Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Karen Ottoboni
by Steve Sparks, June 9, 2010
As I drove up the Yorkville Ranch Road to the upper reaches of High Roller country the scenery became increasingly spectacular. At the very top I could see into three counties and, if it had been a little clearer, Karen told me, the Pacific would have been in sight too. She met me at this spot, looking down into her ‘cauldron’ of land, and we decided to do the interview sitting on the tailgates of our trucks. Unique in my experience, but with such views I couldn’t see why not...
Karen was born in 1952 and grew up in the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. She is the oldest of three girls — herself, Terry and Kathy, all born within a three year period to Carlo Ottoboni and Claire Johnson. Karen’s paternal great grandfather, and his brothers, came to the States from northern Italy in the early 1900’s, settling briefly in San Francisco before moving to Portland where he was a truck farmer. Soon after, his wife and kids joined him, including Karen’s grandfather. On her mother’s side, Karen’s heritage is English/German and they were an old firefighting family who had been in Portland for many generations. Karen’s parents met in Portland and were married as teenagers.
“I watched my Dad build a house for us on the outskirts of Portland and learned a lot from that experience. The area was kind of like the outer areas of Ukiah and I was definitely a kid who loved to be outdoors. My father owned a few grocery stores by this time and he was always busy. Basically, I was raised by a single mother, who also did bookkeeping — something I picked up from her and use extensively in later life. My parents were divorced when I was fifteen and my mother and we three girls moved to the rural town of Gresham — we were like four sisters and were very close. Ours was the house where lots of other kids would gather, and with both sets of grandparents nearby, it was quite a social environment. My Dad was just not a family guy, my sister Terry is close to him now but I actually feel that some of the Old Timers here in the Valley are more of a father to me.”
Karen was an average student who liked the sciences, particularly biology and physics. She was fairly outgoing and was active in the Choir, the Band, and was interested in politics, becoming involved in student government. She also got a Varsity Letter in golf! “I had my first girlfriend when I was fifteen but we were busted when we were seen kissing under the bleachers. This was not at all acceptable in a small town back in 1969 and was a very traumatic and stressful time for me. The doctor they sent me to thought I was just going through a phase and suggested I find something to do to help me relax — he thought of golf... Anyway, that’s enough about my younger years, let’s move on... I knew I wanted to be a science teacher or an astronaut so when I graduated in 1970 I applied for student loans — we had no money — and went to college.”
Karen attended Oregon State to study physics that soon became biology, but she did not really enjoy her time there and left after two years. She spent the next three years working both as a waitress and in a manufacturing plant that produced vitamin tablets for the ‘Fred Meyer’ hypermarket retail chain, Oregon’s largest. In that time she joined a small local union, The International Chemical Workers, and with another young woman began to attend union meetings. ‘It was all guys and we could never get a word in. I finally bought a copy of ‘Roberts Rules of Order’ and when they tried to squeeze us out of discussions I referred to this. It was apparent that these guys didn’t care about the workers and soon I was on a committee that worked out a new contract for the employees with Fred Meyers. It went to federal mediation and we won. We had changed things, made a difference and the union became a vibrant operation.”
During her three years working Karen attended night school and was now studying health and safety issues in the workplace. She quit her job in 1975 returned to school, attending Portland State where her focus was on Occupational Health and Safety. Meanwhile she had been saving much of her earnings and in 1973, at the age of twenty, she had bought a piece of land west of Portland, living in a mobile home there while she developed the property herself, doing the majority of the building’s electrics, plumbing etc — stuff she learned from asking a lot of questions.
Karen was now ready for some work where she could make a difference. “Cal OSHA was falling apart and the Unions were not helping with regards to health and safety. I was a safety officer with the union that represented workers at ‘Johns Mansfield’ a leading manufacturer of building insulation. They were losing one employee a month to asbestosis. I pushed for health and safety changes and was behind a new test that had been developed which could forewarn employees that they may have a problem before it had gone too far. Meanwhile the union failed to back me, preferring instead to push for a five cent an hour pay increase. Worse still was the fact that the company had its own doctor and therefore chose to keep the records of its employees to themselves, not even telling the workers in some cases. I was so frustrated and in the end I just quit, figuring I would go postal on them if I stayed. The battle was just too big for me to fight, particularly with the supposed good guys, the unions, not being that good at all. I really got to see the ugly side of politics and unions during that time.”
Karen felt she really needed a break from all of this and decided to visit her Uncle Fred (Ottoboni) in California. She arrived in Anderson Valley to spend Christmas 1976 with Fred and his partner ‘Aunt’ Bill Spenard; they had met in the army and bought property in Boonville in 1970. “My Uncle and Bill owned half a block on Haehl Street in downtown Boonville, what is now commonly called The Blight — those ugly buildings at the south end of the commercial section of town. They also owned three houses behind that and the apartments just south of this on Hwy 128. I thought this was a beautiful Valley and the weather was perfect so I could wear shorts and short sleeves — in fact I had fallen in love with the Valley immediately.”
She returned to Portland for a year before coming back down to the Valley once again and soon found that it was not only a beautiful place but that there was quite a community of women here, many of them working at two ‘schools’ — Bachmann Hill and Clearwater Ranch, which both dealt with difficult youth and/or special education. “There was no gay culture in Portland and this made my decision to move here even easier... I needed to have some work so I looked for some sort of business venture and there were two available — The Philo Café and The Redwood Drive-In. The latter had offered the property as well as the business and so in June 1978, after selling my property and house in Oregon, I bought the Drive-in and moved down, initially renting living quarters in Tom Cronquist’s property on the west side of what is now the Pick and Pay.”
It was the height of the summer trade and The Drive-In was in the heart of the downtown area. At the time it was a fast food restaurant only, no mini-mart or gas station, but many locals were regular customers and of course there was the ever-increasing tourist trade. “It was the hub of the community, having been built in 1966 and run by Charles, Bates, and Rawles who lasted two years. They sold it to the Pardinis and Johnsons, old time Valley families, with Donna Pardini and Eva Johnson running the business. I bought it from them. I would not have survived had it not been for a dear woman by the name of Bev Durham (of the McGimsey Family), who had worked there for many years. She got me through. She taught me some of the local dialect, Boontling, and was a regular customer at The Boonville Lodge with her friend Dorothy Bloyd so she had the ‘dirt’ on everyone in town!”
“Bev also introduced me to many of the old-timers such as Smokey Blattner, Bobby Glover, Chile Bates, Karl Kenyon and Bill Holcomb, who managed the County Yard at the time. Bill was always the first customer each day and got the first chocolate doughnut. In those days the loggers mainly ate at The Horn of Zeese across the street which opened much earlier for them, before they went into the woods. We got the other workers, the self-employed, and the retired guys, plus the high school kids at lunchtime. It was great to get to know these guys and they got to know me too. It was a little touch and go at first but I am personable and gradually won them over. I started to serve salads along with the burgers and sandwiches and also tacos, with the result that most of the few Mexican workers who were in town at that time would also come by.”
“I worked 24/7 as they say and had few employees, although I did have some high school kids such as Terry Rhodes, Shirley Hiatt, Collette Hahn, and others. I enjoyed it a lot; it was a great way to meet the Valley. One day one of the Kuny brothers came in and said if I needed help to give any one of his guys a call and they’d be there. That was a special moment and I felt accepted... Since the very first day in town, when I came to visit my Uncle and spent the day at The Boonville Lodge, I was accepted in there not only because I drank with the guys, and often beat them at pool, but also because often I’d be the person cooking their breakfast the next morning! This time saw many fights and scuffles in the bar; mostly involving the locals and the newly arrived Mexican guys, who had their bar down the street called ‘Mary Jane’s’. Many is the hot Sunday afternoon when the guys from each bar would end up in fights on the street, and once the AV Market, which was located in between the two bars, had to close to protect customers... However, as far as the Drive-In was concerned business was good, we were the only fast food stop between Cloverdale and the Coast.”
In 1979, the local court in Boonville was threatened with closure and this greatly upset many locals such as Homer Mannix and Emil Rossi. Karen went along with them when they met with the Board of Supervisors. “I watched these guys confronting the Supes directly and was very impressed by the impact that a local community can have on the things that affect them. They saved the courts for the Valley for a little while longer, and it gave me inspiration for any future political and social endeavors I would have. Meanwhile I was too busy slinging hamburgers and cleaning toilets to get really involved with local politics at that time.”
In 1980, the State sued Mendocino County over its General Plan and it was decided that agriculture-zoned properties (all of downtown Boonville) could not be changed or built on for three years. Karen had wanted to put up a small commercial building at the back of the Drive-In so this was now on hold. In May her sister, Kathy, was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer which had metastasized (she died in 1983), on top of which her grandmother died from a stroke. It was all too much and Karen decided that there were no guarantees; she had to live each day to the fullest if she could — by working so many hours she was unable to do this. She put the Drive-In on the market and in December 1980 it was sold to Cheryl Schrader.
Karen had moved from the rental at Cronquist’s building to her Uncle’s place and then on to a place on the Miner Ranch south of Boonville. It was now time for a clean break, so after selling the Drive-In she bought ten acres in the Rancho Navarro sub-division and decided on a low-key lifestyle for a few years. She found work with Bob Glover on developing springs, with Steve Mize in construction, and driving a dump truck and backhoe for Bill Holcomb, “who was like a father to me.” Socially she hung out at The Floodgate watching Bobbie Peterson serving beer and burritos to the loggers. By 1984 she found her ten acres to be too small and too full of poison oak, so she started to look for something bigger. She saw a piece of property advertised in the S.F. Chronicle by the realtor T.J. Nelson. “It was 160 acres about twenty minutes up the Yorkville Ranch Road, completely off the beaten track and undeveloped but I immediately knew this was where I wanted to be. I loved the vastness of the place, it was perfect.”
She lived in a trailer and began to build, using the timber from the Track Inn building in Boonville, a former bar, which Karen and a few friends dismantled and took to her property. Her solitary life suited her at this time as she developed the property, although she obviously had to go into town on occasion. Her Uncle Fred died of AIDS in 1987 and Karen, along with sister Terry, helped out Bill with their rentals in town, although he too was ill and died in 1992. When he passed, Karen took over the house they had owned in Ukiah, did it up, and sold it. During these years, Karen was involved in a relationship with Jill Hannum, a neighbor up in the hills, and they were to be together for eighteen years.
Seeing the ravages of AIDS up close led Karen to take a quilt, made by her family in honor of Fred and Bill’s thirty years together, to Washington D.C. for the national quilt memorial for AIDS awareness. The quilt was then brought back to Ukiah in 1993, and put on display at Ukiah High School for three days. “There was an amazing community response and I was asked to join the founding board of the Billy Foundation, a nonprofit to raise HIV awareness in our rural communities and help support those with AIDS. This was the start of my non-profit work and, following the death of my sister, Uncle, and ‘Aunt’, it tied in well with my newfound ‘Be here now’ philosophy that life is so precious and yet so fragile and to live it to the full as much and as often as you can, which for me meant wanting to help others.”
Over the next few years Karen found work in non-profit organizations, doing their bookkeeping, budget reviews, and generally helping guys with AIDS on a daily basis. In 1996 she was “pulled” in to local public radio. She had volunteered to help with the pledge drive when partner Jill Hannum was the interim manager at KZYX&Z and one thing led to another. “I had always followed Mendocino politics, I am a political animal at heart, and so when they asked me to do a Thursday morning Public Affairs program I readily agreed. It was an exciting time and the public affairs department was just starting. For me, and many others, the radio station was the only way to keep in touch with the outside world and I thought this show could be a very useful service to the community. I left the Billy Board and joined the radio station’s board in 1999 after attending their meetings for three years. I’m into structure and process and helped define their policies, while also doing political interviews and budget assessments. My shows were based around the guests, not my own editorials. I like to think I have the ability to condense and help explain complicated issues for the listener and I continue to be very involved with the County’s politics.” Karen left the radio station in 2008 but does return for Election Specials and stepped in recently when programmer Norman de Vall decided to run for Supervisor and had to leave his show.
Karen hosted other shows too, including ‘Women’s Voices’ and ‘Queer Ear’ and after leaving the station board she kept doing these shows and returned to the Billy Foundation Board. Around that time some Anderson Valley locals were looking to put together an assisted living facility locally. “I attended meetings with Captain Rainbow, Hayes Brennan, Peggy Miniclier, Nancy Wood, and others. We came up with a plan to help the elderly in the Valley with assisted living accommodation. Property for this became available in downtown Boonville but the bank wanted a community member to guarantee the sale, so I did, putting up my ranch for $250K collateral, and the Elder Home project finally had a base. I have been on the Board since 2006 and became treasurer in 2008. This endeavor is my focus now and although progress is slow at times, we have reduced the mortgage by $238K as of this month and the community has been really supportive. This is really an incredible accomplishment in these economical times. The next big leap is to raise the money to remodel the house and garage and the Board is concerned about starting construction without having the funds and or pledges in hand. Many dedicated community members have gotten us this far, but it's going to take more of us stepping up now to move forward. None of us are getting any younger and the reason the community started this project certainly hasn’t gone away — every week we get more calls asking if the ElderHome is open. I know this community can make it happen and now's the time!”
“I love living here as much as ever, particularly the small community we have and with so many people knowing each other. I have loved watching so many kids in the Valley grow up. Our community always steps in to help others in need and every good cause seems to be well supported. There’s not really anything I don’t like except that building that was my Uncles’ — the blight at the south end of town. As a community we should stand up and stop the owner from letting it continue to deteriorate.”
I asked Karen for her brief responses to various Valley issues.
The Wineries and their impact? “I have a mixed bag of feelings. I am not happy with the monoculture that has taken over here at the expense of the Valley’s traditional industries. It’s sad but inevitable, I guess. The wineries have brought money in, good in some ways, but it has meant that property values have gone up too much for the children of local families to buy. The small business owners are disappearing; it’s big money people now. Marijuana growing has gone the same way. There is just too much greed.”
Local public radio KZYX&Z? “It is a very, very valuable asset that people have to step up and get involved in. Use it or lose it. They either have to get a lot of money to pay staff or get volunteers. As for the programming, I think more local public affairs is needed.”
The AVA? “I have subscribed for years. I like it. You can generally figure out what is happening from reading it; not always the whole story perhaps, or the whole truth even, but the general idea.”
Tourists? “Get ‘em in; get their money; send ‘em home. And let’s get a tollbooth for non-residents at the south end of town. What are they going to do — turn around?”
I posed a few questions from a questionnaire used on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Wildlife. Mother Nature will bat last.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When politicians talk about what they will do but then don’t, particularly after endlessly stalling and pontificating.”
3. Sound or noise you love? “The sounds of nature.”
4. Sound or noise you hate? Loud car stereos.”
5. Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Lasagna with some red wine from the Graziano family winery. Or a red from Jed Steele with whom I used to trade tacos for wine when his workers ate at the Drive-in.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Eleanor Roosevelt. Quite a woman, in her own right and behind the scenes.”
7.If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “Books, a good pillow, and some brandy from Ukiah’s Germain-Robin.”
8. Favorite book/song or one that has influenced you? “The book would be ‘The 100th Monkey.’ And the song is probably ‘YMCA’ from my disco dancing days!”
9. Smell you really like? “Roses — old roses, real roses.”
10. Favorite hobby? “Grilling politicians/elected officials in an effort to help make them more accountable.”
11. Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “An environmental attorney — defending the defenseless.”
12. Profession you’d not like to do? “A breakfast cook. You can never make the customer’s eggs like their mother did.”
13. Happiest day or event in your life? “When old-timer Guido Pronsolino greeted me with the phrase, ‘Mornin’ Old-Timer.’ It confirmed my being here. I will always be here; my ashes will be spread here.”
14. Saddest? “My Uncles’ passing. I learned a lot from them, and not just how to be neat and tidy! The height of the AIDS epidemic was also a very tough time.”
15. Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I just like to have fun, even with serious issues, particularly with politicians.”
16. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Er, simple really, ‘Come on in, relax, join the party.’ Yes, that would be nice.” ¥¥
(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 Dave Evans, Music Impresario of The Deep End and owner of The Navarro Store.)