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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Walden ‘Walt’ Valen

Walt Valen

I met with Walt at his home just outside Boonville, off Hwy 128 — the one with the spectacular gardens next to the Cal Tran yard. I thought I was going to be interviewing his wife Ginger but they decided to make a change. This was fine with me, although I do need to get more women for this series — I am working on it… (And Ginger is still on my list!)

Walt was born in Watertown, New York in 1943 to parents Waldemar Valen and Nathalie Putnam. “That was in upstate New York on the St. Lawrence seaway — one of the coldest places in the country in the winter — we were not there long.” Grandfather Valen had come to this country from Sweden and they had initially settled in the Seattle area. “My father was in the army air force and was the crew chief on a C-47 cargo plane during World War 2. My mother’s side was French Canadian, the La Plante’s, who had settled in northern New York State. Following the war, my father left the service and in 1946 we moved out to California — ‘to make a good life’, along with many others. We cam to San Francisco and lived in what was former military housing in Hunter’s Point where many low income families lived.”

Walt’s father found work stocking shelves at Weinstein’s department store and later became a gardener for the City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department — a job in which remained until retirement. “My brother was born in 1947 and when busing became law, and he was old enough, we became the first kids from Hunters’ Point to be bussed to school. I was very young for my class because I had been moved up a grade as I was so tall — that was a big mistake. Boys mature late and I was very self-conscious with the kids older than me and those were not good times for me. In1955, we moved to Noe Street and 24th in the mid-Mission district where I attended James Lick Junior and High school for my 7th and 8th grades and the first year of high school. I did not enjoy the academic subjects but schools at that time had many other options and I did like the woodwork, metalwork, and shop classes. I was pretty good at them and thought at the time that woodworking would be my career. I didn’t do much else, no sports, and I was very shy and withdrawn.”

For his sophomore year, Walt transferred to Balboa High and during that year he got a part-time job stocking shelves. “I had a couple of hobbies — stamp and coin collecting — and was still very introverted and kept myself to myself most of the time. In the summer of 1958, my parents wanted out of the City and moved to Turlock in the Central Valley where they had some friends and bought their first house. My Dad kept his job as a gardener in the City and would come home at the weekends. I did my final two years of high school at Turlock High — I was much happier there, away from the gang-infested city school. Turlock was a small rural town with a population of about 9,000 and I loved it.”

In 1960, at the age of seventeen, Walt graduated. “I wanted out of the house and was prepared to go into the military. However, it was the time of the draft lottery and that would mean going into the army — I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to join the air force so I went to the local junior college for a year, where I did not do very well, and then in 1961, at eighteen, I joined the air force. That was as a result of my Dad’s influence, plus I had always had an interest in planes. I was stationed at Roswell Air Force Base where I became a bombing navigation specialist, working on the radar systems of the B-52 bombers. It was one of the bigger bases in the country where we had forty-five B-52’s, 45 KC-135’s, and twelve missile silos. The base was listed as one of the top five Soviet targets at that time. I enjoyed the work and also got to play on the volleyball team that traveled to play at other bases in tournaments, but more importantly it was the first time in my life that I ‘became myself.’ I had been really self-conscious and shy all the way through school and believe that experiencing military service or something like it could help many kids. There should be some kind of service obligation for young folks today. It builds an individual’s self-esteem. Not a draft perhaps, but something similar to the civil conservation corps that was in operation before the war.”

Walt left the military in 1965 just as involvement in Vietnam was becoming significant; in fact his wing at Roswell was due to be the next to go over there. His parents moved a few times over the next few years, from Turlock to San Francisco and back again and then later, when his father retired, they went to live in southern California, in Chula Vista near San Diego. On leaving the military, Walt found work at the American Thread Company and while he was not there very long it was significant because it was in that job that he met Virginia ‘Ginger’ Kellar. “I stocked the shelves and she fulfilled the orders and one thing led to another — we were married in April 1967.”

By that time the young married couple had each found new and much better jobs. Ginger was at the Bank of America and later Wells Fargo and on the team that introduced Visa and MasterCard at those establishments. Meanwhile Walt, who had done some work at a garden nursery when he was in Turlock, had been told by his father that there was an entrance test for a job with the Recreation and Parks Department in San Francisco. “I took that test and was placed on a waiting list. In 1967 I was accepted and began work for the school section of the department, working as Assistant Gardener at Lowell High School. A year or so later I took another test and in 1969 was accepted to a full Gardener position.”

Walt and Ginger lived on Pine Street between Hyde and Larkin, “on the poor side of Nob Hill, next to the Cala Food Market. We would go for long walks on our Friday night dates, going over to North Beach and stopping at the City Lights bookstore and the Purple Onion club. Although the beatnik scene was winding down by that time it was still a very exciting place to be. We had nothing really to do with the scene on the other side of the City during that period — the hippies in the Haight-Asbury district. Even though I worked nearby in Golden Gate Park, I was in the nursery most of the time and the Summer of Love and other stuff there had little affect on me. We had a five-year plan to buy a house and tried hard to save most of our money, although we did enjoy those walks and took in some shows and a number of the events that were always happening in the City. We liked to go to the less expensive restaurants on Polk Street, one offered Chinese dinners for about $2 and another of our favorites was the Swan Oyster Depot. We stuck to our plan and accomplished it in three-and-a-half years by buying a home in San Anselmo in Marin in 1970 — when that area was still affordable. Ginger was now working at U.C.S.F. and we commuted together across the Golden Gate Bridge to work. We ended up doing that for most of the rest of our careers. What a commute — beautiful!”

In the early seventies Walt moved up from Gardener to Nurseryman for all City parks and also worked on many special events, including the flowers for the City supervisor and mayoral functions. Daughter Brooke was born in 1976 and while Ginger took time off from her job for three years to raise her, Walt continued to dedicate himself to in his career. By 1977 he had moved on from the nursery and became a section supervisor, or foreman, of gardeners, working on the baseball fields in ‘Big Rec’ in Golden Gate Park and also the Fern Dell and Rhododendron Dell. “I had nine gardeners working for me and did 8am to 4.30pm five days a week in what was a very unionized department.”

In 1978 he transferred, as a foreman, to work in the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Garden. “I had not been there long, less than a year in fact, when the City Rec. and Parks Department and the Director of the Botanical Gardens parted ways, and the department began to look for a replacement. I applied just to show I was interested and to my great surprise, while I was away on vacation as it happened, I was offered the job. I was probably not really qualified or experienced enough, I was just thirty-six, but I think I had gained a good reputation and had been in the department for quite a while. Anyway, I accepted the job and began in 1979.”

This position soon became an all-consuming job for Walt. He was responsible for many things, including the Hall of Flowers, the County Fair Flower Show and its 23 different garden clubs, the Arboretum Society and its twenty-five Board members, the Recreation and Parks Commission, and of course the gardens themselves, although he moved away from the hands-on work he had done for so long. “I missed it. I kept some work trousers and boots under my desk so that I could occasionally go and work with a crew in the gardens — probably against union laws but for me a necessary ‘escape.’ I feel I accomplished a lot in my twenty years in that position, following our master plan very closely and installing a number of new gardens. In my job I also became a member of a number of international organizations and traveled to many places, including England, Scotland, other European gardens, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and all over the US. I met the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Princess Beatrix of Netherlands, Lady Bird Johnson, and when Princess Margaret of Great Britain visited us at Golden Gate Park I took her on a tour of our gardens on my electric ‘golf’ cart. By the end of my tenure, the gardens had become some of the most important in the country and we also created the ‘New World Cloud Garden’ collection, the first in the US. I had a good relationship with many growers and other gardens and worked closely with the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, which led to trips to southern Mexico and Guatemala.”

As mentioned above, Ginger had taken three years off work to raise Brooke, but generally both she and Walt were very dedicated to their jobs. Obviously they had a lovely garden at their home. “It was my hobby when I wasn’t working. Gardening was my vocation and what I liked to do on my vacation. I was very fortunate.”

Despite all of the satisfaction gained from the job, by the late nineties Walt was ready to retire. “Dealing with so many factions and politics was getting to me. Government agencies go through good and bad times alternatively and I was tired of it all. I decided I had done enough and retired in July 1999. We’d been discussing buying a second home for our retirement and had been looking around various places, from Pacific Grove — too expensive, to Fort Bragg — a nice place but too foggy and difficult to get to. Following my retirement our search intensified. We had passed through Anderson Valley on our way to the coast and began to seriously think about it as a possibility. One weekend Ginger came up this way while I was visiting Brooke in Australia and she saw a place on Anderson Valley Way, just outside Boonville — this place. She made an offer with the contingency that I had to approve. On my return, I came up and confirmed the offer on this five acres with a small pre-fabricated home — one of quite a few in the Valley, particularly in Yorkville, that had come from the Vallejo Naval shipyard. The offer was accepted and by September 2000 we had a home in Anderson Valley. We didn’t know much about this place at all, although it turned out we did know a couple of people here — Susan Addison and John Scharffenberger were both on the Arboretum Board!”

For a time Walt came up at the weekends and it soon came to the point where he did not want to go back down to the Bay Area. “I worked on the garden, re-modeled the kitchen, put in a bigger well, and slowly improved the property. In 2003 Ginger retired and we were up here about 85% of the time. Then in 2004 we bought the Jehovah Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall next door to us. This became a rental cottage and our ‘garden room’. Since then, other than improving the buildings, it has been garden, garden, garden, and going to the AV Brewery for beers on a Friday evening with some of the ‘Airport Crowd’ such as Kirk Wilder, Larry Lombard, and others. Oh, and I’ve also been working on growing my beard. Ginger is more social than me and is involved in a number of Valley groups such as the Ambulance Board and the ICW (Independent Career Women). She created the AV Garden Tour, a fundraiser for various Valley organizations, and together we started the AV Horticultural Forum, a quarterly gathering for garden enthusiasts. I am also involved with the Coast Botanical Garden in Fort Bragg and I’m on their plant collections committee. Yes, we are retired, but remain very busy, fortunately doing things we love doing.”

“Anderson Valley is idyllic to me; it is me. I have been able to create a lifestyle that is a perfect fit. I don’t want to see Highway 101; I’ve truly gone feral! It is just about a nirvana for me at this time in my life. Sometimes, sipping wine and looking across our gardens into the hills beyond, I wonder ‘Two people from poor families, in government jobs most of their lives — how did we get to be so lucky?’ I feel very ‘wealthy.’ If I died watering my plants then that would be fine. I would be happy. They can bury me right there… Any negatives? I do wish we had a Chinese restaurant and I sometimes miss the variety of restaurants we had in the City. I guess I also drink too much wine — though that’s not necessarily a negative.”

I asked Walt for a thought or image of his father. “He was not religious but very spiritual, believing that he could project his body somewhere else. He was a good Dad and guided me well. He passed almost twenty years ago.”

And his mother? “She was very loving, and very affectionate with me throughout my life. Although I do remember she would hit me with a wooden spatula. It broke once and I laughed. She never did it again…. My brother has retired from his job with the National Park Service and lives in Spokane, Washington, near to the Grand Cooley Dam. Our daughter Brooke lives in the house in San Anselmo and is a landscape architect.”

I asked Walt for his brief thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation?

The Wineries? — “I am neutral. As someone who has guest cottages, I am sucking off the wineries as our visitors are often here in the Valley to taste the local wines. We are also members of the Wine Growers Association. I have long thought that the only consistent thing in life is change. This Valley has constantly changed and will continue to do so. There are pluses and minuses. The wineries have certainly expanded a lot in recent years and it does bother me that there are more corporate wineries around now and that there are many more lush green spots up in the hills these days.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen.”

The AVA newspaper? “I don’t read it much. I think they make some stuff up.”

I posed a few questions to my guest. Some of these are from a questionnaire featured on television’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? “A new flower.”

What annoys you; brings you down? “Logging trucks.”

Sound or noise do you love? “Silence.”

Sound or noise do you hate? “Jake breaks on the big trucks.”

Your ‘last supper’? “Linguini with clam sauce and a large glass of Valley wine. Ginger and I used to enjoy going out to different restaurants in the Bay Area and ordering the Caesar salad and the calamari at each one and comparing. But I’ll go with the linguini for my last meal.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “My Dad. We had a pact that as he was so much into astral projection that he would come back and visit me. He never has and so I’d like to ask him what he discovered in the next life.”

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? “Some pants, a shirt, and my wallet. And our file of important documents. And Ginger. Not necessarily in that order!”

Does anything scare you? “Losing my will to water my plants.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “South Africa has been on my list for a long time — the flora there and their Botanical Garden.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I only read horticultural books so Hortus, the plant encyclopedia, has been very influential; a song would be Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River.’ I still remember listening to it on the evening I signed up for the Air Force.”

Favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “Since my late teens, gardening has always been my hobby.”

Favorite word or phrase that you use? “Little f***er.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “I would like to have been a commercial airline pilot. I never have flown a plane or got my license.”

Profession or job would you’d not like to do? “Assembly line work of some sort.”

Age when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I had a picnic with a girl when I was 14 and living in Turlock.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? — “If I had been a better student, I would have liked to have gone to college.”

A moment or period of time you will never forget. “My time in the military was a real growing period for me. I came out as myself.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “I am very proud of my garden here right now.”

Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “I am at ease with myself. I am content. I like that about myself.

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, ‘Welcome’ would be good enough, rather than the opposite. I would be his gardener in exchange for beer!” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at The next interview will appear on the 4th Wednesday of the month, August 22nd when the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Peggy Ridley.

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