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Portals of the Past (history column) This One's for you Mrs. Rizzio, and New Years Day 1950: My Father's House

Portals of the Past:

"This One’s For You, Mrs. Rizzio!"

By Dorothy Coakley

Someone out there has a photograph of Mrs. Rizzio, but it’s not me.

I’ve searched everywhere for it. My leather-bound scrapbook contains no record of her; I have a photo of our third grade class at Harding School with Mrs. Holt, my report card carefully filled out by Mrs. Dorothy Cassidy (first grade, 1951.) Miss Owen, our fifth grade teacher, has also been preserved in an aging report card. ("With practice, Dorothy will learn to write legible cursive," she notes.) Mr. Way, our sixth grade teacher, has also been preserved in my memory book: the program notes for "Hansel and Gretel" performed at the Richmond Auditorium (circa 1956) credit him with being the choirmaster . I am listed as one of the supernumeraries in the opera.

But the picture of Mrs. Rizzio is missing, and such a pity. It was Mrs. Rioha Rizzio, with the frizzy hair and the piercing eyes, who made California history (and more specifically, El Cerrito history) come alive for a generation of Harding students. It was she who took us on field trips to the Castro adobe which was located at the foot of Fairmount Avenue near what is now a gun shop (and was then, we believed, a carriage house for horses perhaps belonging to the Castro family, or for the cars of the dance hall patrons who frequented the adobe during El Cerrito’s flamboyant speak-easy days.)

Mrs. Rizzio showed her fourth graders the tiny family cemetery located in a grove of eucalyptus behind the family compound. "Don Castro," she said, referring to the patriarch of the clan, "planted the eucalyptus in what became Sunset cemetery. He wanted a source of building lumber, but was disappointed that eucalyptus cracked so easily." (Don Castro and the remaining members of his family were ceremoniously removed and taken by funeral cortege to Sunset just before the El Cerrito Plaza was built on the site of their homestead.)

We went on a field trip to the top of Albany Hill during that year. Stones worn away by the grinding of acorns were still located near the oak trees where Native Americans had harvested their bounty for hundreds of years. Pt. Isabel, then a large shell mound, was only a short distance away.(Point Isabel was flattened to make a U.S. Mail handling center some years later as Nancy Dols and I watched from the hill above our houses.)

Our trip to Jewel Lake in Tilden produced yet another natural history lesson: Mrs. Rizzio introduced us not only to the footprints of different animals, but also to the differences in their droppings. "Scat," she said, "is an important clue to what animals have been around." Thirty fourth graders giggled uncontrollably and made up dozens of sophomoric jokes about the word "scat."

Mrs. Rizzio believed in her students. She let each of us know that we were expected to "leave the world a little better than we found it." This might mean that we had to put our chairs on the table when leaving on Friday "so that the janitor will be able to clean easier." She had already picked out a grandiose destiny for each one of her students.

Dominic Torchia was to become an airline pilot. (He became head of the air controllers’ union). Ronald Wiggington was to own a real estate company. (Did he? I don’t know.) Nancy Dols could do anything she set her mind to -- and she did. After graduating from UC-Berkeley, Nancy went on to become a computer programmer in Pennsylvania. And as for me, well, Mrs. Rizzio was sure that I would become a famous musician, first flutist in the San Francisco Symphony, perhaps, or maybe a college professor. But one thing we all knew that we had to do: we had to be "civic minded." It was our job, she assured us, to right social wrongs, discover new medicines, keep our world free of pollution. Our world was to be cleaner after we had been there, our job was to learn to co-exist with different kinds of people.

Time has a way of flying. Fourth grade lasts only for one year and in a twinkle you’ve become an adult. I saw Mrs. Rizzio one more time many years after I’d graduated from Harding School. It was about 1975. She was collecting signatures for something environmental and had come to my door in Richmond. I recognized her, but she didn’t recognize me. I could have told her who I was, but I didn’t. Why? Well, because, as I rapidly took stock of the person I’d become as an adult, I knew I hadn’t met her expectations. Although I lived in a nice house, had clean, well-mannered young children and was finishing my second year of law school, I knew I hadn’t "given back" adequately to the world for this special teacher. I had scored zero on my report card for being "civic minded." So I kept quiet.

Shortly thereafter, I went to work for a low-income legal clinic and ran, successfully, for a Richmond citizen’s advisory board. To this day, I wish I’d remembered to say thank you to her for reminding me of my responsibilities to society. And so here it is, Mrs. Rizzio, wherever you are. Thank you from all of us at Harding School in 1950-1956.

This one’s for you!

Mrs. Holt's third grade class, Harding School, 1952. The author is the fourth from the right on the top row.

Dorothy Coakley is a librarian with the San Francisco Public Library. She and her husband, Peter, are residents of El Cerrito. She was appointed to the El Cerrito Civil Service Commission Jan. 3 as was Jay Clark, a classmate at Harding School.



New Year's Day, 1950 "My Father's House"

The author's parents, Jean E. Cook, in the family garden, and Dr. David Cook, circa 1950.

By Dorothy Coakley

My father took a lot of pictures in those days, grainy black and white photos developed at first in the garage of our little house on Albany Terrace, and later after we had moved to El Cerrito, in a makeshift darkroom set up in the closet of the playroom.

They weren't professional photos, one was a shot of a neighborhood boy climbing over our fence. The boy could have been Jimmy Doherty, the mayor's son, or Michael Krieger who was a terror as a child but who grew up to be an excellent dentist by all accounts. Or maybe Rayner Oberstad, the son of the Norwegian gardener Ragner Oberstad who kept the grove of trees behind the high school well pruned and practiced his vocal lessons every afternoon after work, filling the air with the sounds of opera.

He took photos of my twin sisters, who were the reason that my parents had sold their cramped little Albany house and moved to a three bedroom ranch-style house in El Cerrito.( I was assured that I could bring my hamster.) There were quite a few photos of my baby sister. Lots of photos were of our yard, of the boulders which lined the creek next to our house, of the 1937 Dodge carry-all in which he transported his ride group every day to their jobs at Shell's Emeryville Research Center.

We moved to El Cerrito in the Spring of 1949. Our house was one of four standing on newly terraced lots in the area immediately in back of the high school. Everything else in the area was native grasslands. There were bay trees, elderberry trees, wild lupine, golden poppies, buttercups and a sea of wild oats. The kids in the area ran free from house to house playing on the hilltop from sunrise to sunset, catching polliwogs in the creek that ran under the high school to meander over the site of what is now Northminster Presbyterian church or picking blackberries in the surrounding riparian fields.

History was happening around us during those early years, but we were too busy sliding down grassy hills on cardboard boxes or digging dirt forts to play "King of the Mountain" to pay it too much attention. The new Queen of England was crowned and we stayed home from school to watch it on a tiny round screen.

"We have lots of Presidents," said my mother. "But we only have one Queen." In a stroke, her words abolished the American Revolution. But, of course, in a way she was right. After living 50 years in that same house, my family has seen many inaugurations on progressively larger televisions, but Queen Elizabeth continues to reign. Maybe she never was really *our* queen, although she was more real to us than the picture of Goodwin Knight, our governor who seemed to hover in silence next to the flag in every classroom at Harding School. She represented (Hail, Britannia!) stability, continuity, tradition and the reason why we all were supposed to learn English even when some of us spoke another language at home. Stability. Tradition.

Kind of like the house. When we first moved to it, it had just been constructed. Its redwood sheathing was bare, save for a coating of oil. Its wooden shingles covered no insulation as we lived in a clement zone where even on winter days the children it contained required no sweater. Its paneled oak floors were so hastily hammered into place to accommodate the awaiting family that you could see sunshine between the floorboards as the sun set somewhere between the Golden Gate and Mt. Tamalpais depending upon the time of year.

The first of many parties held in that house happened on January 1, 1950. We were celebrating a new decade. A new house. A new community. And the beginning of an era of growth and prosperity. Adults were to bring their children as no one would have thought to leave their families behind.

My parents hired our nursery school teacher, Mrs. Curran, to supervise kids in the playroom. Her daughter refilled trays of food throughout the house. Guests wandered through the house or played croquet in the backyard on its freshly planted grass. (The trees in those early pictures seem so small and fragile.) Kids climbed the hills, played on the swings or sought permission from their parents to go roller skating at the high school. Several hundred folks passed through that day coming to visit our El Cerrito home from Berkeley, Albany and even as far away as San Francisco. They liked our vistas, our quiet hillsides and our suburban lifestyle. Many of the folks visiting that day in their Hudsons, Essexs, or Studebakers would become our new neighbors as houses were built one by one in the El Cerrito hills.

Fifty years have now past. Our original neighbors still live next door. The creek is culverted underneath a house on the other side but the lot behind the house remains, one of the last sites in El Cerrito on which to build. Our house has been painted many times, but the original redwood sheathing keeps peeking through its peeling facade. The floor boards are now worn from many joyful family gatherings.

We don't have much of a view anymore out of the front windows as the rooftops and trees obscure the Golden Gate. But our house also has come to represent stability in the face of earthquakes, world events and other chaotic moments. It has been the site of a wedding and reception; we held a memorial picnic there for my grandfather when my grandmother (who died at 102) couldn't face the thought of anything more formal. One thin but sturdy new peach tree is planted in the backyard in honor of my nephew David, who was killed by a flash flood shortly after moving to Kentucky. (David and I played near this spot during his last days in El Cerrito.)

Like us, the house, too, has grown old. Perhaps not gracefully, but certainly with a great deal of character.

New Year's Day, 2000. Perhaps we'll have a party. More likely we will walk the dog around the block, marveling at the California sunshine and the beautiful view of the Golden Gate. We'll see many of the same people we've know all of these years -- Mrs. Sooter, Mrs Green, my friend Sonoe, the new folks living in the house beside the creek. It will be, in its own way, just as much fun as New Year's 1950. And, maybe, we'll take a few photos.

Dorothy Coakley is a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. She has five grown children and owns one dog and from one to three cats (depending on how you define ownership.) She and her husband Peter live in her childhood house in El Cerrito.

"That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it," says Dorothy. But we'd love to hear your remembrances as well. Dorothy Coakley can be reached at dorothyc@sfpl.lib.ca.us . If you'd like to submit something directly to the Wire, contact bbuginas@hotmail.com .

At right, the author, then Dorothy Cook, with her cat in the 1950s and her sister Margaret.



Run dates: 1999-12-18 - 2000-02-01

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