Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Memoriam: Helen Pedotti

Helen Pedotti

It was the oddest sight. We were gathering cattle on my family’s ranch. As I rode my horse along a gently sloping hillside, suddenly I saw a cowboy boot sailing high through the air. And I mean high. I quickly spurred my horse in that direction, and there was Helen sitting on the ground and her horse nearby jumping around in circles, covered by a swarm of yellow jackets. Helen had a heavy coat on and always wore an elegant scarf over her hair when she rode, so she had not been hit hard by the yellow jackets herself, but her tall palomino horse had. Some other help came, and we caught the horse and swatted off the fiercely stinging insects and recovered her lost boot. Helen calmly got back on her shaken gelding and continued with the day’s cattle work. On yet another roundup, Helen had a similar experience. We started to wonder why she always seemed to be singled out by the infuriated wasps when there were numerous riders available for their assault. Helen later told me that she solved the problem by not using perfume on roundup days.

That was in the 1960s. Since 1948 , Helen and her husband, Pida, had  owned the El Arbolado Ranch just west of Highway 101 near the hamlet of Las Cruces. We owned the El Chorro Ranch about ten miles west of their place. For most of my early life, I always knew Helen as wonderful friend, neighbor and fellow rancher.

While many ranchers were Republicans, like my parents, that was not the situation in southwestern Santa Barbara County. Helen was a life-long Democrat, and so were the Coopers on Rancho de La Vina on Santa Rosa Road, along with Helen’s sister Katie Peake and her husband, Channing, on Rancho Jabali. Senator Jack Hollister, the Pedotti’s neighbor to the south on Rancho Santa Anita, was an old time New Deal Democrat. Many of the cowboys and other men who worked on ranches were Democrats as well. I remember Helen coming to my seventh grade class in 1959 at Vista del Mar School in Gaviota. She was telling us about John Kennedy and his qualifications to be president, representing the Democratic point of view for the upcoming election. Echoing a Republican mailing my parents had received, I asked her, “Isn’t Kennedy too young to be president?” She quickly set me straight.

I came to love to hear Helen talk about politics, and by the time Kennedy was elected, I had become a “Pedotti” Democrat as well, and have been one ever since. I owe much of my personal political awareness and sensibility to Helen. Her passions, values and politics were fully integrated into a powerful force, and she was utterly fearless in her beliefs. She was the first woman chairperson of the Santa Barbara County Democrats in the 1960s, serving in that position for ten years. She was a Eugene McCarthy delegate in the 1968 Democratic Convention, as well as an alternate at a later one, and was a good friend of Governors Pat and Jerry Brown. All her life she has backed up her political beliefs with her time, energy, and financial resources. At the 1960 Democratic Convention, when Kennedy was nominated, she served on the Rules Committee. She has contributed to the Democratic cause over many years, most recently sending contributions to both local and nation-wide recent candidates and organizations such as the DNC, Carl Levin, Wesley Clark, Lois Capps, Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, Howard Dean, the Bill Clinton Library, and, of course, Barack Obama. Years ago, one of my bothers had been at the Pedotti’s house the night of a particularly bruising Democratic defeat. He told me that Helen looked really devastated. She took her politics seriously. She knew they mattered. I was saddened last week as I watched President Obama’s first State of the Union address, knowing Helen was not here to see it. She would have been hugely proud to be an American on that night for many reasons.

Like her husband, Helen had a wonderful business sense and her own tremendously successful business career. Her own father,  Max Schott, had been a true old west entrepreneur, and had amassed a family fortune in (what kind of?}mines in Colorado. Pida once told me that he and Helen were socially liberal, but financially conservative. They saw no contradictions in this statement. Helen and Pida had met when she was a student in Switzerland. Being Swiss, Pida spoke German, French and Romange, but little English. After they were married, Pida attended the Harvard Business School, and Helen had to translate all the textbooks and other school documents for him. Helen, in a sense, earned her own business degree as well during Pida’s Ivy League studies.
            One of her ventures was to own the CBS Television affiliate, KCOY,  Channel 12, in Santa Maria with several other investors, such as Emilio Acquistapace, a long time Santa Maria Valley farmer. I taught at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria at the time, and on many mornings I would see Helen’s blue BMW sedan pulling out of Rancho Arbolado and heading north, much faster than I, nearly fifty miles, to take care of business. In addition to the TV station, her talent for the media business also included owning a Livermore based, Bay area FM station, KKIQ, operated under the name Tri-Valley Broadcasters, Inc., up to 1998. It struck me that as an owner, Helen was very much hands on and engaged with the details. Once, for example, at a steak and enchilada meal (which were always splendid and prepared by Helen personally) after a branding at Rancho Arbolado, she quizzed me about what I thought of a recently hired newscaster on the evening news. She wanted not just a fuzzy impression, but specific reasons for my observations. These business ventures alone, or even just her intense involvement with the local, state, and national Democratic Party, would have certainly been sufficient to utterly absorb the time and energy of any normal human being, but with Helen, there was always something more.

Like Don Jose de la Guerra, the original owner of their 2,700 acre Rancho Arbolado (It was the southeastern portion of de la Guerra’s original Rancho San Julian), Helen and Pida also had a house in Santa Barbara, a tile roofed compound with a well-hidden garden on Canon Perdido, less than three blocks East of State Street. For many years there was a long tradition of a Pedotti Old Spanish Days Fiesta party. It was always quite an affair, for Helen knew just about everyone in town and was involved with a multitude of organizations. Raised in Santa Barbara, she graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1934 and always had a deep affection for and affiliation with the town and its many traditions and cultural organizations. My own memory of these great affairs is dim, but my family and I used to go every year. For many of us, the Pedotti fiesta was simply a part of the larger Fiesta, just like the Rodeo and Stock Horse Show and the parade up State Street.  In addition to her out of town ranching interests and family life and her spread out media businesses, she was the quintessential Santa Barbara civic leader. Her mother, Alice Schott, had given the city its original Continuing Education Center, donating the original campus which grew to become a model institution, emulated by others world-wide. Mrs. Schott named the campus’s theater Alhecama, incorporating the first two letters of each of her four daughter’s first names, the he representing Helen. Helen was a founding member of the Arts Fund (which honored her with its lifetime achievement award), earned the title of Honorary Life trustee at the Presidio Restoration Project, and served as a general partner in De La Guerra Investments. Always attentive to details, I recall her once asking me if I thought the fountain in the little plaza behind the De La Guerra adobe in the old shopping complex was a bit too large for the space it was in. Of course, I told her it was perfect. She also served as a trustee for the Santa Barbara Historical Society and Museum. In later years, when Pida grew ill and was unable to run the ranch, he and Helen moved to a home on Garden Street near the Old Mission. She always kept herself near the heart of things, literally and figuratively, especially in her beloved town.  I’m certain that she loved the ranch and the chance to raise her children, Holly, Tina, Jon, and Chico there, but she saw that it was time to turn over Rancho Arbolado to the next generation, for Jon and Chico had both become full-time cattlemen, and return to Santa Barbara, a place that, in many ways, she had never really left. Helen once told me, years ago, that she always knew that she would return to Santa Barbara.

In addition to caring for Pida during his final years, Helen’s time in Santa Barbara focused on fundraising for education as she joined the SBCC Foundation and became deeply involved in raising money for the college. The college honored her lifelong commitment to education by naming the courtyard of the MacDougal Center after her. She also took the initiative in 2008 to personally donate $278,000 to fund a multimedia classroom located at the County Jail. Inmates now have the opportunity to use the Helen Pedotti Inmate Learning Center to study in either vocational or academic areas in classes offered by SBCC’s Continuing Education Division. Thanks to Helen’s extraordinary generosity, inmates now have the chance to complete high school diplomas, study ESL, or even get counseling for their post-release life. I can’t think of a better investment in our county’s future. What a transformation from the earlier days of the Schott Center when Helen herself took a challenging Adult Ed. class from Hugh Kenner, a world-class UCSB professor, who specialized in the Modernist Literary Movement, focusing on the complex poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.B. Yeats!  (I remember a great discussion Pida, Helen, and I had about Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land. They had decided that Eliot’s poem could be understood in small bits, “like opening little Christmas presents”; however, the whole poem remained hopelessly obscure. It was a very accurate observation.) But Helen knew that what was most important to the community back then was very different today. If Helen was nothing else, she was radically current, always fully in tune with the changing needs of her community and world, up to date, informed.

Helen’s public life can be seen as one devoted to many notable and important causes and organizations in her community and world. But her grandson, Jose Baer, who now lives at Rancho Arbolado, told me a story that says a great deal about a more private Helen. When Jose had graduated from Midland School, he and a classmate spent the summer building cattle fences on the Pedotti Ranch. Jose was going off to Berkeley in the fall, but his friend had no money for college and, consequently, no plans at all. When Helen found this out, she took him aside and told him that she would pay for everything if he would go to college. She paid his way through four years at Humboldt State University. No one else knew about this, and Jose’s friend told him what Helen had done years later. Jose said that no matter how wild or rowdy he and his friends were, his grandmother, whom they all called Nona kept serving them those little, elegant sandwiches, the ones with the crusts neatly trimmed off. She would never lose faith in you and just knew, deep down, that you would eventually become a good citizen. She would never actually say this, but just being around her, you could sense her optimism and faith in you and your potential, whatever it might be or however deeply you might have buried it.

I never did quite figure out exactly why Helen’s boot flew so high and so far on that roundup some forty years ago. Maybe I really didn’t want to know. It certainly must have been a frightening scene, one worthy of a hyperbolic Ed Borein etching or a Charlie Russell painting. But nobody was there except for Helen. It sent a chill up my spine. We all wondered. But, Helen, she pulled on her boot, got back on the horse, pulled tight her gloves, and kept on going. We had a job to do that day.