Beyond the Politics: Candidate for Mendocino County 5th District Supervisor, Wendy Roberts
by Steve Sparks, April 7, 2010
Candidate Wendy Roberts, who lives in the town of Mendocino, had a function to attend in Ukiah the night before our meeting and stayed overnight there so we met the next morning at Mosswood Market coffee shop in the heart of Boonville and, despite the risk of interruption, we decided to have our talk right there.
Wendy was born in Ashland, Oregon in 1943, the third child of Winston Marks and Esther Spencer, who had six in total. “I guess we were British mutts by heritage as far back as I know, although apparently on my mother’s side there is a little Cajun. That side of the family moved to Oregon during the Civil War and homesteaded there. I have a sister fourteen years older than me and one four years older, with whom I was closest, then I have one younger brother and two more younger sisters.”
The family lived way out of town in a house built on a ranch by Wendy’s grandfather. “It meant a horseback ride into town so they had another home in town by the time I came around and I used to walk along a dusty road to school every day. It was a very rural area, not unlike the hills and countryside here in Anderson Valley, but now it’s all part of downtown Ashland.”
When she was five years old, Wendy’s parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Oswego, now a suburb of Portland. “It was a tiny house we moved to, but still in the countryside and I grew up always playing in the woods. We lived with my Great Aunt Mary who was a big influence on me with mother out working as a teacher and social worker to support us. I went to elementary school and middle school in Oswego but then went to San Antonio, Texas for a year where I stayed with my eldest sister and her concert violinist husband. When I left there we moved to Carmel, California and over the next few years I spent time at both the high school there and in Eugene, Oregon. In one school year I moved 14 times. It was not a good time in my life. My home life was very disruptive and my schoolwork suffered. However, I was always comforted by nature — the banana slugs in Ashland, the woods in Eugene, the beach in Carmel. I also had one wonderful teacher for my theatre program at school who was very sympathetic and did what he could to involve me even though I was often absent.”
Wendy’s upbringing had no obvious political influences. “My parents were farm people and conservative in the old sense — they were fiercely independent, and believed in hard-work, taking care of the land. Socially they were very liberal. My Great Aunt Mary (the oldest of 13 — all the others were boys) was an artist and poet in her day and was very liberal for her time. In Oswego there were few minorities and when one of her nieces wanted a guest at her wedding who was African American, she told the pastor that he would have to accept that, even though this was not usually allowed in their church. I also remember that I had a summer job picking strawberries, a big crop in southern Oregon, and had developed a little crush on one of the other workers, a Native American boy. Unlike most others, she never questioned this and actually insisted I get a pretty dress for when I saw him. She would not compromise on ethnic or racial issues. She was a very special and powerful woman and a huge influence on me. To this day I miss her wisdom.”
Ultimately, Wendy was able to cope with her schoolwork and ended up as a straight A student, particularly enjoying literature, science, and drama class. “A solid sense of the work ethic had been instilled in me and the problems I encountered with my unsettled home life were something I was expected to deal with. It was my ‘job’ to handle school and my studying. That was Mary’s value set and I was expected to follow. I did my best to do so... During my final year, however, Aunt Mary became very ill and I had to stay at home a lot to take care of her. I did not graduate with my class and ended up taking a correspondence high school course, receiving my diploma in 1960. I was not sure what I wanted to do but then I fell in love with a friend of my sister, Dick Gale. He was a local Eugene boy who was a student at Harvard. We fell very much in love and were married in 1961.”
Dick was later diagnosed as a schizophrenic and received treatment in Massachusetts whilst as school and also in Portland. He and Wendy moved to San Francisco where Dick found a job as a surveyor for the California Highways Department and they had a son, Richard. However, the treatment was not working and Dick got progressively worse with extreme paranoia and delusions, occasionally threatening his family with violence. It got too much so Wendy and he separated and he moved to Alaska where more treatments were tried. Although Wendy and Dick’s mother kept in touch, she and had little contact with him over the years as his condition never improved and he eventually died in his early 50s. “I was in San Francisco and had to get a job so under the workplace development program I became a nurse’s aid at St. Luke’s Hospital. I did not have a car but lived nearby the hospital and could afford a baby-sitter to take care of Richard. It was certainly do-able... I began to date an intern, Larry Gibson at the hospital and in 1963 we were married and Larry adopted Richard.”
Larry’s residency was to be in Chicago so they moved there. “I wasn’t sure what to do so I rented a typewriter and taught myself to type in a couple of weeks and found a job as a medical secretary, a far better paying job than a nurses aid. I worked for two doctors, one treating children with heart problems, the other performing kidney transplants. They were both writing books so I was kept very busy and learned a lot. We lived on the south side of Chicago and it was a time of the civil rights street riots and anti-war demonstrations. We were there for three years and following our return to San Francisco we had two children — David who, following my exposure to German measles (rubella), was born deaf in 1966 and then we had Kathryn in 1969.”
Larry now had his own psychiatric practice and they lived on the Bay Area peninsular in San Mateo and later Los Gatos. “It worked for a while but we gradually grew apart. I wanted to go back to school and he wanted me to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Over time we found that we had little in common any more. I enrolled part-time for two years at Foothill Community College in 1974 and then full-time for my third year, and the rest of my time was spent raising the kids. It was during this period that I started a School for the Deaf in Redwood City — a wonderful place that is still there. Larry and I were divorced in 1975 and I went to Stanford University in 1976 with some money from my grandmother to support me and the three kids.”
While at Stanford, Wendy met Donald Roberts. “I was an ‘old’ undergraduate and he was a ‘young’ professor and we connected. We have never looked back. We dated for several years before we were married in 1983, I was more cautious this time.” Wendy earned a double major in Communications and Developmental Psychology and moved to the University of Minnesota for postgraduate study in the latter. “I loved the course but I was only able to take Richard with me and found it unacceptable to be away from the others who remained in the Bay Area.” As a result she quit her studies in the mid-west, returned to California, did a few more courses at Stanford, and found a job for a couple of years as Public Affairs Officer for the Canadian Consulate in San Francisco. She then moved to the Development Department at Stanford where she remained for ten years. She received her Masters in Business Administration from U.S.F. and then became Program Director of that university’s development department for a further five years.
During her time in the Communications Department at Stanford, Wendy and Don had become friends with Eleanor and Mac Maccaby and these friends had a house they owned on the coast in the town of Mendocino. “I loved the rugged coastline and we would visit the Maccaby’s as often as we could when they were up that way — they were an awesome couple. At one point, in the mid-eighties I guess, they gave us a key to their place and we would come up alone or sometimes with the kids. We loved it up here and eventually, around 1989 or so we bought a house in Mendocino ourselves. We had fallen in love with the County. I love the drive down the coast to Gualala, the profusion of birdlife, Hendy Woods, Montgomery Woods — the redwoods are California’s cathedrals. It has always felt very comfortable to me being here. Our home is an historical building, built in the 1880’s, and I have been on the Historic Review Board for many years now. Unwanted changes can happen so easily these days and we have to keep an eye on this. Carmel was severely hit by materialism and we cannot allow that to happen here. I believe we can have a balance between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. It’s not rhetoric, it’s the way I have tried to live my life... Don and I renovated the water tower on our property and would stay there on our visits as the main house would be rented out to visitors. Since moving up to Mendocino full-time, we are now in the main house and the tower has become a licensed vacation rental for guests.”
Wendy continued to work in the Bay Area and be a part-timer in Mendocino until finally moving in 2004. During those years she was involved as a board member of many non-profit organizations such as the Mendocino Art Center, the Mendocino Coast District Hospital Foundation, and the Mendocino Unified School Enrichment. She loved to go into the communities in the county and then write both business plans and grant applications for them. She was also on the board that was behind the ‘Valley Voices’ series of interviews with Anderson Valley folks conducted by AV school students some years back.
I asked Wendy for her opinions on a few of the issues facing the county at this time.
The Wineries? “A lot of the owners are very responsible and caring. We must re-enforce the efforts that these owners make and hopefully the others will learn to be better in terms of their self-regulation. Such self-regulation can work; it is the only thing that really does, especially in this county. Cooperation among them all is vital. We must have an enlightened self-interest and encourage good behavior. There is an increasing enforcement of the laws and there are very strict laws governing the spraying, with big fines for those that break the law — unlike with cannabis production.
Law and Order? “If the people do not like the budget for the Sheriff’s department then they should start behaving. This is a huge county and there is lots of crime and dis-function. Sometimes there seems to be nothing less common than common sense.”
Marijuana? “I deeply believe that it can help people with certain diseases. It needs to be legalized with legislation that everyone can clearly understand. As long as it is an illegal crop it will lead to crime. The law, as it is, is an umbrella for growing marijuana and has not been a particularly good step. It is legal to possess it but not to produce it and this growing/production side needs to be legislated because we are creating a market by allowing possession. Meanwhile, one of my deepest concerns about this, or alcohol or any other drug, is the greater effect they have on younger, still-developing minds, than on more mature minds. It is very important to protect our young from the possible consequences and I feel very passionate about this.”
Next I asked about a topic of particular concern to people in Anderson Valley with the school bond issue coming up in June. The School System? “The schools are the hub of our communities and we are faced with the very difficult situation of declining enrollment because of declining job opportunities. As for the $15 million required in the bond issue that is a lot of money for 3,000 people to come up with. I will endorse it because you have to do what needs to be done. It is obviously a local decision but people should be aware that there has been a dearth of money assigned to the upkeep of the schools and their decline is not necessarily due to poor choices for the use of money in the past. Can the people in charge be faulted for concentrating on other pressing issues rather than fixing the roof? I was involved in a similar situation in Belmont and an option that was offered was for the elderly to opt out if they wished. We also made concerted efforts to emphasize that the school and the community are tied firmly together. The issue passed. The school is here for the whole community in one way or another and is not just about the kids. I hope the organizers are able to tap into all segments of the community. They will need to if it is to pass.”
Wendy recently spent two years on the Grand Jury and I asked her about that experience. “The expense account abuses by certain people in public life whom we investigated were appalling and these are misdeeds that cannot be repeated. If elected I would certainly keep an expense log and receipts. It’s what you must do when in public service. The Grand Jury also carried out many studies throughout the county and I was involved in them all, at an in-depth level of participation for about half of them. I learned a lot and am proud and privileged to be a part of the changes that were made. Every one of our recommendations was introduced and many positive changes were made, a couple of my favorites being the improvements made at the Fort Bragg Senior Center and in the Round Valley school system from which our report is now used statewide. Our water studies were also very valuable in my personal understanding of this important issue. It was a fabulous experience in learning what makes the County tick and that we must be united and not think of ourselves as two or three different counties.”
I asked Wendy what she viewed as the primary issues in the upcoming race for the position of 5th District Supervisor: “Well, we must balance the budget and yet still keep the core services for our communities. In the long-term we need to create more jobs and keep that in balance with maintaining the safety of our environment. The salary Supervisors get ($68,000) is not excessive if you are doing your job but an increase on that would be obscene at this time. I would probably take the job for $25,000 but if that were the case we would end up with candidates who would be independently wealthy. Do we want the rich to be Supervisors? I have worked hard, saved, and lived prudently. Public servants have to be willing to step up to get involved and I feel my frequent journeys from the coast to Ukiah and inland is part of a natural flow of things for me. I have done it for years and now know many inlanders. It feels very natural, not ‘foreign’ at all.”
Finally, before I finished up with our usual questionnaire, I asked Wendy how much money would she be spending on the election? “I have raised half of my budget so far. I believe to make a respectable appearance in the election $20K to $25K will be enough. However to overcome my relative lack of name recognition I have been told that $35K is more realistic. My campaign is picking up and I am very optimistic. Radio time will increase to get my message out there. I will go anywhere and talk with any group and I spend a lot of my time doing this. I also believe that attending Supervisor meetings is important and very helpful. Not all the candidates do this.”
I posed a few questions 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? “Getting up on a sunny day on the coast.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Negative people.”
Sound or noise you love? “Acorn woodpeckers.”
Sound or noise you hate? “That horrible noise that vehicle brakes make when they’re wearing out.”
What is your favorite food or meal? “Clam chowder. Or if I’m in the Valley the vegetarian dishes at Lauren’s Restaurant, particularly the baked butternut squash and walnuts over brown rice that she does as a summer special.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that be? “Well I met Mother Teresa and it was the most incredible spiritual experience; I felt warm all over. A nun nearby told me that saints have that effect. I’m not a Catholic but I wouldn’t trade that meeting for anything. Someone whom I wish I’d met would be the writer Jack London. I would love to talk about his experiences working with the under-privileged in the inner city slums, about which he wrote in his book ‘The People of the Abyss.’”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “Firstly my mojo, the magical items that are very dear to me — a St. Christopher medallion, a red tail hawk feather, and a string of beads my daughter made me when she was five; secondly, a picture of my husband; and finally a really good Swiss army knife.”
Do you have a favorite film/book? “The film ‘Casablanca’ is worth watching once a month for the rest of my life; and for a book, probably Max Depree’s ‘Leadership Jazz’ that talks about the Zen of leadership and leading from your values.”
What is your favorite word or phrase? “A phrase coined by American commentator, Molly Ivins, on the theory of holes: ‘when you’re in one, stop digging.’ We could apply it to the budget, couldn’t we?”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? “You betchya”
What is your favorite hobby? “Bird-watching. Gardening. I am a certified Master Gardener and with all that’s going on I miss doing it at this point.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? “A developmental psychiatrist. Or an investigative reporter where you have to be intrinsically involved with people.”
What profession would you not like to do? “A dentist.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? “Getting married to Don. My life had become very complicated and meeting Don meant I grew up all over again, started fresh, and that was wonderful.”
What was the saddest? “My adolescence and young adulthood. It is all a blur and I don’t remember the period very well other than to know I was unhappy.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself — physically, mentally, spiritually? “My perseverance. That I keep on keeping on. I have done that all my life.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Good job, Wendy.”
(Our next interview from the world of Mendocino politics will be in two weeks (April 21st issue) and will feature another Candidate for the position of 5th District Supervisor, Dan Hamburg.)