, he and Linda really wanted to move away from the mid-west and try somewhere completely new and different for them so they looked for graduate schools out west. They did not know a single person who had even been to Oregon so it fit their requirement and Hayes enrolled at the University of Oregon in Eugene to study American history, specializing in post civil war and the late 19th century. “Kira was born soon after our arrival and being a married student with a child resulted in me being well down any draft list.”
In 1966 Hayes was offered a National Teaching Fellowship, a program introduced by President Johnson for graduate students to teach in black colleges, and took a leave of absence from university to teach History and Anthropology at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. “Linda, Kira, and I moved into a rented rooms in a house that was not available to blacks. There were ‘no coloreds’ and ‘colored entrance’ signs all over town. I remember that on several occasions a friend and I went out at night and took as many of these out by driving into them in our car. Wiley had a marvelous library and white students from the nearby East Texas Baptist college would use this facility, However, they would not sit down there, reading standing up rather than sit down in a black college... I remember that I had to drive across the close-by Louisiana border to watch Notre Dame football games, not available in Texas, and on one occasion I watched a game in a bar that went quiet when I walked in. They asked me if I was a ‘freedom rider’ (civil rights’ activist). I said ‘I guess I am.’ I heard someone say ‘let’s kill the motherf***er’ as I stood staring at the television, not daring to look around the bar. They left me alone but it was a horrible experience I’ll never forget. I once went to the doctor’s office and went into the ‘colored’s entrance’ and walked down a corridor and sat in a gloomy little room to wait. It turned out it was the broom closet but it never occurred to me that it might not be the black waiting room.”
During their time in Texas a second daughter, Mari, was born but in the fall of 1967 Hayes returned to his studies in Oregon, living in married student housing for $42 a month rent and this time adding a teaching credential to his qualifications. Upon graduation in 1968, the family left many good friends they are still in touch with today and moved to the Los Angeles area for a year, which turned out to be three, teaching at Torrance High School and living in nearby Manhattan Beach. Son Eamon was born there and Kira attended a Nursery School co-operative along with the kids of several people who were later to move to Anderson Valley in the form of the Cheesecake Consortium. They never really settled in southern California, despite Hayes’ involvement in setting up a charter school down there, and would spend many weekends driving their Volkswagen bus up and down the coast looking for jobs or visiting friends back up in Oregon. They also made the time to pay many visits to Mexico during these years.
Eventually, in 1972, Hayes found work at a Junior High School in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, and met several people involved with communal living in the hills of Woodside. “We visited there at weekends at first but in January 1973 we decided to move into the commune and learned how to be country hippies. It was a talented group and we all lived in an abandoned lumber mill and various outbuildings. They would have been red-tagged and torn down if the authorities knew about them but they were well back in the woods, and are still there today – empty at this point. We stayed there for three years and remain good friends with many people from that time too.”
In 1975 Hayes was offered the chance to work in the U.K. and moved to live in Crawley near to Winchester and, thanks to a friend who worked at The American School, Hayes got a job as a substitute teacher at the school in London. During the school holidays Hayes went off alone to visit Wales and Ireland, the latter where he stayed for a month – “but only one night at a hotel, the rest at homes of people I met in the pubs. The people there are so hospitable and they can go on for days with their stories. We had bought a car with left-hand drive in Europe before getting to the U.K. so we had to drive on the ‘wrong side’ (the left) in the ‘wrong car.’ It was strange. During the summer we visited Linda’s roommate from her days at the University of Vienna and we lived in a house in the woods on the border of Austria and Hungary and I worked as a logger for a time but then a log fell on me and broke my foot and we returned to the States.”
It was September 1976 and Hayes saw there was a job opening for the Mendocino County Schools in Ukiah. On turning up for the job he was told that the vacancy had been filled but the very next day he was offered a job teaching Special Ed Classes at the Bachman School for runaways run by Simon Ashiku across Highway 128 from The Grange. Among the teachers there at the time were Bill Cook, Kathy Borst, Wendy Patterson, and Pat Erickson. The Brennans had arrived in Anderson Valley and have been here ever since. Hayes taught History, English, and special needs reading. “The kids could be very tough and there were lots of counselors there but I enjoyed it very much.”
They moved into a house in Navarro owned by Betty Zanoni, who also owned the Navarro Store and they soon got into the unique ‘Deep End’ scene. “It was great down there, we loved it. For a couple of years I was the unofficial Navarro ‘Water Commissioner’ and had to check on the water source up in the hills above the town which came from three caves each a hundred feet or so deep, built by Chinese mill workers many years previously. Betty and her friends hung out at the store and there were always a few guys around The Drunk Tree, where they drank and pee’d, the result of which, according to local legend, led to it being a very rare redwood seed tree. At one point there was a rumor that a donkey had been killed and made into sausages and when visitors came to the store locals would advise them to order a special ‘salami’ sandwich. That donkey meat story lasted for years. Then every year there would be a big fire and all the furniture that had been used to sit on around the Drunk Tree, and which had been soaked over the rainy season, was burnt. I think we were in the third wave of hippies to settle in the Valley so the locals accepted us by that time.”
Linda found work in the vineyards picking grapes for Edmeades winery at $3 an hour and later as a part-timer for Masonite planting seeds in their reforestation program. In 1980 they bought three acres and a house built in 1955 on Gschwend Road for $60,000. “We’ve been working on it and fixing it up ever since and in 1987 bought a further 37 acres for another $60,000 alongside the original three.”
In 1990 Bachman Hill closed and Hayes took a job in San Francisco where he taught at both Mission and Balboa High Schools over the following year or so. He’d stay in the City from Monday to Friday, returning to the Valley for weekends. Then in 1992, with the kids all gone from home, Hayes and Linda decided on a complete change of scenery and took teaching jobs at The International School in Bandung on the island of Java in Indonesia. “Mari was in Thailand, Kira was teaching English in Taiwan, and Eamon was traveling the world. We were all able to hook up over there. We visited many places during our stay there and really loved our time overseas. It was supposed to be for one year but I persuaded Linda to stay for an extra one, and would have stayed even longer myself, but the kids had settled back over here and Linda wanted to come back so her voice of reason prevailed.”
For the following four years, until his retirement in 1998, Hayes returned to work in San Francisco both at Mission High and then at the juvenile hall. “It was a powerful experience and in teaching those kids to read I generally got a very good response. In fact I had more trouble from the very mean guards.”
On retiring and returning to the Valley, Hayes became involved in a project that saw an orphanage being built in Kenya, which he has visited on three occasions. On one of these he ensured that a local teacher was able to get her credentials to teach the kids. He is no longer involved but the school continues and hopes to expand...Amongst his many contributions to the local community Hayes has been a volunteer driver for the AV Ambulance Service, served on the Elderhome Board for ten years; was on the Health Center Board, and was a docent at the AV Museum and a board member of the AV Historical Society. “My work on the Elderhome Board was frequently frustrating but after many disappointments we finally bought the house and raised money for future projects. Housing in the Valley — it is obvious that we are not well set up for people to own property here unless they have been here a long time or have a chunk of money. It is not possible for multiple housing units to be built here. Our kids no longer live around here. Kira lost her teaching job at the school in the latest round of cuts and is now fishing in Alaska with her husband; Mari, her husband, and their two kids live in Portland; and Eamon is a builder in Portland. Ideally, I’d like to live here for a few months a year and then Portland and some place warm for the rest of the year. We shall see.”
Hayes had a seriously debilitating stroke in October 2006 and it has been a long process as he strives for recovery. His mind is good, his speech is improving every day, and he hopes to eliminate his walking cane in a couple of months. He feels great in himself and is in good health otherwise. Meanwhile, while he no longer can have his beer as he watches sports on television, he still follows the football and basketball particularly and of course he loves to read his history books. He and Linda continue to travel although with Linda’s parents not in good health back in Michigan they have visited there quite frequently over the past year or so, tying this in with trips to Wisconsin to see one of Hayes’ brothers.
“I imagine I will never leave Anderson Valley permanently at this point. The people here are wonderful. They make the Valley the special place that it is. There’s nothing I don’t like about it.”
I asked Hayes for his brief responses to various ‘hot-button’ issues that Valley folks are continually discussing.
The Wineries? “I am not too happy about the way that has gone. A few locally owned wineries was enough. The increase in outside ownership has gone too far at this time.”
KZYX, the local public radio station? “I do listen to some of the programming and was not pleased with the recent firing of news reporter Christina Aanestad. I thought it was unjustified. Overall though I am pleased with the station.”
The AVA newspaper? “For a small town publication it is good. It has immensely improved and while it was not very palatable a few years ago it is now. We buy it and read it every week. If some of the reports are not completely accurate then as long as they are not about Anderson Valley, about Fort Bragg for example, then that’s o.k.”
The school system? “The teachers do a great job here. That’s all I have to say.”
The modernization of the Valley? “I can see why some people say we are becoming ‘Napafied’ because of all the wineries. It’s not like Napa but in some senses it is going that way. I’d like to think we can preserve some of the old ways and that people can come here and still see and enjoy a small town set amongst the redwoods with sheep, apples, small local businesses, and a fascinating history.”
I posed a few questions from the list originally devised by Interviewer and Culture “Expert,” Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I love you”
Least favorite word or phrase? “I really do not like the f-word, although I accept it can be kind of useful sometimes. It is more often than not a word of disruption and hatred.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Reading.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Negativity. People who criticize things in the environment that I like and those who are positive about things that I believe are bad. Books that are anti-intellectual.”
Sound or noise you love? “Singing and music of all kinds but particularly Irish music and folk songs.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Screaming”
Favorite curse word? “Oh shit!”
Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “A book about the Haitian revolution called Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts. It was the first history book I read and I made our kids read it when they were old enough. I like international films and the films by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. His1975 film, ‘Dersu Uzala,’ about a friendship between and an explorer and a hunter is my favorite. It won the foreign film Oscar and really stuck with me.”
Favorite hobby? “Reading. I like watching sports too. My favorite books are normally biographies and books on big topics, particularly on the Far East, Native Americans, or the history of countries told from original sources.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted? “A lawyer. Or maybe a successful sports figure.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A job other than teaching. I always wanted to teach, to work alone with a classroom of kids. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The births of my three children. Meeting Linda and being able to enjoy her smile.”
Saddest? “The death of my mother.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “That I am involved in my environment and choose to be active in things that interest and affect me.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I don’t believe in Heaven but if there was such a place I’d like to hear him say, “Hello, Hayes, come on in!”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Barbara Lamb, former Psychologist and current KZYX & Z Radio Programmer and Thespian with the A.V. Theatre Guild.