Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Kurt Schoeneman

by Steve Sparks, April 7, 2010

I drove to the Schoeneman place at what is known as Ferrington Vineyards just north of Boonville on the east side of Hwy 128. I received a cup of coffee and cookies and we sat down to chat.

Kurt was born in Oakland, California in 1941, the oldest of five children (three boys and two girls) born to Fred Schoeneman and Geraldine Clark. “ My father was born in 1910, also in Oakland, with a German father and English/Irish mother. His great grandfather had come over to the States in 1851 from Germany where he had been a surgical toolmaker. They had arrived in New Orleans where he jumped ship and came to San Francisco and then headed to Virginia City, Nevada where the Comstock Lode had been found and he began silver-mining there, eventually using his skills to become the gunsmith at the camp. He returned to San Francisco to open a sporting goods shop on Kearney Street and also bought a hotel and vineyard in San Rafael in 1890. “My grandfather worked for Wells Fargo and later in the insurance business and my father attended Berkeley at 16 before transferring to Hastings Law School. He passed the bar and was a practicing lawyer at 21.”

Kurt’s mother was also born in Oakland to parents of English descent, one of who had been a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (Victoria). Her grandfather had come over to this country and settled in Salt Lake City although they were not Mormons. “He started a small newspaper and at one point upset the Mormon community with some things he printed and they had to leave, quickly.” The family was hit by the Depres­sion and Geraldine did not go to college and went to secretarial school, which was all they could afford. She and Fred met at his law office where she was a secre­tary and after a long engagement of four years they were married in 1939. “My Dad did not want to get married until he could put aside a certain amount of money each month — $150. There were lots of new labor laws introduced at that time and he specialized in this area, representing Safeway, Lucky, and other such stores. However, he hung out with the union guys a lot and felt he could see both sides and bring them together for a settlement. He was 6’6” and quite a presence. He was always well dressed and a man’s man. He liked to drink at lunchtimes when at work. His talent was deal-making.”

The family moved from Oakland to Piedmont in the 40s and that is where Kurt attended junior high and high school. For many years they would take off in the family car, a ’47 Desoto Suburban, every sum­mer for Healdsburg and stay at cabins there all sum­mer long, with Fred joining them for weekends. It was a resort area for blue-collar workers from San Fran­cisco but Fred preferred that to the more middle class scene at Tahoe.

“We played outside all day long and were tough kids, running and falling all over the place. My mother would sunbathe while Dad listened to baseball on the radio. He liked sports and would take me to the Oak­land Oaks games. It was before the A’s arrived. I was not an athlete myself. I was a nerd, reading science fiction and science books in general. I did not like school and at one point I was told I would probably not graduate so I did what I had to do and in 1959 graduated 6th in my class — 6th from bottom that is!”

Kurt had spent a few months working in the sum­mer in Grass Valley for the California Department of Forestry but by the fall of 1959 he had decided to join the army. “My parents were fine with this and gave their permission, which was needed as I was only sev­enteen. I wanted to get out of where I was. The fam­ily thought I was a failure. I joined the Army Security Agency (ASA), an arm of the National Security Agency (NSA) and began work as a code-breaker. It was a good fit as it turned out. It was the time of great tension in the Cold War and we were making a huge effort in the field of electronic intelligence. The agency grew into a monster, using the military to do all the work. After training I was sent to Korea for thirteen months, then six months in Japan, then in 1962 to Vietnam to monitor the communications of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. There were supposed to be just 680 American military personnel there at that time and I was the 683rd so I could not wear a uniform. I went out and bought a Hawaiian shirt and carried my passport everywhere as if I was a tourist. I even arrived there on an Air France jet. This was great considering the troopship I was on to get to Korea had been the worst experience of my life!”

Kurt was sent to a South Vietnamese military base. “It was terrible with mosquito-ridden tents and a real shit-hole. My buddy, a few years older than me, suggested we got out of there so we flagged down a taxi and went into Saigon where we found a hotel room. A few days later we began to rent a room for $35 a month in an old French Hotel with a rooftop garden restaurant and bar. It was a nice place with wonderful French/Asian food. For an extra $11 we got our dinners for a month. I didn’t really do anything, as nobody in the army seemed to know where I was. I was getting paid $105 a month plus $16 per day for expenses and managed to do this for four months. Eventually a friend of mine in the personnel depart­ment told me that they were going to do an audit so I showed up for duty as a code-breaker and began lis­tening in on the ‘enemy’. Nobody said a word about my absence. In those few months the US presence had grown to 10,000 soldiers. My buddy and I set up a bar for the troops, buying the beer from the PX (post exchange) and marking it up in price slightly. It was the first place the arriving soldiers passed so we did well. We also set up a currency exchange and a motorbike rental business. My Dad had told me that he would match whatever money I sent home and put it into an account for me. One month I sent $3,000 home and he said he certainly wasn’t going to match that. You could get a nice Volkswagen for $1600! My buddy was the ringleader, without him I wouldn’t have done any of these things and would lived in the tent being bitten by mosquitoes.”

On his return to the US Kurt spent six months in Petaluma at an ASA facility. “It was top secret and we concentrated on listening to Soviet Sputniks in space via the thousand antennas we had there. We were al­ways on alert it seemed and at one point everyone re­ceived yellow fever shots in case we had to go to Cuba. We were trying to persuade the Soviets that we meant business. It was fascinating, exciting and I enjoyed my time there.”

In 1963, Kurt left the army and went to Oakland City Junior College for a year where he was in a class with Huey Newton of Black Panther fame. He stud­ied Physics but one year was enough for him and he left and found jobs as a truck driver for a couple of years, first delivering packages and later meat to res­taurants. “I still had money from Vietnam and in 1966 I bought an apartment building in Oakland. It was great move and soon I bought more and went into real estate sales. My business partner, Jack, a buddy from high school, was married to an Australian girl, Lynn, and sometime in 1968 they introduced me to a friend of hers from school, Heather. I liked her immediately and when she used the word ‘internecine’ in casual conversation as we had dinner in Sausalito and then proceeded to order these dishes I had never heard of, I was besotted. For a couple weeks I courted her around town in my 356 Porsche convertible. Heather returned to Australia but soon visited again, this time with her mother. We fell in love and a few months later I went to Australia and we were married in Syd­ney. We returned to California and moved into an apartment in one of my buildings in Oakland. It was a rough neighborhood and I carried a gun in my pocket when I collected the rent.”

In 1974, Kurt graduated with a law degree from Armstrong College in Berkeley, an un-credited school. “If your check to pay for the classes cleared, then you were in. We studied torts, criminal law, and contract law and after one year took what they called the ‘Baby Bar’ exam. Of the 61 students only seven passed and eventually only four of us graduated with our law degrees. My Dad had died in 1972 at only 62 and I thought I might as well do the law thing for him although while part of me liked the law I had trouble managing myself in practice so ultimately I made the decision to remain in real estate.”

During the early 70s, Heather and Kurt had their three children — Sarah, Fred, and Douglas. “Sarah is doing a great job in real estate and will be getting married this summer; Fred is still not sure exactly what he is going to end up doing having been an Air­borne Ranger for over four years. Those guys are crazy. They have to do the stuff they do, often behind enemy lines; and Douglas recently spent 14 months in Iraq in the Civil Affairs Unit where he basically ‘paid off the sheikhs’ and at one point was in an armored personnel vehicle that was hit by a bomb resulting in severe wounds for two of the four soldiers inside but not Douglas. He is now at Hastings Law School and has married a girl from India, Archana, and they have a 16-month old son, our first grandchild, Rohan. They all give me a lot of joy.”

During the 70s Kurt continued to buy and fix up buildings in Oakland and then began to convert some into condominiums. “It was a very lucrative business I must say. It was risky and I’d never do it again but it was the right time. There were many legal actions being taken against others doing this but we were never sued once. We did it right and made an awful lot of money.” In 1981, Kurt sold off most of his holdings, keeping the house in Tahoe that he had bought, and the family moved to Australia, figuring it to be a permanent move at the time. “It was a nice place but not the most welcoming. It was a time when I really became interested in farming and was tempted to invest in a huge cattle ranch. It was 100 miles by 100 miles, with 28 houses, 25,000 head of cattle — all for $5 million. Jesus God, that’s value, but in the end I didn’t have the money. After a year and a half we returned to Oakland and shortly afterwards Heather and I split up and she took the kids to live at the Tahoe house. It was a dreadful time. I would visit them and drive back to the Bay Area crying all the way. We got divorced in 1984 and I threw myself into the development and construction business.”

“Heather and the children moved back to the Bay Area in 1985, settling in Piedmont and the kids would visit me in Oakland in an integrated neighborhood. The only reason it was integrated was because I lived there! In the late 80s I started to buy and rent apart­ment houses in Berkeley and this was during the time of that town’s many conflicts about rent control. It was crazy and I led the movement to change the sys­tem that was being led by these Marxists on the Rent Control Board. Landlords were getting say $75 rent and the apartment was costing them $150 in insurance and taxes. Many of the apartment buildings I worked on to change were owned by the black community and they were being ripped off.”

From 1990 to 1996 Kurt fought the ‘Berkeley Radi­cals’, as he calls them. “I am not a conservative guy. I am a Democrat in the old-fashioned sense. Those people were awful to deal with, completely intolerable. Finally, I had to move on, although pro­gress had been made. I decided it was time to look into country property and my daughter Sarah, as an up-and-coming realtor, found this 160-acre property in Anderson Valley. Realtor Bob Mathias showed us around. It was a wreck of a place owned by a Dr. Richard Ferrington and his wife, Barbara. We went through the damndest of negotiations I’ve ever been involved in, but I really wanted the property so I per­severed and we finally bought for $960, 000 — a fair price overall I think. We renovated the property thoroughly with new vines and buildings for staff and vineyard workers and we have a lovely home here. I have a vineyard management company running the place although I did take viticulture courses at UC Davis so I’d have some idea what was going on.”

Kurt commuted to and from Berkeley until 2002 when he moved to the Valley full-time. He and Heather had begun to date again in 1996 and in 2003 they re-married. “I had been a millionaire in my thir­ties and did not handle that very well in many ways. We’re talking ass-hole here. Even though I had been a nerd and geeky as a kid, I became very cocky when I started to make money. We lived in a mansion on two acres in Piedmont — our grass-cutting bill was $600 a month and that was in 1975. I once turned $5K into $250K during a ten-month period in the eighties by simply trading commodities, not counting my regular salary etc. I drove flashy cars and behaved in an osten­tatious way. The late 70s was a very lucrative yet crazy time for me and I threw my money at any problems. Looking back, I was an ass-hole in many ways and then the divorce really humbled me and made me think about what I’d had and lost. In the late 80s I became involved in the Oakland Boys and Girls Clubs and that really grounded me and they continue to be the charity I support financially the most by far. Get­ting involved in Oakland and Berkeley politics also helped. Looking back, I guess I just took too long to grow up in some ways. I finally learned some humility and social skills in my late 40s. Now I try to take pride in that kind of stuff, finally. I had too much too soon and didn’t handle it terribly well. It was a reflec­tion of my insecurities. Now I’m completely well-rounded!” Kurt added with a loud laugh. “Actually I’m more of a semi-crazy old fart.”

“The vineyard has done very well since 2002 and I am blessed with a beautiful property in a beautiful place. I say to myself, ‘Gees, you ass-hole, look what you ended up with. Not bad.’ I have Norman and Colleen Kobler, the son of the Koblers who founded Lazy Creek Winery, working the crews every day and they know the business. Then there’s Paul Ardzrooni doing my vineyard management and he has about 600 acres in the Valley he looks after. We have about 40 acres of Pinot and the other 30 or so are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and 13 acres of Gewurztraminer. We sell all of our grapes to various wineries.”

“I love it here in the Valley, although the recent closing of The Boonville Lodge hurts! One of the charms of the Valley is the diversity of the people living here. It is unique as far as I know. I love the fact that Highway 128 is never going to become a freeway and therefore the Valley is not going to get that big and yet I am only two and a half hours from the Bay Area. I would like to see some more small local busi­nesses opening to serve the community, even a Wells Fargo ATM. It would also be nice to replace the ter­rible broken down buildings at the south end of town on the east side of Highway 128.”

I now turned to asking Kurt for his opinions on some of the issues confronting Valley folks on a regu­lar basis.

The wineries and their impact? “Yes, it does seem to be a subject of some controversy. Obviously the wineries are the economic backbone of Anderson Valley and it would be a much less viable and inter­esting place without them. They are a great asset and have a reputation for making wonderful wines. I hon­estly do not see much of a downside. I really believe that the water issue that many people worry about is bullshit. We fill our ponds every year when it has the least impact — between December and April, not August, and we use about one third of the water used by apples. Maybe we need some historical data on the water levels in the river and how the wineries and apple and marijuana growers have affected it. I believe that our vineyards have no impact whatsoever on the Navarro River.”

The AVA newspaper? “I subscribe and we love it. I was very happy to see Bruce take it back.”

The school system? “I hope the bond issue passes. The school is a major asset to the Valley. A crappy, broken down school could eventually lead to a crappy broken down Valley.”

KZYX public radio? “I like it and listen to the news in the morning and the environmental/solar stuff and the Celtic music.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself many months ago. I have also recently added a few more new questions.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Seeing my kids achieving things and doing things that make them happy.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The economy. It’s very depressing. And the high unemployment situa­tion is a catastrophe that will have long-term effects. A lot of people have fallen through the cracks and it’s getting ugly. I voted for Obama and think he’s doing ok. But the health issue should have been dealt with some time ago and the job situation confronted.”

Sound or noise you love? “Baah-ing sheep.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Bad music.”

What is your favorite food or meal? “My own pot-roasted leg of lamb from one of our sheep here.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one, who would that be? “President Teddy Roosevelt — a great leader and a very well-informed man.”

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? “My sailboat, a fishing pole, and a frying pan.”

Favorite film/song/book? “I always laugh at the film ‘Babe’ about the sheep-herding piglet. A book would be Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest book of this sort ever written. My favorite song would be ‘Ave Maria’.”

Favorite hobby? “Collecting Chinese, Japanese and English porcelains, Georgian (17th Century) silver, and model cars.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “A geneticist.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A coal miner.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? “I come back to my children — when they are happy. The most recent would be when our daughter Sarah told me she was going to get married and that she ‘had never been happier.’ And the arrival of my grandchild, Rohan.”

The saddest? “When my Dad died. It hurt a lot.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physi­cally, mentally, spiritually? “That I am generous. Actually I don’t know if I am or not but I think I am.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “What a goddam jack-ass question! I don’t know. I guess if he said, ‘We have re-opened The Lodge up here and tonight we’re having Trivia night there.’ That would do me.” ¥¥

(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 the AVA’s ace crime and court reporter, Bruce McEwen.)

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