Beyond the Politics — Candidate for 5th District Supervisor, Norman de Vall
by Steve Sparks, May 19, 2010
I drove out to the coast to meet Norman in the heart of Greenwood/Elk at his delightful home, where we sat down with a cup of coffee each and began our chat. Later in the afternoon Norman served us a bowl of chicken soup each and roast beef sandwiches — very nice indeed.
Norman was born in 1940 in Hollywood, California, the middle child with a sister five years younger and a brother three years older. His father had been born on the Mediterranean island of Malta and had grown up in southern Europe speaking French, Italian and Arabic. Norman’s mother’s family was the Rickey’s and they had lived in Schenectady, New York, where they had deep roots, before moving to Indiana and then over to Scotland with the Singer Sewing Machine Company and this was where she was raised. Norman’s parents had met in Europe and settled in California where his father began a successful photography studio, specializing in pictures of the military during World War Two.
“I remember sitting around listening to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio when I was very young. The whole community, under threat of Japanese invasion, helped each other out during the war. When the war ended, the blackouts and convoys stopped, and we were back to normal very soon after... I have no memory of my father ever being at home but when he was he was very abusive and threatening to my mother. Of course, this was when people would politely turn the other way. That period of my life was terrible and was a big reason why I eventually became a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) and can hopefully help kids going through similar issues today.”
In 1951, when he was eleven years old, Norman’s mother committed suicide and her family moved him to their family home at 13 Front Street in Schenectady. However, his father followed and grabbed Norman near to the house and forced him into a taxi and headed for the Pennsylvania border. Once there they caught a bus and five days later were in Los Angeles. “My life changed and I developed a stutter that was a problem for many, many years. There are still words that can trigger it today even though I have been a public speaker for a long time. I don’t know how my father got away with what he’d done; I guess because my mother had died and he was on the birth certificate, but I was kept there and then when I was fourteen, he told me he wasn’t even my real father.”
Norman attended Ben Croft Junior High School in Hollywood and had few friends apart from Klaus Ries, a German Jew who had been interred by the Japanese for five years in the war. “I was very much a loner, apart from Klaus, and had worked many part-time jobs during my school years, starting back at the age of nine when I worked on the conveyor belt at the South Coast News in Laguna Beach. I preferred work to study, there was a financial necessity too, and as a result I struggled in school, getting mainly C’s. My stuttering continued all through my time at Hollywood High School and I was teased a lot but I found that if I made fun of myself they would relent a little. I managed to graduate on time in 1957 by which time I’d also worked at a Thriftymart and joined a union, at a Veterinarians, a pet shop, a lawn mower shop, a car wash, an auto rental agency, and an animal handler for NBC television.”
Norman wanted to go to the Maritime Academy but he failed the entrance exam so he attended L.A. City College for a year to study small business administration. He tried again for the Maritime Academy but failed again. Around that time Klaus’s family were in town and with their connections in Japan Norman was able to catch a freighter to Japan in the summer of 1959. “Tokyo and my time there was a phenomenal experience.” Before leaving he had been accepted as an alternate appointment for the Academy and so on his return to California he was called to Vallejo in northern California to take more tests. He failed the physical due to color blindness but the doctor decided to give him a break and he was allowed to finally enter.
“After nine very intense months I left the Academy. I finally realized that my eyesight difficulties would ultimately not allow me to graduate so I found myself couch surfing in Berkeley before finding a job on the Oakland Estuary for four days a week, initially as a watchman keeping an eye on the collection of historical ships there. The rest of the week I went to the Oakland JC and then SF State, which both accepted my credentials from the LA City College and the Maritime Academy. I progressed from watchman to working on these wonderful old ships — painting, caulking, rigging, light engineering. I also found work on the tugboats in the Bay and joined the Inland Boatman’s Union. I graduated from SF State’s school of World Business and International Development in January1962 although I was still unsure about a career and with my stuttering still holding me back I stayed on the tugs for another year or so. During that time I was at one point held under house arrest and finally extradited from Peru to Ecuador after arriving there illegally; finally making my way back to the States on a Danish banana boat.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had a big effect on those living on the SF Bay. “I was eating at Red’s in Berkeley when I heard about this frightening event. The Bay Area was full of atomic nuclear technology and the thought was that a war could start with Russia and we were in a very likely target area. Along with several others I headed north and made it to Caspar on the Mendocino County coast. I loved it and thought I’d like to live there if I could find work.”
“During the period I worked on the tugs and with the historical ships, I had come under the watchful eye of George Kiskaddom, the owner of more than twenty different little companies in the shipping world based around the Bay Area. The love of my life, Sue Bird, had gone to Hawaii so when George said he wanted me to sail his boat, ‘Spirit’, back from Hawaii I jumped at the chance. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship with George and his crews. On my return from Hawaii, George set me up as a Stevedore Superintendent with ‘Matson Terminals’, the shore side operation of ‘Matson Shipping Lines’; his proviso for me working at the this job was that he could call on me to help him on any project which may arise, and he often did.”
Over the following few months Norman visited the Mendocino coast several more times and finally bought a small cottage north of Fort Bragg and occasionally finding work digging wells, salvaging barns and railroad bridges, and doing some salmon fishing out of Noyo Harbor. He was earning $3K a month running the longshoremen crews and every so often he would be pulled out to sail one of George’s boats. “I had already sailed his vessel, ‘Spirit’ back from Hawaii, then another time I went through the Panama Canal and on to Greenwich, Connecticut with Sue and three other crew members, I was what they call the ‘ships’ husband’, responsible for the navigation, the provisions, the sea-worthiness of the vessel. It was tough, not a cushy yachting job at all, but it gave me some of the best times of my life, and running the crew was great training for a job as Supervisor.”
As time went on, Norman found himself trying to spend more time up in Mendocino while still working down in the Bay Area. “In 1964, I had received a draft notice when I had been away in Peru and then received another on my return stating I had to report for induction in Los Angeles. Once there, I was asked if the police were after me. I said they might be as I had been involved in a prank that involved breaking in to the police armory, along with others who wanted me to be there because of my gun knowledge, and taking several guns. This led to some confusion on their part; they never asked me when this had happened. They thought it was recent and that I was possibly wanted. It was actually when I was ten years old. The guy said, ‘We’ll take care of you when you are in the army; you take care of you when you’re out’ and turned away. I was free to leave and hitchhiked back up to the Bay Area, joining some of the Berkeley anti-war protests that took place in the following months.”
“I received a third draft notice and at that point I announced to them that I was not prepared to kill anybody and if that meant being locked up then so be it. They let me go and I never heard from them again... Not long after that I decided I could not accept the $3k monthly salary from working at Matson, a company that I was helping to load up and transport war materials to Vietnam. I wasn’t prepared to do anything that might lead to killing so I asked for a transfer to a different department. They said ‘No,’ and I gave two weeks notice, during which time I received the silent treatment.”
“I moved up to Mendocino County and began work as a carpenter for $4 an hour. It was tough so when George Kiskaddom offered me a job with Marine Terminals Corporation, not involved with the war effort and for $1500 a month, I accepted. It did not last long before he was in touch again and said he wanted me to get his boat ready for the Trans Atlantic Race. This adventure took me from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda, and eventually the Baltic Sea via Scotland. I stopped in Copenhagen, Denmark for a time and visited my Uncle, the well-known sculptor George Rickey and was introduced to the world of art. I helped him set up his show in Berlin and then upon my return to Copenhagen I realized a dream of mine — I bought my own sailing cargo ship — ‘Fri’. It was built in 1912 and I arranged to transport a cargo of beer, wine, and Scotch to San Francisco, becoming the last cargo to ever make this trip under sail.”
“I was back and forth between Mendocino and the Bay Area for a few years in the late sixties and early seventies. I started to become more politically active and joined in the attempts to preserve the historic town of Mendocino, supported Proposition 20 forming the California Coastal Commission, sought controls for sustainable logging, and eventually made my first foray into public office when I ran for the Mendocino Coast Hospital Board of Directors in 1972.” Norman lost but partly as a result of his efforts the Service Employee International Union was accepted into the hospital.
In 1973, Norman met Linda Perry who had moved to the coast from Berkeley and in 1977 they had a son Judd. Work continued to play a major roll in Norman’s life as he not only had a job with Baxman’s spreading asphalt and went fishing for salmon, but he also kept his night job on the waterfront in Oakland and at some point around this time he opened his boat brokerage firm, Mendocino Maritime Services. He was appointed to the Mendocino General Plan’s Citizen Advisory Committee and met several contemporaries who together selected a viable candidate for Supervisor to run in the 1978 election, someone who would address the issues of logging and fishing. “Regardless of party it was agreed amongst this ‘new generation’ that we would support whoever the consensus choice was. Our candidate had to drop out due to ill health and I was then selected to challenge the two-time incumbent Ted Galletti. For the first time I was actually starting to look the part, no longer looking like a beatnik, and with the support of both Democrats and Republicans we won the day. I served in office for four terms from January 1979 to 1995. The General Plan we introduced has stood the test of time, as has the Coastal Plan, although both now need revision to best represent how we live here today; we resolved the Building Code Wars and now just two buildings per parcel are permitted to stop over-density; and we managed a sustainable budget throughout that period. We solved many issues of solid waste, resource recovery and recycling, and maintained parks, beaches, and hospitals as long as we could.”
Since 1995, Norman has volunteered on various county boards and commissions, and as mentioned earlier was appointed by the Mendocino County Juvenile Superior Court as a CASA. This allows him to represent kids in court, teenagers who are wards of the court because one or both of their parents are in jail. “Not bad kids with criminal records necessarily; kids who need guidance on how to deal with emotional issues resulting from verbal or physical abuse. I try to stabilize their lives in some significant way.” He has chaired the Ocean Protection Coalition and the Mendocino Art Center Board, and since moving to Elk in 1977, continues to serve on the Elk County Water District Board and chairs the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance. “My work and political activity are the primary things in my life. I have enjoyed it all and this is a big part of why I’m asking to go back to do it again. It comes first, whatever else there is can be dealt with afterwards.”
Norman was divorced in the 80s as he threw himself into his work. Later, in 2002, he met Linda Spector and they have been partners ever since. Son Judd is currently living in Canada where he designs and makes mountain bike trails and ski resorts. As for Norman he has his own business as a land use planning consultant, still maintains his boat brokerage license, is a wedding officiant, a notary public, and even an official disposer of cremated remains, licensed of course!
“I believe that so many of the past issues are coming back again. Having that experience will be vital for the person serving the next term. Water, transportation, mental health, public works, planning, protecting the resource base, and coastal protection are all vitally important and we must have more connection between the Latino community and others; we need to get them involved in the decision-making. The future of our county has more questions now than it has done for years. The budget is without equal — we may be $300 million in debt!... I know I can work well with others. There was great mutual respect on the Board when I served before. I’m not so sure it is like that now. We must work towards that. I’m 70 and some may think that’s too old to run but I can assure you that at this age what you do in the next few years you take very seriously indeed. I have a calling, a desire to do this. I am so thankful and appreciative for the years I’ve had to share and enjoy what I put in as a Supervisor doing 60/70 hours a week for 16 years. My time spent in that position is my signature piece of work and I believe that I was one of the most successful Supervisors in recent history. I would not have run if David Colfax had chosen to run again but he didn’t and now I hope to bring decades of experience and knowledge to the position. In this election, I am not going along just to get along; I am going to make a difference.”
Norman loves living in Elk and one of his favorite places in the County is the State Park right across the street (Highway 1) and the Greenwood Creek Beach just ten minutes away. “That’s a really beautiful beach. Community means more than possession here; everyone in Elk contributes and participates in some way. The whole Fifth District has a special feeling about it. My alternative family is here and even if a few may say ‘Norman is an asshole,’ they will add, ‘but he’s our asshole’.”
I asked Norman for his views on some of the issues facing Mendocino county residents.
The Wineries and their impact? “My prime concern is that they take care of there own in terms of housing and that their water use is kept at a minimum.”
The AVA? “It’s a wonderful publication and it makes readers think. However, I do have to wonder if the mistakes and inaccuracies are intentional.”
KZYX local public radio (on which Norman had a show until recently)? “They are not happy with me right now but I hope to get back on the air, win or lose. They do a good job in bringing many issues to the fore but the programmers are not trained particularly well and their preparation is lacking in some cases. The actual broadcast quality is poor in many areas and many people just switch it off because of that I’m sure.”
Marijuana? “The initiative will pass and the small growers will have two to five more years of existence and then it will be corporate controlled. There will be an absolute value in the ‘Emerald Triangle’ name...in fact I should grab that now” (He excuses himself, makes a phone call and asks an associate to enquire about this and to grab the name ‘Emerald Triangle’ if they can).
The school system? “The Board of Supervisors has to be more engaged in the choice of curriculum and we don’t need twelve school districts. We should have one contract, one health policy, one administration.”
And how much would he be spending on this campaign? “I haven’t spent a $1000 yet. I may get to $2000 in total. We are running a zero waste, low carbon footprint campaign. I have done no fund raisers; we are reprinting the old bumper stickers with the word ‘re-elect’ in the corner, and I ask supporters to go to our website and print off the ‘Re-Elect Norman de Vall’ posters and stick them in their windows. Here, let me give you a bumper sticker for Bruce.”
I posed a few questions to my guest. Some from TV’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? “Going out on a boat — there’s always a surprise.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The abuse of a child; the destruction of our environment.”
Sound or noise you love? “Classical music; the sound of the surf.”
Sound or noise you hate? “The sounds of the surf if I’m sailing — it means you are in trouble! Raised voices and shouting on the waterfront — that’s always a warning cry.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “An excellent leg of lamb, although I rarely have it. I’m not a ‘foodie’ at all; I’m a bit of a bore regarding meals.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “David Brower, founder of the ‘Friends of the Earth’, amongst several other Environmental groups. He brought to the public’s attention many issues started by the great John Muir. Today the environment is balanced in a pivotal place and we must take strides towards protecting our resource base — it’s all we have left.”
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 complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica; my beautiful collection of old woodworking tools, and some rope, or line as I call it.”
Favorite film, song, book that has influenced you? “Ayn Rand’s book ‘Fountainhead’ and its call for fiscal conservatism, although I am clearly to the left on social issues; a film called ‘Black Stallion’ about a boy who loses his father and develops a special relationship with a horse; and as for music, probably some of the folk music from the sixties and seventies.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I can’t think of one.”
Least favorite word or phrase? “I am very much opposed to vulgar language and swearing. Believe it or not most longshoremen are polite.”
Favorite hobby? “Sailing.”
Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “Having seen so many people abused at work, I would have liked to have been a labor organizer.”
What profession would you not like to do or are glad never to have done? “Well, leaving the military and killing aside, I am glad to have never worked in a slaughterhouse.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of Judd; or perhaps when I won the election in 1978; or sailing into Copenhagen after our long trip across the Atlantic.”
What was the saddest day or period of your life? “My mother’s death; it was the beginning of me being alone.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I have good health; that I maintain my curiosity to learn; my willingness to share; that I always strive to do the best I can.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, if he said ‘Norman, you really tried to do your best; you never quit, and you stayed on it if it needed to be done. Good job,’ that would be fine with me.” ¥¥
(Our final interview from the world of Mendocino politics was to be in two weeks (June 2nd issue) and I planned to feature the current and soon to retire 5th District Supervisor, David Colfax. I thought this would have rounded off the series perfectly. However, my invitation was respectfully declined and so at this point all I can do is urge each of you to get out and— VOTE ON JUNE 8TH!