Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Dick Browning

by Steve Sparks, November 3, 2010

I met with Dick at his home at the Cheesecake com­plex a mile or so down the Philo/Greenwood Road and after he had served up some fine pastries and a hot cup of English Breakfast tea we began our chat.

Richard ‘Dick’ Browning was born in the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles in 1935 to parents Anna Marie Reinhard and Richard Browning. On one side of his mother’s family, Dick’s heritage is from England by way of Canada and on the other they are from the Alsace region of Germany (now France) - his Great Grandfather Reinhard having to leave Germany after ‘upsetting the Kaiser’ in some unclear way. Dick’s maternal grandfa­ther was born in L.A. and had delivered newspapers on horseback... Meanwhile the Browning’s were originally English and both grandparents were from Mississippi, meeting in Mexico where they had worked for an American mining company, before settling in Redondo Beach near to LA.

“My parents had known each other at high school and after attending college they were married at the age of twenty-one during the Depression. My father had gone to business school and went to work for Texaco where he started as a clerk/stenographer. He worked for them his entire working life until retirement at sixty-five. My mother had gone to Berkeley and then U.C.L.A. and after they were married they settled in Manhattan Beach and started a family – I was first, then 3½ years later my sister Judy was born and then another 8½ years after that my brother Jim was born.”

Dick grew up in what was a quite rural Manhattan Beach although it was a tourist town with many beach houses for the wealthy amongst what was basically a working class neighborhood. “I attended the local school but in the middle of 9th grade I transferred to parochial school. My parents were Evangelical Protestants, funda­mentalist Christians, and we had always attended Sunday school and Bible study, and my parents’ social life was largely connected to the church, although having grown up in the area they had many other friends that were not church-goers. My family had lots of roots in L.A. and I had a huge extended family. We were always at wed­dings and family gatherings and I had over one hundred cousins. I was a pretty good kid and got into very little trouble, although I did a few dumb things as any kid does. I was more adult oriented than many other kids and was not at all rebellious. I loved sports and ‘wasted’ many hours shooting baskets and hitting baseballs, and spent a lot of my time on the beach — swimming, fish­ing, playing volleyball. I was never really coached although I did play on neighborhood teams and in church leagues.

Dick’s parents gave him plenty of freedom to do what he wanted. “It was amazing, I guess they trusted that it would all work out. I remember being eight years old, during World War 2, and catching a bus on my own into LA, 20 miles away, to meet up with my Dad whose office was there, and then going to a baseball game together. It was the Chicago Cubs Triple A team, the LA Angels — there were no major league teams until 1958. By 9th grade I was hitchhiking to school and by the next year, for my 10th grade, we had moved to Pasadena and I hitchhiked to my new school. In my letterman sweater and with a bag of books I always got a ride pretty quickly. I once got a ticket from a policeman and they called my mother in to talk to her about my hitching. They told her all these horror stories about bad people abducting kids and how dangerous it was to hitchhike. Following the meeting my mother promptly drove me to the freeway where she dropped me off to hitch a ride to the LA Coliseum where I had a job selling programs for USC football games. She was clearly not listening to the police and knew in her mind that I would be fine.”

Dick had a paper route from the age of nine to twelve and managed to save $300 in that time. “My Dad sug­gested I buy Texaco stock with that and said he’d guar­antee it. Ultimately that money became the down pay­ment on my first house that I bought in Hermosa Beach. It was during the war that the government first intro­duced income tax across the board and this became a job opportunity for my Dad. He set up as an income tax pre­parer, working out of our dining room. He has been doing this ever since, for sixty-seven years, and this year, at the age of ninety-seven, he prepared the taxes for eighty clients – that must be a record!”

Dick liked his years at the parochial school. “I was religious, no doubt about it. I said my prayers every night and read the bible with friends, discussing what it said. I still played sports though and played on the school bas­ketball and baseball teams, although I would probably not been good enough to play on those at a regular high school. Academically, I did what I needed to do to get into the U.C. system and maintained a B average. In my junior year I began dating a girl, Louise Price, and soon afterwards got my first car. I graduated in 1953 but had received bad advice with regards to college. I had always assumed I’d be going to UC somewhere. I had not dis­cussed it with my parents. I was suddenly faced with a decision to make. My father asked me where I was going. The Bible Institute of LA and Pasadena City Col­lege were briefly considered but in the end a friend of mine told me about the University of Washington where he was hoping to go. I applied and was accepted. He did not get accepted. I was there for two years where I stud­ied liberal arts, history, anthropology, sociology, and any public speaking courses. I wanted to be a church minis­ter. However, as time went on I seriously began to ques­tion my faith.”

Louise worked at Texaco for a time before joining Dick at Washington for his second year there. At that point they tripled the tuition for out-of-state students. “I wanted to be independent and not ask my parents for money and Louise probably couldn’t have stayed up there either so we returned to L.A. where she found a job as a clerk at Standard Oil — in retrospect probably not the best idea for her. I attended UCLA from which I graduated in 1957 with a history degree. We had married in June of 1956 and Louise gave birth to our son Michael in December 1958, son John arriving in July 1960. I began to work on my teaching credential after college and then my masters before becoming a teacher in 1958 at a junior high school in the LA Unified School District, where I was to work for the next thirty-eight years.”

Louise and Dick had both been very religious but by this time they were having more and more doubts. “Things didn’t add up. I talked to a minister about many things. He suggested I read a book that would set me right, as it was the best argument in the defense of the faith, according to him. This, however, only served to increase my doubts and I became more skeptical, par­ticularly as the book was supposed to put forward the best arguments for following the faith. My undergraduate thesis at UCLA led me to reading the works of a bishop in Africa who studied biblical theories in a mathematical way and now things really stopped making sense to me. I also had a problem with a God who said that I should ask Jesus Christ to be my own personal savior, or go to hell. My mind was becoming more and more secular and I discussed this with Louise. She was not as enthusiastic as me with her religion. Generally she was very independ­ent but in this area she was not bothered either way and would go with whatever I decided. We decided to cut back on our time spent with our faith although we con­tinued to attend the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for a while until 1957 when we finally cut our ties and ceased to go. The final straw, I guess, was when I asked a friend of mine if he could ever ask anything that would ques­tion his faith and he said he could never do that.”

Dick was at the junior high for five years before mov­ing to a high school teaching position for a further three years before getting his first vice principal position in 1967. By 1975 he became a Principal and over the next eleven years he held that position at Fremont H.S., Dodson HS, Narbonne HS, and finally Westchester HS. Louise had returned to school and in 1975 she graduated and became a teacher herself, eventually become an assistant principal. “In the early sixties, with our two kids at kindergarten age, along with other parents we formed the Manhattan Beach Co-op Nursery School. We hired a director to teach the parents how to teach the kids and the parents ran the school. Among the mothers were Helen Papke, Jill Moyer, Sophie Otis, Gail Wakeman, and Louise Price of course. Even after their kids had left the nursery, Louise and Jill continued to teach there. From this school, a whole network developed and we spent some wonderful times together socially too. Those women and their husbands became great friends and that is the group that now live together here at Cheesecake in the Valley. We have seven of the original eleven here.”

Apart from this group, Dick also spent time with his friends from his days at UCLA when he worked in the library there. He also took up golf for a while but it became too time consuming so he turned to tennis. In the summers he would take part-time jobs as a ticket seller for various sporting events and also drove taxis. Dick has always been interested in doing physical activities and feels better when he is active. In the seventies and eight­ies he did a lot of running and entered many 10K races in those years. “I always loved playing sports and socializ­ing afterwards – it’s a great combination and provided me with an important release from my work at the LAUSD. That work was at times all-consuming. The school district contains 13% of all the school children in California and is the biggest bureaucracy in the western world. By 1986 I had moved right into the heart of it.”

In that year, Dick decided he wanted to move out of the teaching environment and went to work in the central office of the LAUSD. He was to remain there for nine years working as a supervisor of high schools in various capacities including the athletics departments, the evaluation of principals, the finances and fund-raising by student bodies, the schools’ accreditation, and student government. “The school district had 30,000 employees and fifty high schools. I was the assistant superintendent in everything but the name and I really enjoyed it for many years until I retired in 1996.”

One of the reasons Dick retired was because he wanted to get away from the city life and to become more involved in what was known as the Cheesecake group. “I felt that in significant ways my life had been limited because I had focused so much on my career. I had never taken a sabbatical, although I certainly could have done of course. I had been trying to improve the education system in LA for 38 years and it was time to do other things in my life. I liked LA, the job, a lot of stuff, but I wanted to retire to something instead of from something.”

On a personal note, Dick wanted to share a few thoughts about his parental experience. “One day, our eldest son, Michael, came in from walking our golden retriever and announced to Louise and me, ‘Mom and Dad – I am gay.’ He had been accepted into college and wanted to tell us before he went away, to prevent us from assuming this was because he had gone to college. It was a real jolt to us. We were shocked. He had dated girls, had gone on prom dates, and it had not occurred to us at all. It was very hard for us to accept. This was 1977 and still not nearly as ‘acceptable’ as it might be today for many. We told him we would not be telling any of our friends but that we still loved him. John also came out some years later. We went through a time of being ‘in the closet’ about this but eventually we came out as par­ents of gay children and became very active in PFLAG – Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays. I am not proud of the way I reacted in those early days, and although we did the right thing eventually, we should have done it sooner. I am still active in PFLAG and Louise became a member of its National Board and the Director of the Northern California, Nevada, and Hawaii section – she attained something approaching heroic status to many gay people. As for me, I have tried to do my bit too and in my job at the school district I had a position of influence and approved and assisted in the organization of the first gay prom in the LAUSD. At my retirement I was very proud to introduce my sons and their life partners – Michael and John have now been married for twenty-two and fifteen years respectively, and are in very stable relationships. Recently at Michael’s 50th Birthday party held here at Cheesecake, I knew about 75% of the eighty or so gay people here and felt proud to be a part of my kids’ life – it would be so sad if I was not.”

Many years ago, among the group of friends who had started the Manhattan Beach Nursery, some had talked about living together after retirement. One of the group, Sophie Otis had moved to San Rafael in Marin County, north of San Francisco. She had visited a retreat called Wellspring in Anderson Valley and on one Thanksgiving a few of the others joined her there. In the early eighties, this became a regular occurrence for this group and their families and friends and they began to familiarize them­selves with the Valley. Over time they decided to buy a place around here and found the Cheesecake property. Five of the group (Sophie, Daniel and Jill Myers, and another couple) asked others if they wanted to join in with this. Two other couples, the Brownings and Dave and Helen Papke, plus Gail Wakeman and another woman, said they would. These eleven “Cakers” bought the property in 1990 and hired an architect to design the complex to their specifications. Over time the other cou­ple backed out and the other woman was replaced for a time by Sophie’s sister before she too left. They had a completion date of April 1993 and it was completed just three months after that, in July 1993.

“That was a great achievement. Each couple or indi­vidual has their own bedroom suite, some share bath­rooms. There are several communal rooms – the kitchen, dining room, living room, television room, workshop, and library... At first we were cautious about it working so while we were still working in L.A. we kept our house there and even after retirement we continued to do so, spending half the year here and half down in L.A. How­ever, it became apparent that all was working very well and we felt we would have to move here full-time to really connect with the Valley and its community so we rented out our house in Manhattan Beach and moved here full-time in 2000.”

Both Dick and Louise became involved with the com­munity from that point on. They were a part of the PFLAG movement in Ukiah and Dick became a substi­tute teacher in the school district when needed and then joined the ElderHome Board for a time. In 2001 he joined the AV Education Foundation and is now the President; in 2004 he joined the AV School Board fol­lowing Danny Kuny’s resignation; and since 2002 he has been the coach of the high school tennis team.

In 2004, Louise was diagnosed with cancer. “She was ill for three years until passing in 2007. She received lots of love and wonderful care both here and at U.C.S.F. medical center in the City. We both found it very fulfill­ing to be so involved with Valley life and the community gave us so much support during and since those difficult times, along with our partners here at Cheesecake of course, who have all been such great friends.”

“I have made lots of good close friends here and as I said I am very grateful for the support and friendship of Cheesecake. Socially, I do my yoga classes with Kristen Walker, I like to go to the trivia night at Lauren’s, and go to lots of athletic events at the school, not just the tennis. I like the plays and many other events that are held here in the Valley. I enjoy being social and often volunteer to help out in some minor capacity. I also like to walk as often as I can, with either Dave here at Cheesecake or my friend Lanny Parker.”

I asked my guest for brief responses to various Val­ley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “Well they are cer­tainly good for the economy and employment and I have been known to enjoy their products! I do hope that by there being just one crop here it is not going to be a bad thing for the Valley in the future.”

The AVA? “I subscribe to it and my favorite parts are those articles about people in the Valley. That’s good enough”

KZYX local public radio? “I like the National Public Radio shows, and Jimmy Humble’s show.”

The School System? “We have an outstanding school system with very dedicated and competent teachers. The community has been very supportive of everyone’s efforts, as witnessed by the recent passing of the school bond issue.”

Changes in the Valley? “In recent times, overall the Valley has been upgraded in my opinion. It has been spruced up in a good way. Change is inevitable so if that change is good then that should be something to be pleased about. We cannot expect to simply say ‘we’ve got ours’ and ‘lock the gates’ to the Valley. I’ve liked the changes, particularly the new businesses in downtown Boonville. It is not upsetting to me. What I do not like is being in a long line of traffic because someone refuses to pull over, and that seems to be getting more frequent.”

I posed a few final questions to Dick.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Walking in the woods.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “If we have too many windy and stormy days in succession.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing.”

Sound or noise you hate? “The noise of heavy machin­ery, particularly if it is near my home.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “A pesto dish made by my son-in-law, Marco.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Thomas Jefferson, but I doubt I’d understand half of what he told me.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “My dog Minnie; family photograph albums; and a bottle of Boont Amber.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go any­where in the world? “Antarctica. I have developed an interest in it in recent years and would love to go before it melts.”

Favorite book or one that has influenced you? “That would be ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck.”

A smell you really like? “Coffee brewing in the morning.”

Favorite hobby? “Woodworking.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fan­tasy job, perhaps? “During my wife’s illness, I gained a deep appreciation for those in the healthcare profession. I imagine it could be a very rewarding job at times.”

Profession would you not like to do? “A church min­ister.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my two sons.”

Saddest day or period of your life? “The death of my wife.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I’m honest and have integrity.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “There’s been some mistake.”

(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 my 100th Guest, the AVA’s Major Contributor, Mark Scaramella!)

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