Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Lee Serrie

by Steve Sparks, September 8, 2010

I drove up the Philo-Greenwood Road to Vinegar Ridge (Signal Ridge) and met Lee at her lovely home in the woods. We sat down and she served up good strong coffee and some delicious sausage from Lemons’ Market in Philo, along with ciabatta bread and jam. (Later, I would also get to enjoy a ham sandwich on that won­derful bread too!).

Lee was born in New Jersey in 1947 but her family lived in upstate New York about an hour from Albany at the time. She and her sister Martha, who is two years older, were the two children born to Hendrick Serrie and Josephine Galietta. The Serries were displaced French Huguenots who had settled in Amsterdam and worked on the barges there for several generations. Lee’s grandfa­ther went to sea at the age of eleven but after his third ship went down and he was the sole survivor he emi­grated to the States and settle in Hoboken, New Jersey where he lived and worked on the freight barges around Manhattan and New York harbor. The Galiettas were from a small hillside community outside Naples, Italy, and Lee’s grandmother had decided at the age of 16 that she wanted adventure so she came alone to the States to stay with an uncle in Jersey City. This was a town that had become a landing stop for many immigrants, many of who stayed for the first generation.

Lee’s father had two children with his first wife who had died and so when he married Lee’s mother in 1942, on the recommendation of a friend at the Dutch Reform Church, they came too, although they were 14 and 10 years old when Lee was born. “That same family friend at the church had introduced my father’s family to another Huguenot family upstate and my Dad went to work there as a farmhand every summer from the age of 14 to 19. That family was very fond of my father and he loved the lifestyle. He went on to serve in the Navy and then returned to Jersey City where he was to own a butcher’s shop and deli from about 1930 to 1943 but he always wanted to be a gentleman farmer like the family he had worked for. He finally was able to buy a dairy farm in the area and move up there. My mother had little say in that. She had married a successful businessman and would go with him. She was a city girl but she went along with it and soon she was into her garden and can­ning and managed to put a smile on her face and became a good farm wife and farm manager.”

Apart from a four year spell from the age of four to eight when they sold this farm and returned to Jersey City before getting another farm close to the first one — this time a chicken farm. Lee therefore grew up on a farm and went through grade school, elementary, junior and most of high school in and around the small rural town of Breakabeen. New York. “It was similar in size to Philo and I led a sort of Huck Finn childhood, riding my pony, having fun at the swimming holes and playing on bikes. I helped on the farm and we’d plough the fields initially with two horses, Tom and Jerry, before we got our new John Deere tractor. From the age of eight I was responsible for maintaining and collecting the eggs from about 100 chickens out of the 20,000 we had on the farm. At one point we had the largest egg-laying opera­tion in New York State with huge mechanized barns.”

Lee enjoyed her schooling and was a very good stu­dent. She was also in the choir and played the French horn and trumpet. While history, geography and music were her biggest interests she did play a little basketball and was very social. “I had twenty-three cousins, mostly in the city four hours drive away, but in the summers they would come to visit us. The small, tight-knit com­munity was primarily of Dutch descent and I had little Italian influence despite my mother’s heritage. In the middle of my junior year at high school, when I was sixteen, the town and the school had all become a little too ‘small’ for me. My father enquired about sending me to a private school in the city and even though it meant giving up a lot I decided I wanted to do it. I wanted to expand my life, open new doors; I was just kind of fin­ished there. My parents realized this and with my sister, with whom I was very close in every way (we had a huge sibling rivalry), having already left home for college, it was felt it would be best for me to go to the city. I moved into my grandmother’s four-storey house, each floor having members of the family living there, and attended Jersey Academy until my graduation in 1964.”

In the fall of 1964, Lee began her studies in the lib­eral arts at Antioch College, Ohio, in between Dayton and Columbus. “My major was Chinese art and litera­ture. Let me explain. My half brother was an anthropolo­gist who had studied Chinese family structure and I had been to Taiwan on a trip with him following which I had become seriously interested in Chinese language and lit­erature. Furthermore, my sister was at Stanford from where she would graduate and become the first regis­tered acupuncturist in the State of California. And finally, my older (half) sister taught English at a Chinese University. We’ve never worked out why all these Chinese connections. I had a good time in college and it certainly broadened my horizons. I was introduced to the new culture of the day for the first time — the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the various political movements of the mid-sixties. I’d never even had an avocado before then! Antioch was the first college to offer a work/study program and so I would study for about six months and then worked for six or so. One of the jobs, from April to October 1967, was for the Clearwater Ranch residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids in Ander­son Valley! Actually, I spent most of the time in Clover­dale at their residential home there but I certainly got to know the Valley a little too at that time. It was still basically a ranch area back then and I bought a motor­bike and would ride out to the Navarro River beach at weekends with other counselors. Of course that June was when San Francisco exploded and, although I was never a hippie, I visited there often and also saw my sister who was studying at Stanford. During my college days I became quite political. Antioch was very active in the anti-war and civil rights movements and I was on many marches and demonstrations and we would sometimes go to DC which was ten hours away. I had begun to get interested in film and Antioch became one of the first schools to get equipment for undergraduate film study. Until then it was either UCLA or New York University and only postgraduate programs. We made little films and showed them in the assembly hall on Saturday nights and by the time I graduated in 1970 they had hired their first professor of film.”

Following graduation, Lee found a job in social work in the Chinese community in New York City but soon after her sister’s husband died and she came out to San Francisco to be with her sister. Some of her filmmaking friends form college had moved to the bay Area and she hung out with them doing the “communal living in the City” thing. For a time she studied Chinese language at SF State but ran out of money and for a couple of years she was another “struggling artist” as she worked in a secretarial job at an architectural firm, although she found time to work on the sound of a drama filmed in a house in Mendocino and directed by Wayne Wang, later the maker of such films as “The Joy Luck Club,” “Maid in Manhattan,” and “Smoke.”

In 1973, Lee and her boyfriend from college were approached by a friend of theirs from Antioch who had been teaching in various International Schools around the world and who was at that time settled in Quito, Ecuador, to join him on a trip along the Andes mountain range in South America. They thought it was a great idea and their year-long journey on horseback began. “We didn’t sleep in a bed for a year and had a wonderful time filming and painting so many beautiful sights on the way.”

On their way back to the States in 1974 the hand of fate stepped in for Lee. “We had sort of adopted three monkeys as pets and wanted to bring them back to the States. We planned to drive all the way but there was no accessible road from Columbia to Panama so we flew into there and were told we would have to fly out too. This meant we would have to fly to SF and the monkeys might not have got into the country there. We thought they would have a better chance if we went to New York and landed at JFK airport. We were right and they were let in. Now I was on the east coast for a short time and so I decided to contact an old college roommate who I had been writing to about my career goals etc when we were in South America. She had been the first woman hired by NBC News and she advised me that if I wanted to get into filming news stories for television then I should not go back to California. They were ten years behind. I certainly wanted to work in that business and now seren­dipity had led me to New York. I stuck around and after a year of politicking I managed to get a union card and a job with NBC News.”

Lee was to live in New York for the next seven years, residing in a loft in the SoHo district. “It was a great time to be in New York. My co-workers were so savvy and smart and I learned so much. I had a good nose for news and worked as the sound engineer on a three-person crew producing news stories and documentaries. It soon became second nature for me to tell the story that was there, with a beginning, middle, and end. I was sur­rounded by reporters, correspondents and producers who ‘knew the score’ and constantly reviewing what we had been told. It was a very educational process and I had a great time. Besides work, I was young and really enjoyed the New York scene particularly because NBC’s finan­cial constraints meant they were not allowing much overtime work so we had plenty of time to socialize.”

In 1981, Lee was ready for a change of scenery and had always intended to get back to the west coast. Jobs were difficult to come by in San Francisco so when she saw an opening for a company transfer she jumped at the chance and became a sound engineer for NBC News in the Bay Area working on The Today Show, various documentaries, and live broadcasts. In 1982, on a blind date made arranged by her friend and her husband, she met Rob Giuliani at the Chart House restaurant in Mon­tara near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. “The four of us went out a second time for sushi and Rob pre­tended to like it and soon we were going out. Over the next year we traveled together several times and our relationship developed but then I was faced with a major career choice. Rob was the pressroom foreman at the SF Chronicle, a career job, and he was going to stay there but NBC News wanted to move our crew, the second SF Crew, to Denver. I did not want to go to Denver so I asked if there was any way this could be worked out. I was told that if one of the LA crews wanted to go to Denver then our crew could go to LA. This is what hap­pened and in 1983 I started work in Los Angeles.”

For the next 18 years the two of them commuted between the airports or to wherever Lee may have been in any one of the thirteen western states that she had to cover. “It was what we decided to do. Sometimes I’d call Rob and ask him to guess where I was and having read the papers he would make an educated guess as to where I might be covering a story! I’d apply for every SF story that came up and we’d spend more time together when that happened of course. I didn’t enjoy LA that much and would take almost any assignment out of town, even ones that others didn’t want. After a few years I wanted to move from sound to the camera and I applied for an opening when it came along. No woman had ever had such a job at NBC and I was rejected. I brought a suit against them and in 1986 I won a settlement for my fees and a chance to try out for the job. That was all I wanted. I got the job and I embarked on the coverage of many big stories in the next few years, such as the Columbine School Shooting — a tough and demanding assignment; the Alaskan Oil Spill; the O.J. Trial; the former Philip­pine President, President Marcos, in his home in Hawaii; the L.A. riots, for which our crew provided the first cov­erage from the streets; Governor Jerry Brown on the campaign trail; various Presidential Campaigns; and, because the L.A. Bureau covered Hollywood, various movie stars at their homes or on the set of television shows such as Seinfeld. I remember being in Mexico for The Today Show on the set of “Under the Volcano” starring Albert Finney. He sat opposite me for breakfast and I said I had not slept well because somebody had been singing opera until 4am in the morning. It turned out it was him.”

“In 1988, I was covering the oil drilling off the coast of Mendocino and Rob and I drove up here and through the Valley on Highway 128. I remember there was a float protesting the drilling in the July 4th Parade. Any­way, I remembered Lemons’ Market from my time in the Valley over 20 years earlier and thinking this is a beau­tiful warm inland Valley yet only 45 minutes to the coast and Rob’s hobbies — fishing etc. A month or so later we came up for a week’s vacation and on the fifth day we saw this parcel here on Vinegar Ridge (Signal Ridge) and in that November we had bought ourselves the 20-acre property. It was definitely a kind of impulse buy. For years we’d come up here on a Friday evening and stay in an old trailer we put on the land. We’d clear some trees and brush for two days and then I’d go back to LA or to wherever my next story was on Sunday night. We did that for three out of every four weekends for a long time.”

Over the next few months Lee and Rob became friends with their neighbors, Steve and Janet Anderson and soon got to know their friends too — people such as Rob and Barbara Goodell, Jean and Anne Duvigneaud, and the Apfels. At the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson Civil Trial in 1997 they were married and Lee took a week off work. Later that year they started to build the house with help from Olie Eriksen and Bob Heller and when Rob was offered a buyout at the Chronicle he readily accepted it and moved up here. Rob didn’t want to visit LA really so Lee would come up to see him here in the Valley. “I wanted to come to the Valley despite the long trip. However, I did love my work. My job was my life, and so it took me two years to slowly disassociate myself from that world. The 150 hours a week I was doing on the Columbine shooting was certainly a catalyst to my eventual move and besides that the business had changed. Reporters no longer asked the right questions or didn’t ask questions at all. There was no longer any skepticism and that’s something I believe you need when investigating a story. I gradually pulled away and it cer­tainly helped knowing I had a beautiful place in the country to move to.”

In 2000, Lee moved to the Valley full-time, into “Rob’s house.” He had lived there alone for two years. “I was ready and had taken up the hobby of quilting in 1998 and soon got involved with a Mexican co-operative in the Valley that was working on a project in which the women told their life stories in the form of a quilt. Meanwhile Rob and Henry Gundling, our neighbor, had gone fishing together and in time Heidi Gundling and I became friends. She is a filmmaker and together we worked on a film for the health clinic, along with the school’s film teacher Mitch Mendoza, and then the three of us did an anti-methamphetamine film called “The End of Silence” which was made with help from Patty LeFaveri’s advanced computer class. This film has now been shown at schools in seventeen states and the any profit all goes to the school. Then our friend Barbara Goodell wanted to have a film made about the book she had worked on with the Mexican women in the Valley about their salsa recipes and so Heidi, Mitch and I worked together once more and made the “Secrets of Salsa” movie which did very well indeed. I had contin­ued with my quilting and was regularly entering my work in the County Fair and eventually I ended up mak­ing the film about the quilt project called ‘Los Hilos de la Vida’ — the quilt of life. In the last couple of years I have spent many more hours on the quilt project which not only touches every aspect of the Mexican women’s lives but also allows them to spend time together, socializing away from their homes, empowering them more than ever before.”

Lee and Rob are now living the life they both worked so hard for and dreamed about. Lee spends a lot of time on their land, enjoying her work on the garden, quilting, canning, going to trivia nights at Lauren’s Restaurant, dinner parties with friends, and fund-rising events. “I love living in a place where I know most of the people I see. Having grown up in a small town this is important to me. This Valley is a very positive place to live; most people here are working for the greater good. One thing I do find a little annoying is that some people handle information/gossip poorly. It’s the one area in which people are not great with each other around here.”

I next asked Lee for her responses to some of the more discussed Valley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “It’s better than hav­ing no economy at all. However, in this house fishing is very important and what is happening to the rivers is directly related to the wineries being here. The rivers are just a trickle in the summer and the sediment at the river mouth is well, what can I say? I love agriculture but it is incumbent on everybody to practice it at the highest of standards.”

The AVA? “Some people gripe about the newspaper but I believe the Valley would be a ‘poorer’ place with­out our community newspaper. It’s amazing that we have it given what has happened to the newspaper business in recent times.”

KZYXZ radio? “The same thing as the paper although I do wish we had more local news rather than hearing about Garberville and Southern Humboldt County. I was also very disappointed to see Christine Aanestad leave because her efforts gave a certain level of professionalism to the news broadcasts.”

The school system? “It’s the biggest employer in the Valley and it’s wonderful how many kids we send to college.”

Drugs in the Valley? “Any drug that is not within our control can be, and often is, detrimental or harmful to the people living here.”

To end the interview, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions.

What excites you; makes you smile; inspires you, gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotion­ally? “When someone stands up for someone else, possi­bly at a risk to their own social capital. I find that very admirable. Trees also inspire me.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Loose talk; people speaking without thinking. Some gossip is fine and it serves a function, but knowing the line between that and hurtful gossip is important.”

Sound or noise you love? “The owls at night.”

Sound or noise you hate? “When music is too loud. It’s harmful too.”

What is your favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “A rib-eye steak.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Paul McCartney. He seems to be a very eclectic person and I’m an admirer of many of his lyrics.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “An electric book reader with 2,000 books; some paper and a pen to write and draw; a piano.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “Back to Machu Picchu in the Andes; this time with Rob. He wants to go to Australia. That would work too.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I think Star Wars is one of the greatest films, a western in space age costumes. As for music I love the songs by Harold Arlen who wrote the music for many Broadway shows and films in the 40s and 50s. His most famous probably being ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow.’ And a book would be James Clavell’s ‘Shogun,’ because of my interest in Chinese culture.”

A smell you really like? “A rose by the name of ‘Jude the Obscure’.”

Favorite hobby? “Playing the piano and quilting. I have also just started to learn knitting.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A designer of some sort — clothes, objects, tools.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Something that entailed doing the same thing every day, whatever that might be. Or a job where I was under the thumb of some tyrant boss.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? “It’s all been pretty good — from being a farm kid, my time at college, my job at NBC and I loved the day I moved here and started a new life.”

Saddest day or period? “When my father died in September 1975. He was my best friend.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I am eclectic and have lots of different interests. That I am adaptable, mostly.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome, Lee. You have helped as many people as you could along the way.” ¥¥

(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 Anderson Valley School Teacher Betsy Taylor.)

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