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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Sharon Sullivan

I met with Sharon last weekend at her lovely and peaceful home on Guntley Road on the Holmes Ranch at the northwest end of the Valley. She served up a delicious garden salad on what was a very hot afternoon, and we sat down to talk.

Sharon was born in December 1948, in Athens, Ohio, the eldest child of three born to parents Daniel Sullivan and Doris Baker. Her father had a son from a previous marriage, Sharon’s half brother, also called Daniel, who despite his efforts to work on the family history has not come up with much and Sharon knows very little about her Sullivan heritage. On the Baker side there is not much more to share. Her grandfather died of cancer but Sharon knew her grandmother well, a Swedish woman, among other nationalities, and “a very tough woman to reckon with.” The Bakers lived in Kirtland, Ohio, a tiny rural town about forty-five miles from Cleveland, and Sharon’s father, who was a salesman, met her mother on one of his business trips to the town and they were married a year or so later. Both of Sharon’s full siblings, Leslie and Timothy, have now passed.

The family lived in Kirtland while Sharon was growing up and when her father died of stomach poisoning they moved into her maternal grandmother’s house. “My grandmother never approved of her family moving out — her dream was for all of her family to live at her home. She hated outsiders. My mother’s sister Lois ‘escaped’ from the family home, as did my uncle, grandmother’s favorite who could do no wrong in her eyes. It was difficult for my mother and at various times we were briefly put into foster homes and, for three years from the age of six to nine, I went to live with my Aunt Lois and her family in Germany where my Uncle was a captain in the US Army. This made the local papers in Kirtland where there was a photograph of me packing my suitcase! My aunt and uncle were strong Catholics so during those years in Germany I had my first communion, and had to go to mass every Sunday and catechism on Saturdays. I hated it and have never followed any organized religion since — I am agnostic. Apart from that, I liked being with this ‘normal’ family and my aunt knew that my life at home was not good and wanted to adopt me but my mother refused and I returned to Ohio in 1957. My mother stayed at home for a few more years and was dominated by my grandmother, who one day shared with me that she ‘hated men.’ This was around the time that my mother was re-marrying, to a man called Wiley Bishop, who became our stepfather when I was about eleven. He and my mother then had a child, my half-brother, Robert.”

Kirtland was home to about 1200 people, mostly farmers, and it was where Sharon attended elementary school, which was a short walk down a dirt road from her grandmother’s home. “My memories of those days are very scattered. I remember the deep snow in winter, breaking my arm twice, a girl dying in the school hallway, and being a member of the local 4-H group. My mother worked as a waitress in a Cleveland restaurant that was near to a wonderful old theatre/movie house where my stepfather later took me to see the film ‘Cleopatra’ starring Elizabeth Taylor. My mother was not at all strict with us, that duty was left to my grandmother. We loved Grandma though and played tricks on her all the time.”

The family moved around quite a lot during Sharon’s early years but after her mother married Wiley Bishop, the family moved to Cleveland Heights in the Cleveland suburbs. “It was a big beautiful house with lots of rooms. It turned out that the money for this came from my stepfather’s embezzlement activities, for which he eventually spent time in jail. However, for four years or so, until I was about fifteen and he went to prison, I thought he was the best Dad. I could really talk to him. I remember one night coming in two hours late from a date and he was very understanding, realizing that I knew I had done wrong and that was punishment enough.”

After doing time in jail, Sharon’s mother and the kids saw Wiley one more time and that was it. “We never saw him again. My grandmother hated him and my mother told me many years later that he was gay but that kind of thing was never discussed in those days. I attended the local schools but as had happened throughout my life to that point, we continued to move every few years and I was at three different schools through my junior and high school years. I made friends at each but always left them. I was also quite shy, actually insecure would be a more accurate thing to say.”

Sharon hated math but did like art yet felt she couldn’tdo it very well. As for sports she only did them if she had to, mainly because the PE teacher was “mean, mean, mean.” During her sophomore year at Cleveland Heights High School, she had a part-time job on the candy stand at a movie house owned by the father of her boyfriend at the time but she then spent her final two years of high school at Warrensville High School and did not work during that time. She was more social at this school and enjoyed a couple of ‘wild’ years that included partying and a number of boyfriends, one of whom was the football team captain.

Sharon graduated in 1966 and further education was never really thought about. “I had no real ambitions. I wanted to go and live with my aunt and get some discipline in my life because I was aware that I did not know who I was or what I wanted. I needed some structure in my life. I moved to live with Aunt Lois in Cincinnati and found a job as a waitress at a Marriot Restaurant. I soon started dating a guy and in late 1966 became pregnant. Abortion was illegal and there was no other option than to have the baby. My aunt and uncle, good Catholics, immediately packed me off back to my mother’s in Kirtland and I ended up in a Salvation Army home for unwed mother’s. I was, and always have been, very practical, and I made the decision to give up the baby to adoption. To me, bringing a life into the world where that life was gong to be so unstable was wrong. My mother wanted to adopt the baby but I was adamant about the child not being in that environment. I knew there was a good home for the baby to be found somewhere else. I gave birth to a baby boy in August 1967 and was with him for fifteen minutes before I signed the adoption papers. He was then taken away from me.”

“I do think about this sometimes and wonder if he will ever try to find me. He would be about to turn 45 now so I guess not. I did give my name to a registry some years ago but if it happens, it happens; it is beyond my control. I was together mentally; I was very practical. It was not some sort of hysterical decision. The father and I had split up and I had a new boyfriend who knew the situation and came from Cincinnati to visit me in Cleveland at my mother’s. He proposed to me and I accepted. Unfortunately it did not last and I broke off our engagement a few months later.”

Sharon returned to Cincinnati and started a job at the Coca Cola plant where she was a production assistant and tour guide for this well-known bottling factory. She found an apartment to live in above a pharmacy in the area around the University of Cincinnati. “It was a very nice area with lots going on and it was fun for a time. Then in 1970, I returned to Cleveland to live with my Mom at her place in something of a hippy area with health food stores, cafés, and cinemas showing independent films. I got a job as a waitress at a deli close by and started to date a hippy guy. A neighbor of mine said I couldn’t be a hippy because I didn’t dress like one. I thought it was not about the clothes, rather about where your head was. I was right but I did start wearing the hippy clothes soon after anyway. I did all the things that were the part of hippy life at that time — the hippy boyfriend and lifestyle, the ‘look,’ and experimenting with the drugs of that time. It was all part of life’s learning process. I enjoyed the ‘scene’ and had always possessed that way of thinking, despite my conservative upbringing and appearance up until then. I moved into a house with a bunch of people, hung out at coffee shops and music scenes, and it was a good time.”

Unlike the philosophy of some hippies, Sharon always had a sense of responsibility and work ethic. She worked at a bar in the financial district of Cleveland “for which I wore a different set of clothes!” Then in 1971, she and her boyfriend, Vic, decided to head west. “He had a brother in Phoenix, Arizona and I packed lots of peanut butter and jelly and bread and we headed out in our car that had no headlights, meaning we had to drive from dawn to dusk. We ran out of gas in Albuquerque, New Mexico and had to panhandle for gas which got us to Flagstaff when we ran out again but a cowboy gave us $5 and we finally arrived.”

Sharon ended up staying in Phoenix for three years. She worked in a pub as a bartender and she and Vic lived in an apartment in town. She eventually found a job at Savin Business Machines, initially as a filing clerk and later as the production manager’s secretary. They had some friends who were from Vallejo, a little north of San Francisco and so when she heard that Savin’s location in Brisbane, California, a little south of San Francisco, was hiring she applied for a transfer. “That was great — we could go to San Francisco and I would already have a job. We left Phoenix in 1974 and came out to the Bay Area. For a time I commuted to work from our friends house in Vallejo before we found a place to live in the Bernal Heights district of San Francisco. I broke up with Vic and by 1975 had moved to live in Brisbane with some friends from work.”

Sharon left Savin and started to work for a hotel chain as an administrative assistant and reservations secretary. She also found a whole new set of friends who were bikers — the Brisbane Burnouts, whose logo or patch was Hagar the Horrible — the cross-eyed Viking. “The group were not hardcore bikers but we did love to ride and had Harley’s and Triumph motorcycles. I was not a biker myself; I was a biker chick, and started to date a biker called Ace Chernoff. It was on one of our rides north that I first found and traveled through Anderson Valley — around 1976 or ’77, I guess. We stopped at The Boonville Lodge and somehow had a verbal altercation with a local guy. He followed us in his truck and not long afterwards he tried to run us off the road by Gowan’s Oak Tree. He tried again a little further along the highway and two bikes ended up off the road. The police came, called it a ‘civil dispute’ and didn’t pursue the case any further. I did not come back for a few years.”

Back in Brisbane the Hell’s Angels wanted the Burnouts to join them and there were a number of parties at which both groups talked. “Those were wild parties with all the obvious stuff going on. I was no longer with Ace and now dated Chopper Tom. I liked the Angels but they were too much for me, particularly after I had seen them beat people up. The rest of our group didn’t want to join anyway — too many meetings. We just wanted to ride and have fun, and did not want to get too serious about it and make it a lifestyle. I still had my good job and chose the times when I wanted to party; in fact our whole group had regular jobs. For all the wild stuff around me I was able to handle it and still function well in the ‘real world.’ Around that time, early 1978, I became close friends with a woman called Jay. We decided to quit our jobs, take a break, and after Ace loaned me his Cadillac off we went, to a biker friend’s house in Starrett Hill near to Guerneville on the Russian River, an hour or two north of San Francisco. We claimed unemployment and at some point that summer we went on a trip to Pennsylvania with a friend of ours, Steve, whose sister lived in Blooming Grove, PA. Our road trip was fun but Jay came back after we had reached Cleveland while Steve and I continued to Pennsylvania and then went up to Montreal in Canada for a time.”

“After a month or so, I returned to Blooming Grove and ended up staying there for over two years. It was a very small town in the Pocono Mountains, just a bar, a general store, and an auto shop. I found work at a nearby honeymoon resort as a cocktail waitress for a time before settling into a better job selling vacation rentals where one of my co-workers was the original ‘Marlboro Man’, who later died of lung cancer. I enjoyed my time there but in 1980 I was at a wedding where I met a hippy guy with a van who lived in Guerneville! I hitched a ride with him and returned to California.”

On her return to this area, Sharon stayed with her friend Jay in Fort Bragg on the Mendocino County coast. “Jay left for New York so I found a place in a house with a bunch of people. I worked at a couple of bars, one was where all the fishermen would go — The Basin South Bar — where I became a really good pool player. I met and dated a guy called Bear for a time and when we broke up I got a job at The Rosebud Bar and moved into the apartment upstairs. I was drinking a lot at that time. Fortunately, I then met a guy by the name of Dan Bender and he helped me. After initially being just friends we started to date in 1985. He lived in Navarro in Anderson Valley and with our good friends, Ed and Donna Ronne, the Playboy ‘Playmate of the Year’ in 1964 (as Donna Michelle) who also lived in the Valley, they helped me move from the coast, where I had lived for five generally good years, to Dan’s house. I had become a close friend of Donna’s and gradually met other Valley people. After a year at Dan’s, although we were in a solid relationship, I moved into my own place on Gschwend Road, a cabin owned by Kathy Bailey, where I was to live for many years, until 2004, in fact.”

While Dan continued to work as a mechanic at Starr Auto in Philo, Sharon worked at the Elk Cove Inn on the coast and also the Oasis Bar, also in Elk. Then the Floodgate Restaurant was opened near to Navarro by Franklin and Francine and she began to work there as a waitress, just a few minutes from her home. She and Francine would also do catering jobs, one of which was for Roederer Estates, the sparkling wine producer in the Valley, and it was there that Sharon first met Michel Salgues, the winemaker. “I had been at Floodgate for a couple of years I think when Michel said Roederer were planning to open a tasting room and they needed to hire some people. He offered me a job there and on May 13th, 1991 I started. I have been there ever since.”

In September 1992, Dan became sick. “We thought it was just the flu. It wasn’t, it was liver cancer. My mother came out to help with his care but there was little we could do. He was too weak to do chemotherapy and Dr. Apfel here in the Valley was great in his care for Dan in that short time. In November 1992, Dan died, just two months after diagnosis, He was just 43. We had been together for seven years — the longest relationship I had been in.”

Sharon continued her work at Roederer, eventually becoming the tasting room manager, working for Michel Salgues until his retirement in 2002 and since then for Arnaud Weyrich, who had been an intern there in the 1990’s. “I hoped I was nice to him back then because he became my boss!” Her current title is Director of Hospitality and Tasting Room Operations and she does this for Roederer and their sister winery Scharffenberger Cellars in Philo.

With her job came various social interactions and Sharon made a number of new friends in the Valley. “I was a part of the wine-growers association, made friends with Linda Baker at Handley Cellars and Pat Daniels at Navarro Vineyards, and my activities in the wine business led me to being more social and active in the community in terms of attending events. I dated Larry Blackshere who lived here for a time in the late 90’s and got to know some of his musician friends such as Mitchell Holman, Pilar Duran, and Jennifer Schmitt. Larry was later murdered by an intruder into his home in San Leandro. I then went out with Burton Segal, another musician and KZYX local radio presenter, and got to know his crowd of friends too.”

On Good Friday, 2004, Sharon’s friend Donna Ronne died of a massive heart attack at the age of 58. There had been a will that left everything to two friends who had not been around Donna for ten years or more. A piece of paper was found in the house that was called a holographic will, one signed and dated by the now-deceased but without any witnesses. It is valid in about half of the states, including California. “This second will left everything to Donna’s pets, myself, and another friend of ours, Buffy Paula, who had helped take care of Donna’s dogs. The pets received 51%, and Buffy and I the remaining 49% — the house. The animals would therefore be taken of financially and I agreed to do this. Buffy then sold me her share of the house, very generously, at 24.5% of the house’s value, and I have lived here since. All of Donna’s pets have passed now, except two of her cats who are outside cats, and I have been so very fortunate to have this wonderful home on twenty peaceful acres.”

Sharon had broken up with Burton and in 2004 she started to go out with local contractor, Steve Mize. They are still together. “Neither of us feels the need to get married. We both still have our own homes. We like it that way, it suits us. It is the longest time I have been with someone, and my time here in Anderson Valley is the longest time I have ever lived anywhere. I love the Valley’s peacefulness and its people, their diversity and sense of community. I do not like those who have little respect for the Valley and its ways.”

I asked Sharon for a memory of her mother. “I remember that when Marilyn Monroe died, I made the comment that it was ‘no great loss.’ My mother was furious and laid into me. I never forgot that and it turned around my life in the way I thought about people. My mother was wonderful and kind but was depressed for most of her life, with dementia affecting her later years. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times and I knew she was never really happy apart from fleeting moments. I always wished I could have won the lottery so I could take her to Italy for an opera — a dream of hers. She was a good person, but she was lost. She died a few years ago and my remaining family all live in the Cleveland area and I am in touch with my nephews.”

I asked Sharon for her thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation.

The wineries? “Too many.”

KZYX public radio? “I love the idea but sometimes the monotone talking is not what I want to listen to and I often turn to other channels.”

The AVA? “I love it. I know some people say it is full of gossip but it is actually very informative, particularly the local pages. As they say every week on the front page, ‘Newspapers should have no friends.’ I agree.”

The schools? “Well I have no direct connection but I love that they are so highly rated against other similar-sized schools.”

I posed a few questions to Sharon.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “My home, my job.”

What annoys you; brings you down? “Politics, prejudice, hatred.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing; the quiet mornings I have here.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Gunshots.”

Your ‘last supper’? “Duck, served with a bottle of Roederer’s 1998 L’Hermitage.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “John Lennon.”

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? “Photographs of loved ones; my collection of mirrors — I love the way mirrors reflect so much light; my two cats — Etta and k.d.”

Does anything scare you? “Being incapacitated and unable to help myself.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? — “Southern Italy, Spain, Portugal.”

Favorite film/song or one that has influenced you? “Films would be ‘Fried Green Tomatoes or any with Bette Davis, particularly ‘Dark Victory.’ A song would have to be John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ that sums up what I feel perfectly.”

Favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “I have never really had a hobby. I never had the patience to really pursue one particular thing.”

Favorite word or phrase that you use? “Apparently that would be ‘Absolutely’.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A vegetable farmer.”

Profession or job would you’d not like to do? “Anything that is monotonous — assembly line work in a factory.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 15 and we went to see the movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and then sat and talked in a coffee shop for hours. I cannot remember the boy’s name though. That has not really changed, I can never remember people’s names.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I would have gone to college.”

A moment or period of time you will never forget. “Donna’s passing and the way my life changed as a result.”

Something that you’re really proud of and why? “That I survived!”

Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “My sense of responsibility. A quality I also have is that I am a little shy and perhaps people think I am stand-offish, but I am not.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “ I think ‘Welcome — you lived a good life’ would be just fine.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at The next interview will appear August 8th when the guest interviewee will be Ginger Valen.

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